In the opening moments of “The Honorable Woman,” an eight-part series premiering on Sundance TV on July 31, the young Nessa Stein looks on as an assassin plunges sharp tongs into her father’s neck, splattering her face with blood.
The action then fast-forwards to the same room in London 29 years later, where the now-35-year-old Nessa (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a powerful businesswoman and philanthropist, tells a gathered audience that her murdered father was “first and foremost, a great son of Israel.” A Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family to the Nazis, he had arrived in England as a refugee in 1939 and, as an adult, went on to become a wealthy Zionist gunrunner, providing tanks and munitions to the fledgling Jewish state.
Having eventually inherited his business empire, Nessa, along with her brother, Ephra, now believes that “the greatest threat to Israel is not politics, but poverty.” So the siblings have transformed their father’s business into a charitable foundation that, after months of negotiations with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, plans to bring broadband Internet to the West Bank.
But the Palestinian who was awarded the contract to lay the cable is murdered in a killing made to look like a suicide; Nessa’s efforts to introduce a talented Palestinian violinist at the Royal Academy of Music ends in the kidnapping of her nephew from the concert hall; Mossad and British secret service spooks lurk everywhere; and Nessa fears for her life as she suffers flashbacks to her kidnapping and incarceration in what appears to be a Gaza prison some years earlier.
In a telephone interview from New York, the frank Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight,” “Crazy Heart”) — whose mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner, is Jewish — spoke of the then-impending invasion of Gaza by Israeli ground troops: “My heart is broken,” she said. She added that she was “terrified” when “The Honorable Woman’s” writer-director, Hugo Blick (“The Shadow Line”), approached her to star in the series spotlighting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, albeit through the lens of Nessa’s
“It’s so easy to alienate people on this issue,” she said. “A concern of mine was that the piece might inadvertently or mistakenly come down on one side or the other. I wanted to be very sure that the people I was working with were compassionate, empathetic and intelligent.
“There are moments in watching the series when I know that viewers will say, ‘Oh, they’re absolutely pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian,’ but to those people I would say, ‘Watch it all; it really does end up somewhere very special,’ ” she added. “I have my own thoughts on a solution to the conflict, but I don’t want to share them because the piece says something that I can deeply stand behind.”
Gyllenhaal, 36, was also drawn to “The Honorable Woman” for the chance to play a complex character whose calm veneer is unraveling amid the murky world of Middle East politics and her family’s painful past. She is not only haunted by the death of her father but also by the murder of his entire family.
“Nessa inherited the tragedy of the Holocaust from her father, and so much of the conflict in the Middle East has to do with the inheritance of that pain,” Gyllenhaal said of the series, a co-production of SundanceTV and the BBC. “She has a visceral knowledge of that kind of fear, and thus she is not someone who is trusting at all.”
Nessa is further isolated as an Israeli-born Jew who frequents the circles of the British elite; Gyllenhaal said she came to understand that kind of subtle marginalization while she was in Britain to shoot the series.
“In America, there’s no social difference between Jews and non-Jews,” she said. “But in England, I would have conversations in which people would talk about Jewishness and how that might affect how people speak and behave. I guess I was particularly sensitive to that because I’m Jewish, even though I don’t have a Jewish name and nobody would ever know.”
Gyllenhaal’s maternal great-grandfather escaped servitude in the Russian army by immigrating to New York’s Lower East Side, where he established himself as a tailor; Gyllenhaal’s grandmother became a pediatrician in the 1940s, and her great-aunt Frieda became an attorney and a judge. “They were the children of immigrants, and they were told they had to be exceptional, remarkable, amazing,” the actress said. “That pressure continued down the generations to myself as well.”
The mandate from that side of her family was to become part and parcel of a kind of politically progressive, “intellectual, New York Jewish culture” that infused her upbringing, said Gyllenhaal, whose father, the director Stephen Gyllenhaal, was raised in the Christian mystic Swedenborgian religion.
Gyllenhaal, in turn, earned a degree in literature and Eastern religions from Columbia University before making her movie debut, opposite her brother, Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”), in the 2001 fantasy film “Donnie Darko.” She went on to portray a sadomasochistic young woman in “Secretary” (2002), a recovering heroin addict in “Sherrybaby” (2006), Bruce Wayne’s star-crossed lover in “The Dark Knight” (2008) and Jeff Bridges’ girlfriend in “Crazy Heart,” which earned her an Oscar nomination in 2010.
Playing Nessa Stein, she said, is her most overtly Jewish role to date, and she felt strongly that a Jewish actress should portray the character. Yet, she said, initially she almost declined the project because she felt “put off” by Blick’s offbeat personality. When he came to her home for dinner, “He told me I was like a wild, feral horse that [he] needed to get into the corral,” she recalled. “But he was right — I was scared; playing the same [character] for eight hours was a huge endeavor to take on.”
By the time production commenced, she found that she and Blick were “totally artistically compatible.” Even so, on the third day of shooting, Gyllenhaal found herself crying in her trailer, worried that she couldn’t carry the series on her shoulders. “But then I realized that kind of sentiment was exactly what Nessa was feeling,” she said. “It’s, ‘How can I handle this, will I fall apart, and can I manage this massive, very important endeavor?’ ”