February 25, 2020

‘Wedding Plan’ a perfect match for Israeli actress

From her earliest memories while growing up in Petah Tikvah, Israeli actress Noa Koler dreamed of becoming a performer.

“I wanted to be on a stage, and I wanted everyone to know me and see me and be talking about me,” the exuberant Koler recalled, laughing, during a telephone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. She even used to pretend she was on the news. “I would interview myself,” she said with another laugh.

Now 36, Koler finally has arrived as an actress, having earned her first leading role in a film, Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan,” which has been well received in Israel and the United States and opens in Los Angeles on May 19. Koler’s first turn as a romantic lead earned her the best actress prize at the 2016 Ophir Awards, the Israeli version of the Oscars. Now, she’s also the star of an Israeli TV series, a thriller called “Diaries.”

But before Burshtein came calling a few years ago, stardom had proved elusive for Koler. After graduating from the Yoram Levinstein acting school in Tel Aviv, she became an ensemble member of the Gesher Theater group and performed on Israeli TV series such as “Srugim,” about singles in Jerusalem, and “You Can’t Choose Your Family,” the Israeli adaptation of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

She said she always was typecast as a character actress, relegated to comic roles or to portraying wives and best friends until Burshtein entered the scene. The esteemed ultra-Orthodox filmmaker of 2012’s Ophir-winning “Fill the Void” was looking for a nuanced performer for her new film, “The Wedding Plan.”

Originally titled “Through the Wall,” the comedy-drama revolves around Michal, a single woman who had become religious in her 20s and, a decade later, finally is engaged to be married. When her fiancé (Erez Drigues) unexpectedly dumps her just a month before their scheduled nuptials, the determined Michal refuses to cancel her wedding plans. She buys a fancy white dress, rents a wedding hall and hopes God will somehow provide her with another groom.

After three auditions, Burshtein cast Koler as Michal; like her character, Koler also had a pipe dream —becoming a leading actress — that actually came true.

“[Noa’s] big break came at the age of 34, which is kind of a big deal for an actress,” Tammy Cohen, the film’s associate producer, said while helping to translate for Koler during the Journal interview.

Koler said she was drawn to her character, in part, because Michal “is strong and funny. … She’s afraid but nothing stops her. … She does things that I would never do … like getting married with no groom.”

Not that Koler didn’t ardently aspire to find a husband when she was single and in her 20s. In real life, she experienced a doomed romance with Drigues, her co-star in “The Wedding Plan,” who had been a fellow member of the Gesher troupe. After he broke up with her about 10 years ago, the former lovers wrote a play together, “One Plus One,” based on their romance and its dissolution, which was performed on the Gesher stage.

“It started out like therapy, to try to move on,” Koler said. “Now, we’re trying to make a TV show based on the same story.”

The pair appearing together in “The Wedding Plan” was an example of art imitating life.

“He broke up with me [in real life] and in the movie he breaks up with me again,” Koler said. But performing scenes opposite her ex wasn’t painful for the actress. “I was used to it,” she said. “It’s like I’d been there, done that.”

Some time after their parting, Koler wrote a letter to herself about what she hoped for in a future husband. “It was a story about a man who’s a carpenter and who cooks,” she said. Eventually, a friend introduced her to the man she would marry, who happened to enjoy carpentry as a hobby while also working as the owner of a hummus restaurant. They married when Koler was 27 and already pregnant with the first of their two children, now 6 and 1.

During one of her auditions for “The Wedding Plan,” Koler chose to wear a cheerful, flowery dress to reflect her sense of Michal as a basically happy person with just one thing missing from her life. “In Israel, usually when [filmmakers] do stuff about religious people, it’s much darker and serious,” Koler said.

Burstein liked her interpretation of the character and called back Koler for two more auditions. The third happened to be scheduled on the same day as her 99-year-old grandfather’s funeral about three years ago.

“But my father told me that I … didn’t have to come [to the funeral],” Koler recalled. “He said that my grandfather was thinking of me and asking me to stay with the audition. Afterward, I went to the cemetery, but [everyone had left] except my two brothers. The three of us just stood at the grave, and we spoke to him. … I said, ‘Saba, thank you. I auditioned and I think I got the part. Rest in peace.’ And it was a small, intimate moment for us.”

The secular Koler had numerous conversations with Burshtein in order to understand Michal and her faith; while she had previously looked down at the Orthodox matchmaking process, she came to appreciate that in the observant world “both people are set in the same direction, which is marriage and a life together, not just where they will end up that evening.”

But Koler disagrees with Burshtein’s belief, as conveyed in “Fill the Void” and “The Wedding Plan,” that a woman is incomplete without a husband. “It’s not about getting married; it’s about giving and receiving love,” she said. And [in that way] I think a woman can be complete.”

Yet something changed regarding Koler’s own faith after working on Burshtein’s movie. These days, she said, she addresses the Divine every night, “asking for help but also saying thank you.”

Her Ophir Award was grounds for giving thanks. When her name was called at the ceremony, “I was so nervous and happy, I lost my voice,” Koler recalled.

She made her Ophir acceptance speech “with a frog in my throat,” she added. “It was fun and funny and crazy, like a roller-coaster ride.”

“The Wedding Plan” opens in Los Angeles on May 19.