Paul Risker chats with Hostages star Ayelet Zurer…
In 2013 Ayelet Zurer was nominated for the Best Actress in a Drama Series category at the Israeli Television Academy Awards for both Shtisel and Bnei Aruba. The latter is more familiarly known to UK audiences as Hostages, which aired in BBC Four’s Saturday 9pm foreign drama prime time slot. It was for her performance as Dr. Yael Danon in Bnei Aruba/Hostages, a character only introduced to UK audiences in recent weeks that Zurer was awarded her second success at the Israeli Television Academy Awards; following on from her Best Actress award for BeTipul in 2005.
When Flickering Myth spoke with Zurer recently ahead of the series finale of Hostages and its UK home entertainment release she offered: “The more I grow up and mature into what I am supposed to be in this world I guess I understand that my interest is more in telling stories as they are: narrative.”
Outside of her acclaimed Israeli television and film work, within the contemporary cinematic landscape that is dominated by the Marvel and DC superhero properties, Zurer has explored this world playing Lara Lor-Van in Man of Steel (2013) and stars as Vanessa Marianna in the upcoming Daredevil TV series. But before her forays into the world of superhero properties it was when she was cast in Spielberg’s Munich (2005) that English speaking cinema opened its doors to her, since which time she has appeared in Vantage Point (2008) and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons (2009).
In conversation with Flickering Myth Zurer spoke of dreams of a career in acting that were mixed with doubt, the intimate relationship between the art forms, performance techniques of playing the moment versus the emotion, and her experiences of bringing Dr. Yael Danon to the screen.
Paul Risker: Why a career as an actress? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Ayelet Zurer: There were moments where I felt this was something I would like to do, but then there were moments where I didn’t believe in myself or that it was a possibility. I didn’t grow up among artists or people who I guess understood my dream at that point. It wasn’t really a dream; it was a big question mark with a curiosity exclamation mark.
I think there was one specific moment when I really understood what I was doing, and that was when I was at drama school in Israel. Then I travelled to New York and started doing it more professionally off-broadway and studying. I found this remarkable teacher named George Morrison who had a school [The New Actors Workshop] with Mike Nichols. But what is interesting is that once I made the choice, then I started to get work that was more demanding and interesting for me.
My dad worked for the government but he was painting all his life until at some point he stopped. So I was kind of ushered to go this way, and they all expected me to paint. But that is definitely not stage: stage was like who is this animal [laughs].
PR: Mentioning your father there is an obvious creativity in your family. Do you attribute your desire to want to act, to your father’s love of painting and his own creative pursuits?
AZ: Yes, and today I understand that the internal quest is really for telling stories. You can do that in painting, on stage and in movies. But the more I grow up and mature into what I am supposed to be in this world I guess I understand that my interest is more in telling stories as they are: narrative.
PR: You talk about painting in a variety of ways, and I have always considered how the individual art forms borrow from one another. Perhaps one could even say that they are all on the same journey. This applies particularly to film and television which merge photography, painting and literature. Do you personally perceive there to be a meeting point between these art forms on some level?
AZ: I think the conscious mind is working on some basic visual connections in the brain, meaning that the essence comes from what we see. The next stage is then words, because we have to perform structure to be able to understand the chaos in which we live. So for me they are all connected because they are all versions of the same thing, which is forms we can understand to make order out of the chaos. So they are all connected in that way, but I also feel that I am supposed to be a visual person. For example if I need to learn lines I have to write them down rather than verbalize them again and again and again. So that’s why I feel like I ended up doing way more film than TV – that form of the visual moving picture – because it really matches something within me, which is just the way my brain works.
Also culturally the world is changing so much with the way the internet is becoming our best friend: how visual this is and how much information is out there that is accessible to us. I think we tend to want to put order into the chaos in that way more and more.
I can tell you exactly what I mean because I am intrigued by and I have been reading a lot about neuroscience. This started because of Hostages by the way, when I went to meet one of the top surgeons in Los Angeles at UCLA. We started talking about brain operations and the way that the brain works, and so I became obsessive about neuroscience. I know that parts of us are the machine that comprises us all: we all live as machines in that aspect and more of course, but the machine part is very similar.
