Jealousy, Obsession and Thrills in Israeli Series “Losing Alice”

January 27, 2021
Lihi Kornowski and Ayelet Zurer (Credit: Apple TV+)

These days, TV dramas made in Israel like “Shtisel,” “Srugim,” “Fauda,” “Tehran”, “False Flag” and “No Man’s Land” have become worldwide hits on streaming platforms, captivating audiences with absorbing family drama or thrilling action. “Losing Alice”, a twisty psychological thriller now playing on Apple TV+, fits neither category but is equally riveting, exploring the complex and increasingly obsessive relationship between two women as they forge a dangerous alliance to make a film.

Veteran Israeli star Ayelet Zurer (“Shtisel, “Daredevil”) plays the titular Alice, a 48-year-old director who longs for the career she left to care for her daughters and resents her movie star husband David’s (Gal Toren) success. After a chance meeting on a train with Sophie, a young screenwriter (Lihi Kornowski), Alice soon finds herself back behind the camera, directing David and Sophie in sexually charged scenes in the film.

The eight-episode series, which unfolds in flashbacks and flashforwards, was created, written and directed by Sigal Avin, who drew from her own life for the project. “I always draw from my experience for my characters. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s very personal,” she told the Journal.” Something that’s going on in my life will find its way into the story or a character somehow. People around me are afraid to tell me things because it might find its way into a script.”

Avin had several aims at the outset. “There are not enough stories about women of this age on television. And I wanted to explore the conflict between two worlds, between the family domestic life and career,” she said. “I wanted to show a portrait of a woman in a certain place who misses her creativity and has to raise the stakes in order to create. She wants to shake things up within herself.”

Exposing her characters’ darker proclivities in the process “was important to me because we don’t see women in the way we see men. Male protagonists as selfish and jealous. They betray and do things just for themselves. I wanted to show a woman can have rage and be jealous too.”

“Male protagonists as selfish and jealous. They betray and do things just for themselves. I wanted to show a woman can have rage and be jealous too.”—Sigal Avin

In Zurer and Kornowski, she found the ideal stars to portray those emotions. “Both of them are very strong women and actresses but at the same time they have vulnerability, which is very important for both roles,” Avin said. “When they read together the chemistry was of two worthy rivals as opposed to a mother-daughter relationship that happens with a lot of actresses.”

Avin spent “three very intense years” writing, producing and shooting “Losing Alice,” “and the editing process during Corona wasn’t easy either,” she said, noting that directing the intimate scenes was particularly intense. “I’ve always heard actors talk about their sex scenes about how hard or not hard it was for them. But from the director’s side, I was shocked at how hard it was for me to deal with that. You don’t breathe on the day it’s happening,” she said. “I wanted to protect the actors and make sure they had all the choreography and moves down so they had the freedom to act.”

Born in Miami and raised in Israel, where her family moved when she was 10, Avin had dreamed of being a director from the she was seven but took the acting route first, which proved to be a wise move. “I knew that Ron Howard and Penny Marshall were actors so I thought I’d study acting and go from there. The tools that you learn are amazing–you speak the same language as your actors.”

Avin, who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and two daughters, doesn’t have her next project lined up yet, “But I’m always writing. It’s my way of dealing, especially now during the pandemic,” she said.

In a separate interview, Zurer explained what drew her to the project and the role: “The beautiful writing, the journey the character takes from beginning until the end, the realistic way that Sigal portrayed women and marriage. There were a lot of pearls of truth in it intertwined with the drama aspect.”

She related to Alice’s passion to create and be self-fulfilled, and express those emotions and desires and dilemmas related to being of a certain age and thinking, “Have I been able to achieve what I wanted?  Is that it? What is my next step? How do I express myself? And at the same time being a working mom and the juggling I have to do,” she said. “I sometimes wish for work but when I get it, it takes me away from the things I love.”

The mother of a teenage son, Zurer “always felt torn” between the pulls of career and family. “It was always a struggle but I always felt really lucky and appreciative that I have this [career] but it always creates a challenge and you have to find a way to make it fit,” she said.

The structure of the series posed challenges for Zurer, as did the intimate scenes. “The sexual content part of it wasn’t so extreme but it was nevertheless personal, and I felt vulnerable at times,” she said. Scenes from the eight episodes were shot out of order, sometimes from different episodes on the same day and the plot’s time shifts compounded the confusion. Her solution: “I learned almost everything by heart. I had almost everything organized in my mind, and that really helped me.”

The Tel Aviv native has lived in Los Angeles for nearly 15 years and usually visits Israel at least once a year, but has not been back since the pandemic hit. Plans to bring “Losing Alice” to Cannes were also derailed by COVID-19. But Zurer found a bright side to the lockdown. Quarantining with her family “was really a special time for me because we had time to be together all the time. We had a lot of fun doing new things, working on the garden, playing the ukulele, painting and being creative, so that aspect was good.”

An illustrator who created the artwork for her book “As of Now,” Zurer is working on an animated adaption one of its pieces, “The Whale.” “It correlates with this particular time because it’s about hope and how it shifts us from depression into light,” she said. Pre-pandemic, she filmed three episodes of the Netflix series “You,” playing a therapist who counsels couples, and she’s awaiting answers on other projects, including some that she developed.

Although she’s recognized most often in America for her roles in “Daredevil,” “Angels & Demons,” and “Man of Steel,” Zurer, who also appeared in “Munich” and the first season of “Shtisel,” is proud of her roles in “BeTipul” (the original Israeli version of “In Treatment”) and the Czech film “Milada,” in which she played the title role. Her mother and grandmother were Slovakian Holocaust survivors and the film is set in the region where they lived.

“Shooting there opened a door to who they were and helped me see them as people rather than my mom and my grandma, which shifted things within me,” Zurer said of the film, which is available on Netflix. “I feel most proud of the way I’ve managed all of it, to have a nice life, and really good friends and a beautiful family while having a career,” she said. ‘“Losing Alice’ is another step up for me as an actor.”

She was elated by the passionate reception the series received in Israel and hopes the international reaction will be just as enthusiastic. “I hope the audience will be challenged. It’s an opportunity to look at archetypes and the perception of women and rebuild them in a new way.”

“I hope that [viewers] understand something about themselves, about creativity or art,” Avin added. “I hope they enjoy the journey.”

“Losing Alice” is streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering every Friday.

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