Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers for Unorthodox, streaming on Netflix March 26.
Many actors learn to fake a new accent for a part. Few learn an entirely new language in a single month. But that’s exactly what Israeli actress Shira Haas had to do to play the lead in Unorthodox, a new Netflix limited series about a young woman’s journey to find a life outside her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Produced and written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, and directed by German actress Maria Schrader, Unorthodox marks the first Yiddish-language series to come out of Germany. To accurately portray someone living in the Satmar community of Williamsburg, Haas, a native Hebrew speaker, had to master the language well enough to deliver her lines with the emotion of a native speaker.
But that’s not the only challenge Haas faced in taking on this role. Following in Anne Hathaway’s Les Miserables footsteps, her first day of shooting was spent staring tearfully into a camera as her head was shaved in front of the cast and crew. In the scene, her character, Esty, is about to be married, and in keeping with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community’s traditions, that means covering her natural hair with a wig called a sheitel.
When we met in New York City nearly a year later just one month before the four-part series’ release (before casually meeting someone in an office became something out of a dream) the 24-year-old’s hair had grown out, but the emotions of that day were still fresh.
“I had never heard silence in my entire life like [when we were shooting] that scene,” Haas said.
Silence is both a curse and a powerful tool in Unorthodox, a coming-of-age story about a woman striving to find her voice in a world that actively discourages her from using it.
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s controversial 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the series begins with the present day story of 19-year-old Esty Shapiro, who leaves her husband (Amit Rahav) and her home. We follow her to Berlin, where she meets a group of music students and tries to begin a new life. But through a series of flashbacks, we also learn the circumstances that led her to this drastic choice, and the toll it takes on those who make it.
Discovered by a casting agent on Facebook when she was just a teen, this series marks a new chapter in Haas’ career. Already a star in Israel, known for films like 2015’s Princess and the acclaimed series Shtisel (also a great Netflix binge), she first broke out in the United States in 2017 when she starred alongside Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. A lead role in a Netflix mini-series certainly has its appeal, career-wise, but Haas stresses that she felt an almost instant cosmic bond with her character.
“As an actor you have moments where you need to do something, and this was the strongest feeling I’ve ever felt,” she said.
That bond is what makes her performance stand out in its striking complexity. Haas refuses to sensationalise a life that could easily veer into stereotype, and toes the line between awe at the freedom her life provides, and the terrifying loss of the people and beliefs that anchored her worldview.
Esty may come from a specific community, with its own set of restrictions and rules, but in Haas’ hands, she’s just a girl, trying to find her path. She could be you.
Refinery29: What was it about Esty’s story that you related to?
Shira Haas: “The thing about Esty is that she’s one of the most complex characters that I’ve played. She’s everything! She has so many conflicts inside her: She’s brave but also very vulnerable; she hesitates but she has all these questions; she has many faces at the same time, and you have to bring that to every scene. It’s hard work but such a gift. For me, the show isn’t about religion, or Berlin — it’s really about the journey of this girl who is trying to find herself and her voice and what freedom is for her, and to fulfill herself in a very difficult situation. It’s an important thing to tell, and as women, but also in general I think all of us can relate to that.”
There were so many women behind the camera on this show. Did that change how you approached the project as an actor?
“You could feel the sensitivity. Maria Schrader, the director, is also an actress, so you could feel that she knows what you're going through. We really got to a point where we could read each other's minds, [which was important] because there's some really difficult scenes.”
Like the one where Esty’s head is shaved before her wedding.
“Which was the first shooting day. Like, ‘Welcome!’ It was my own beautiful hair. It really helped to get into this character and also helped us all to be very connected. It wasn't a closed set, but I had never heard silence [like that] in my entire life.”
The show was inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir by the same name. Did you talk to her about her experience?
“After I got the part I immediately bought the book in Hebrew and I read it multiple times. I should show you my copy, it's full of things that I wrote because I love brainstorming. But I didn't meet [Deborah] before we started shooting. I think it was in the second or third week of shooting — I already had my bald head. She was shocked. And then she also came to set for the wedding day scene. Can you imagine that?”
Hollywood depictions of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities tend to focus on the negative aspects. But the show really tries to paint a full picture of what it’s like — both the good and the bad.
“It’s totally complex. It was so important to us to also have empathy towards the other characters, but also show how hard it is for Esty. It’s not like you’re leaving and you have a beautiful life. She has so many challenges! She has no money, no education — she doesn’t know anything. She’s alone, she doesn’t know where she can sleep. It’s super hard. You need to be very brave to do that. I think you really leave when you have no other choice.”
In Israel you starred in Shitsel, which is a very different portrayal of Orthodox Judaism. Did that experience help you prepare for this role?
“Ruchama and Esty could not be more different from each other, and the energy of the show is very different. [Both characters] come from a religious space, but even the religion is very different. They probably could not connect. Shtisel shows a very casual everyday life, and it's beautiful because it connects people, and you have so much empathy. Unorthodox also does that, but from a very different angle. It's based on a very dramatic and real story. But every one of these stories is important. Shtisel probably helped me a lot. But also coming from Israel it's nothing too strange for me.”
Esty’s journey is physically represented through the clothes she wears, as she transitions from the traditional garb worn by ultra-Orthodox women — including a wig — to jeans and her natural hair. What was it like to wear those costumes?
“The tights! There was a week last summer in Europe where it was the hottest summer ever. So imagine wearing tights and coats. I remember just sweating and the makeup team cleaning me up and then ‘Action!’ But the outfits are really helpful. Like, yeah, you've worked hard, and you know your lines but looking in the mirror, with the hair and clothes you suddenly have the character. I had a wig for my natural hair, the long one. I had the wig for the wedding. And I had the bald hair, and I had the buzz cut. So, every time I looked in the mirror I remembered who I was, which is kind of like Esty in a way. All the physical things and the way I appeared, was really part of creating this character, for sure.”
You and Amit Rahav have some really heavy scenes together. Did you bond off-screen as well?
“I’ve known Amit for like 10 years, through mutual friends. But with this project we've been through stuff together that no one else will understand. We cried together, and laughed together, and we went through this rollercoaster together, and we also lived in the same building, so we neighbours. We had the best friendship. I could not have asked for someone better than him. It was really nice doing this hardcore scene, but then like laughing like crazy in the break.”
Did either of you speak Yiddish before?
“Not at all. I arrived in Berlin a month before shooting and had Yiddish lessons, piano lessons, vocal lessons, and rehearsals of course. Yiddish was the most challenging one because it's really very different from Hebrew. I had the best teacher, Eli Rosen, who also plays the rabbi, and he also helped us with everything on-set that has to do really with religion, with everything. Amit and I were the only ones who didn't know Yiddish before. So, it was like hours and hours of us learning Yiddish. I still know all my lines because you need to get to the point that you know your lines so well that you don't even think about what you're saying when you're shooting, you can just act. And for me, a lot of emotional scenes are in this foreign language. "
Without spoiling anything, the final episode is kind of open-ended — do you think you’ll make a second season?
“I don't know to be honest! There are some questions but you also kind of get your ending. I would love to bring Esty to life, of course. I love this character so much.”