November 12, 2019

Emmanuelle Chriqui leads Jewish stars, characters coming to TV in December

Even if you’re behind on your Chanukah preparations, you’ll want to take time to watch — or record — these December TV offerings with Jewish themes or personalities.


“Shut Eye”

 “I’ve had such an amazing ride,” actress Emmanuelle Chriqui said, reflecting on a career that has run the gamut between contemporary comedies (“Entourage,” “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”), period dramas (“The Borgias,” “Killing Jesus”) and a gritty crime show (“Murder in the First”). 

 “My goal as an actor is to go outside the box as often as possible,” she said. “For 15 years, I’ve been saying it’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I still feel that way.”

That’s not surprising, considering her latest role in the Hulu drama “Shut Eye.” Chriqui plays Gina, a hypnotist from Las Vegas with mesmerizing abilities in a show about fake psychics and con artists in Los Angeles. “It’s nothing like I’ve played before,” she said.

 “She’s very unpredictable and shady. She’s mysterious, she’s sexy, she’s dangerous and she has a lot of secrets,” Chriqui said of her character. “She’s a survivor and she’ll stop at nothing to do what she has to do. She’s a hustler, but she’s needed to be. Her needs are based on how she grew up. Life’s circumstance makes us the way we are.”

Chriqui researched the Romany con artist subculture and also got some tips from a legitimate hypnotherapist for insights. “The kind of hypnotist I play isn’t the same, but there were some basic things I was able to incorporate,” she said. 

On the lighter side, Chriqui will be seen in the comedy “Super Troopers 2” next year. “I play this French seductress, a political attaché. I got to use my French, which was really fun,” the Montreal native said, adding that next she would like to do a cable drama series and independent films. 

Chriqui, 38, grew in a Sephardic Jewish home, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. The specific food, celebrations and rituals — such as Bibhilu, chanting and lifting the seder plate over each celebrant’s head at Passover — are “so inherent in who I am and how I was raised,” she said. She recently emceed the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, which honored her in 2010.

These days, Chriqui looks forward to lighting Friday night candles and getting together with her “Shabbat crew,” which often includes her boyfriend of four years, actor Adrian Bellani. “He’s not Jewish but he sees what Judaism means to me,” she said. She has been to Israel several times and said she wants to go back.

“Shut Eye” begins streaming Dec. 7 on Hulu. 


 Rupert Evans stars in “TheMan in the High Castle.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video 

“The Man in the High Castle”

A provocative drama that posits a frightening alternate version of history in which the Allies lost World War II and the Nazis and Japanese rule an occupied America, “The Man in the High Castle” became Amazon Prime’s most popular original series last year and earned four Emmy nominations. Season Two will reveal the previously unseen man of the title and expand on events of the first season, which was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel. The fate of Jews will continue to be explored as the story goes inside Germany for the first time. 

 “We get glimpses, through our characters’ experiences, that find our way into our story,” executive producer David Zucker said. “It’s something that sometimes you’ll get a sense of and other times it’ll be more explicit than others. Through a reference in a line of dialogue, you’ll understand what’s going on and how we got to the place we are now.”

In the first season, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), who was hiding his half-Jewish ancestry, was arrested by Japanese authorities who executed his sister and her children for his refusal to cooperate. That motivates his actions going forward as he becomes radicalized and joins the resistance.

Being Jewish is “certainly something that’s inescapable for him now. It becomes very much essential to the emotional fabric of the character,” Zucker said.

Evans elaborated, saying, “He starts to question what his identity is, being Jewish and having family that was Jewish. We use flashbacks this season to show seders and that kind of thing.”

The actor, currently playing a Jewish character in the movie “American Pastoral,” characterized Season Two as “bigger in scope, more adventurous in many ways.”  

 “I can’t give away too much,” he said, “but there are some really exciting storylines and set pieces.”

 “The Man in the High Castle” begins streaming Dec. 16 on Amazon Prime. 

Gail Simmons is a judge on “Top Chef.” Photo by Tommy Garcia/Bravo

“Top Chef”

Since 2006, food maven and writer Gail Simmons has served as a judge on Bravo’s kitchen competition series “Top Chef,” sampling everything from rattlesnake to ostrich to insects and everything in between. She puts her expert palate to use once again in Season 14 of the series, which emanates from Charleston, S.C., and has a twist: eight nonwinners from past seasons return to compete alongside eight first-timers in challenges that reflect the city and Southern cuisine.

 “They cook for some of the most talented Southern chefs in the country, which really intimidates them,” Simmons said. James Beard Award-winning Israeli chef and cookbook author Michael Solomonov is among the season’s guest judges. 

Simmons attributes “Top Chef’s” longevity and popularity to its peripatetic format and the professional level of its competitors, many of whom have gone on to open restaurants and win awards.

 “Most food-competition shows are set in a studio. We travel around the country, highlighting the cuisines and culture of the places we’re in,” she said. “These are chefs at the top of their game. It’s fascinating to see people who are so skilled, doing what they do best.”

Simmons has learned to pace herself on judging days, taking a few bites from each plate. “When it’s really good, it’s hard to stop eating, but I will,” she said. “There are days where I’m exhausted by eating. But after five hours, I’ll still want to go out for dinner.”

Although she doesn’t care for veal or black beans, there’s no food she won’t try on “Top Chef.” “I can’t judge other people based on my personal biases,” she said. 

After filming “Top Chef,” which takes six weeks to shoot on location, or traveling elsewhere, Simmons brings culinary inspiration home to her New York kitchen. After Charleston, she longed for Southern food, she said. “Now it’s fall, so I’m into making soups, roasting squash and buying greens, sweet potatoes and apples at the market,” she said.

Traditional Jewish dishes and favorites from the local deli also are on the menu for Simmons. The granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland and Russia, she grew up in what she described as a “pretty traditional Jewish home” in Toronto. 

 “I grew up eating matzo ball soup and knishes, brisket, and latkes, kasha and kreplach,” she said. “I still make all of it for my daughter.”

Simmons learned to cook from her mother, a food writer and cooking teacher. “It was a legacy that she had passed on to me. I followed my own path in the industry, but all of my inspiration for doing so is absolutely to her credit,” she said.

Her father, a chemical engineer and businessman who made his own wine, taught her other skills. “Every fall, we made applesauce together and put it in our cellar and ate it all year round. We made special applesauce in September that we’d bring out at Chanukah to eat with latkes,” she said. “We would make sour dill kosher pickles every fall, when Kirby cucumbers come into season.”

For Simmons, “Judaism is about community and tradition and family and preserving the culture of my ancestors. It’s about observing and understanding our purpose on this earth, and being a contributing member of our community and our world.” She and her daughter, who attends preschool at a synagogue, recently donated their full tzedakah box to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “For me, that’s what Judaism is about,” she said.

Currently working on a cookbook that is scheduled to be published in late 2017, Simmons co-founded a production company that produced “Star Plates” for Food Network, with an eye toward creating programs to showcase talented new chefs, especially women. Hosting is always a possibility, “but I’m not doing it to make shows for myself,” she said. “I want to find the next generation and give them a platform.”

 “Top Chef” premieres Dec. 1 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

 Also: Harvey Fierstein reprises his Tony-winning drag role as Edna Turnblad in NBC’s latest musical, “Hairspray Live!” (Dec. 7). Liza Weil, now appearing in the ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder,” will reprise her role as Paris Geller in “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” on Netflix (begins streaming Nov. 25). Lola Kirke returns as symphony oboist Hailey Rutledge in Season Three of Amazon Prime’s “Mozart in the Jungle” (begins streaming Dec. 9).