PR: Within society and culture art serves to help us understand ourselves and our world. In speaking with you it seems that Hostages opened up another avenue for you to explore a line of thinking that is of personal interest to you.
AZ: Yes, and the nice thing about what I do and I guess what you do is you have a chance to encounter things that many people don’t necessarily have the chance to get close to. So it is phenomenal that I actually went to see a live heart operation, and afterwards I went to the surgeons office and saw his videos of how they investigate brain injuries, and how we respond to things.
Also how these people just have a different way about them than us. They are far less expressive and hysterical in the moment when working perhaps, because they have a different understanding I guess of what we are. I don’t know, they are just a different type of person.
PR: When you first read the script for Hostages what was it that appealed to you about both the story and the character?
AZ: I think it was that I realised the story was very gripping, but also the potential of the story and what you could do with it. On the other hand I was always trying to persuade the writers and directors that they should not go overboard with the action and the thriller side of it, but rather push the family drama. I thought with the budget that an Israeli drama has then this would be a wiser way to go and also far more interesting in my opinion, because suspense comes from many, many aspects.
The family drama creates a lot of suspense because people can surprise you when they are mad or scared, and betrayal is both a big and intriguing aspect of it. So once we were on board with that so to speak, it was then I realised that we had great material with a very intriguing story that was drama driven, and at the same time it had great characters.
PR: If a horror film is to genuinely terrify an audience then does the director have to create a real sense of fear and terror for the actors on set? If a show like Hostages is to create a genuine tension for the audience, then are the writers and directors required to create that same sense of emotion for you as actors on set in order for you to convey this to the audience?
AZ: Well I believe that what the audience experiences, which in horror movies for example is the extreme, the feeling of horror doesn’t necessarily come from a scared looking actor. The actor doesn’t necessarily play the emotion that the director of the story seeks from the audience, but rather the hope that the character needs to play. As an actor it is the hope and what they want to achieve, which is more within my grasp, because just to play a scared emotion is very, how should I put it: one colour. And when you don’t play that emotion, and the director and cinematographer within the filmmaking aspects do their jobs it creates the suspense while the actor just goes with what that person really wants in the moment. There is a gap there, and as an audience you feel drawn in, because you then feel what it is. I think the biggest mistake is to play the emotion rather than what the person wants to achieve. So for me Hostages was really about a woman who wants to make sure that she does not go through with the horrific plan she is asked to undertake, while at the same time she wants to make sure that none of her family are killed. So this demands a suppression of emotions; she cannot become hysterical. Her first reaction is hysteria when she tries to cut herself, but from then on she realises that she just needs to control herself. From then on it is something else: it is taking control over your emotions, being thoughtful and thinking three steps ahead; watching people and judging them. These are the things that I played. I did not play the suspenseful emotion: fear or whatever. I guess that was in there, but that was not my lead.
PR: While you are playing it a certain way and the filmmakers are implementing specific choices, what the audience experiences is a reaction to some of the machinations that you have all jointly put into play. So are the audience co-creators of their experience?
AZ: Yes, and there is a great book called A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, There’s a chapter about art in which he discusses how the audience of a painting or any kind of art like something very simple and clear rather than intricate and too detailed, as they fill in the dots automatically without even thinking. They do this unconsciously and that I suppose is emotionally pleasurable. So I think the trick is to do that at the same time as being truthful, or pretend to be doing something truthful because between you and I what is a dream?
I don’t know if I could have done what Yael did because I would not be able to risk my family. I would think about my kids first and that was one of the first questions I came to the writers with. I said to them, “I do not know if she is a good person at all. She is actually risking her family just because she can’t do what she is asked to do because it is immoral.” The question to me as well is that yes, you are asked to do a very bad thing, but do you risk your family even a little? How many people would actually do that? Yes she’s a hero for succeeding, but let’s say she was not successful. And that led us to investigate what is the cause of her choice and why she can’t for any means do it. What is the thing inside of her that can’t make her? When the show is over you’ll see and you might understand why.
