How 'Unorthodox' Star Shira Haas Is Planning on Celebrating Her First Emmys From Israel

Madison Feller
·7 mins read
Photo credit: Eyal Nevo
Photo credit: Eyal Nevo

From ELLE

For me, those first few months of quarantine are pretty hazy, a deluge of news punctuated by work and attempts at cooking a full meal. But I do remember one of the questions I'd ask almost every friend and family member I spoke to then: "Have you watched Unorthodox yet?"

The four-part limited series on Netflix pulls you quickly into the world of Esther "Esty" Shapiro (Shira Haas), a young woman who's grown up in the Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism where the rules are strict and secular culture is forbidden. (The Satmar group was founded by Holocaust survivors who believed the Holocaust was punishment for assimilation.) Shapiro escapes her community and travels to Berlin, Germany, in a story loosely based on Deborah Feldman's 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

This July, the show picked up eight Emmy nominations, including outstanding limited series, and Haas nabbed one for outstanding lead actress in a limited series. Of course, this won't be a typical Emmys year; the show will be virtual and nominees will participate remotely, which for Haas means from her home in Israel. But in a pandemic, we're taking joy where we can. Below, Haas discusses her Emmy night plans and that video of her watching the nominations.

That Instagram video of you finding out Unorthodox was nominated for an Emmy was so joyful. But it wasn't for your individual nomination, right?

There is a different video of my individual nomination. I was so shocked. [Unorthodox co-star Amit Rahav] was screaming and hugging me; he was the cutest person alive. I was so shocked and happy because I was like, "There's such a big chance that the show will also be nominated." Then the second video is of the show being nominated. I literally, as you can see, fell out of my bed. Not only did I get those two nominations, we also got such well-deserved nominations in other categories, like casting and costumes. I was not expecting that. I could only dream of that. We were very, very, very happy. We still are.

What has it been like to watch the world fall in love with the series, especially during a time when we're all somewhat isolated and disconnected?

I really managed to see myself within this character and to understand her, even though I come from a very different background and language and circumstances. I had this hope that when people would watch the show, they can relate to that, even if they're not religious or Jewish or know Yiddish.

And then it happened. We got so many comments from people from different countries, from Argentina and the States and the U.K., and also from Arab countries and religious and non-religious [people] and from different ages. It's really touched so many different people all over the world.

I think the meaning of the story is maybe more relevant than ever. I think the meaning of freedom [has been] a big subject in the last few months—what freedom means, how powerful it is for us to find it within ourselves.

One thing I thought about a lot while watching Unorthodox was this idea of returning to a site of trauma in order to find freedom. I'd read that [series creator] Anna Winger wanted that to be a metaphor, that Esty goes to Germany, to the source of her family's trauma, and then finds herself. How did that play into the character's journey for you?

My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. My grandfather, he passed, but he was an Auschwitz survivor, and my grandmother, she's alive and she's my love, and she comes from Hungary. I'd never been to Germany before this project. Before coming to Berlin, I told my grandmother about this project and the role and that I was very excited. I told her that it would be shot in Berlin, and what does she think? She was just so happy for me. Seeing her reaction and how emotional she was, even though she's been through what she's been through, and she has her trauma that no one can understand, she was so supportive and almost had tears in her eyes because she was so happy for me.

She told me good luck and she gave me a ring that she had. It was such an emotional moment. It gave me so much power to see how, after what she went through, she's still in the present and still so happy for me. I remember arriving to Berlin, and I always kept this moment with me when I was there.

There were so many women leading this show. How was that different from other sets you’ve been on?

There were lots of women. It’s based on Deborah Feldman's story. We had a female director. We had female producers. I remember when I did The Zookeeper's Wife, with director Niki Caro, it was also a set with a lot of women. I remember I was doing an interview with her, someone asked her something like, "How was it to work with so many women?" She just looked at him and said, "They are not here because they are women. They are here because they are the best." I could really relate to that. I worked on this set with unbelievable talent, and it was not 90 percent women and 10 percent men. It was somewhere in the middle. It felt natural. It felt like a set should be.

And specifically in Unorthodox, a story that is being told from a woman's POV and also talks about a woman’s experience, the fact that I had [director] Maria Schrader, for example, and female writers, I felt very comfortable talking about specific scenes. I felt like they could really understand me.

Have you thought about how you’re going to experience the Emmys from home and make the night special?

Well, it's my first time ever doing anything like that. As far as I know, I'm going to do it from here, from Tel Aviv. I would love to have, of course from kind of a distance, my parents and a friend with me, and my agent, if she's here in Israel. To be honest, I feel like I'm still processing it. Everything is happening, and it's happening in the middle of a pandemic, and it's going to be virtual. So I'm still taking it in. I definitely know that I'm going to wear something nice and I'm going to be surrounded by people that I love. These two things I know for sure.

And you’re shooting a TV show right now. What’s it like to be on set during the pandemic?

I'm filming the third season of Shtisel. It was a bit strange in the beginning. Everyone's wearing a mask, and you try to keep distance as much as you can. Windows are open, and no hugging or touching. But after a few days of working, you start to get used to it. Everyone is trying to be as safe as possible. And we're doing well, knock on wood.

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