PR: What makes this archetypal character within these dramas interesting is that they are torn. It is not just a loyalty to their family that they feel but also to social ideals: the fact that murder is fundamentally wrong and as individuals we pursue a means to do the right thing. From my perspective this is what Dr. Yael Danon represents.
AZ: We all crave harmony, love and support; peace and happiness. This is how we come to the world and I think growing up in life we go back by trying to achieve that exact emotion. So in extreme situations the compass is changing and you are not craving that, rather you are just craving I guess order: a type of order in this peculiar situation that counts on your emotions rather than your thoughts. One of my favorite scenes is when the couple have woken up after a night sleeping in the living room, and are having a conversation where I tell my husband that I cannot go through with it: that there is no way. I remember that I felt that this was the moment of realisation that I just couldn’t do it rather than I wouldn’t do it. It’s not a head thought, it’s a knowing thought: an emotional kind of thing. It’s not moral, it’s just that I will not period.
PR: It seems so simple to say as most stories should take the audience along with them and their characters on the journey, but with Hostages it felt as though you were travelling step by step along that road with the characters. Never did the show feel like it put itself ahead of the audience nor was it playing and manipulating us, because it felt that we knew what Yael knew pretty much the whole of the way. When you look back at the show do you have that impression that was a strong intention throughout?
AZ: Yeah, and first I all I am very, very happy to hear that [laughs]. And then it takes me back to the answer I gave you about rather than playing the emotions you play what the person wants to do in that moment: what would you do in that moment in time, and how would you make the choices? This kind of gives it the feeling of the present to the audience. Also from a cinematic point of view it is so simply shot: it is not complicated. There are no intricate shots, the lighting is very simple and there are no helicopter shots where you think, oh I am not in a helicopter. It is as though you are almost there in the room, and oddly it comes from a solid and not a crazy budget. So you have to be smart about what you do, which I think is a good thing when you go for it. I love for example the Dardenne brothers because I really like that realistic cinema, and so for me this plays into that kind of cinema and so I love it.
PR: On the subject of budget, earlier you mentioned that Israeli TV does not have large budgets. Having done English language as well as Israeli projects how do you compare and contrast your experiences?
AZ: I am in Rome right now filming Ben Hur, the new version that is really a version of the book rather than the 1959 movie. It’s different, but I have to say because I am working with a director [Timor Bekmambetov] who has a very creative persona, I feel that he his considerate in the same way that I have encountered working on my Israeli projects. But I have done big movies and they are very different. While I really have a respect for the camera and lighting department, sometimes I feel that aspect mainly takes over. And then of course you don’t have a relationship with the writer because they are sat somewhere else in the world. Working with a writer-director is one of my favorite things because you write as you go. You can ask questions and you can fix things when they are not clear, or not well situated in the moment because sometimes the moment is different on the page to filming. So that’s a different aspect. But I also discovered that movie people are kind of the same and that they should all have the same passport. They are the same everywhere I go. The women are the same; the men are the same: it’s a type of person.
PR: From the spectators point of view I consider that Hostages must have been a fun set to be on. Was I correct in that impression?
AZ: There are two parts of that shoot. One part is all the exterior scenes and the other part is the house which everybody is in. So the house was very intense, and the outside exteriors were more fun. They were almost like a treasure hunt whereas the house scenes were solidifying the story, because that is where the centre is.
PR: When you finally sat down in front of the completed product despite your knowledge and awareness did the show still have that impact?
AZ: We went through a stage where we did a lot of Skype meetings: rewriting, questioning the scenes and developing them together, but only for my specific character. And then once we filmed it we kind of let that part go. So for me because I was centering the other characters on my own character, I was surprised to see how nicely they all worked together. Once you step into the material and especially if you are an actor, and for me my mind is set only on my character. It is as if I am the centre and that’s it. There is no one else and I have to see it from that point of view to be creative. And so allowing myself to step back and see the whole picture was great, and I thought it was well done.
Many thanks to Ayelet Zurer for taking the time for this interview.
Hostages is released on DVD and Digital Download via Arrow Films March 16th. The series is currently airing on BBC4 Saturday nights at 9pm.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Film International, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.