Journey into a ‘Past Life’

Up-and-coming Israeli actresses Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar talk about working with veteran director Avi Nesher as well as their on-set ‘sisterly magic.'

December 12, 2016 21:10
NELLY TAGAR (right) and Joy Rieger in Avi Nesher’s ‘Past Life.’

NELLY TAGAR (right) and Joy Rieger in Avi Nesher’s ‘Past Life.’. (photo credit: IRIS NESHER)

As I walk to a cafe on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to meet actresses Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar, the stars of Avi Nesher’s latest movie, Past Life, their faces stare out at me from posters and ads on bus stops.

Nesher has a deserved reputation for turning young actresses into full-fledged stars (such as Ania Bukstein, who is now in Game of Thrones), and both these young women and the movie have received rave reviews, in Israel and abroad. The movie had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and Rieger and Tagar have been attending festive screenings throughout Israel recently, where, naturally, they have been the center of attention. The movie, which had 70,000 viewers in the 10 days since it opened here (a huge number for Israel), will be shown in January at the Palm Springs Film Festival in California, in the Modern Masters section. So you might expect them to be just a bit, well, diva-like.

But they are as polite and enthusiastic as if this were their first interview.

Tagar, who fits right in at the chic cafe, wearing sunglasses and leopard-print leggings, is excited about two upcoming projects. One is the second season of the extremely funny television series My Successful Sisters, for the YES network, which she will start filming in the spring. The other one is her first child, with her husband, director Eitan Sarid, which will arrive a bit earlier.

When Rieger sits down, she defers to Tagar, who plays her older sister in Past Life, saying Tagar should answer my questions first, since “Nelly has a Phd in Q&A.”

In real life, Tagar is just as assured as the character she plays in the movie, a politically engaged young woman who edits a pornography magazine, which lures readers with provocative photos and tries to engage them with left-wing political articles. Rieger plays her younger sister, Sephi, a character based on the composer and musician Ella Milch-Sheriff, in a story inspired by the sisters’ quest to discover the truth about their Holocaust- survivor father.

Tagar said she loved working with Nesher, “Because he’s very much like me.” Nesher displays a similar openness and energy in his interviews, but I ask her to be more specific.

“He’s a Sagittarian, just like me,” she explains. “And we’re both obsessed with lemon waffles.”

Lemon waffles? “Waffles with a lemon sauce,” she says. “It’s rare that people like them. Mostly very old people eat them with tea.”

Perhaps Tagar has an old soul, because she has a kind of authority that is as rare as her taste in waffles. If you follow Israeli cinema at all, you know her as Daffi, the soldier who dreams of getting transferred to army headquarters in Tel Aviv in Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation.

There, she had deadpan comic timing, but Nesher saw that she was ready for a dramatic role.

Nesher, who can’t say enough good things about his cast, says his actresses are “the best. Just the best...They’re going to have big careers. People thought of Nelly as someone who’s funny, but she has great depth dramatically... She could be a great standup comedian, or the minister of culture.”

“He saw the real me,” says Tagar, who said she was “in shock” when she found out she had gotten the role. “I thought OK, it’s fun to meet him, but I never thought he would go for me in this part.”

Rieger had an ever steeper climb to get the role of Sephi, the shy but determined musician, in Past Life.

Nesher was introduced to her work when she acted in a high-school project film for his daughter, Tom, and he was impressed. But the character of Sephi is an opera singer as well as a pianist and composer.

“I was the best actress, but the worst singer” to audition for the role, says Rieger, who also starred in the film Valley and the television series Johnny and the Knights of the Galilee. In fact, she had no musical background.

Nesher would not consider having her lip-synch to someone else’s singing, so she agreed to study for a year with musician and teacher Yishai Steckler. Only if she could sing like a professional opera singer at the end of the year would she get the role.

Knowing that Steckler believed in her and that Nesher had his fingers crossed helped. “When I was studying, I had to believe I’m a fat opera singer.” The visualization helped, but she still felt “very pressured.” The training paid off, and she got the part, although she still felt stressed as they went into production.

She didn’t feel she had truly arrived as a singer until Milch-Sheriff came to the set and gave Rieger her blessing.

“She came and she started crying, wow, it was beautiful,” says Rieger.

Sitting there at the cafe, the two actresses, who don’t really look alike, do seem like sisters. They finish each other’s sentence, and remind each other about moments from the shoot. Although both will undoubtedly go on to many other great roles, they know that Past Life will always be special for them.

Nesher auditioned dozens of actresses for both parts, and it was crucial that there be chemistry between the two actresses chosen. When he put Rieger and Tagar together, “there was a sisterly magic,” he says.

“It’s like falling in love,” says Tagar.

“Avi puts two actors together and then he waits for the magic to happen,” says Rieger.

“I was overwhelmed. Joy, you were the best Sephi,” says Tagar.

Both actresses say playing opposite the other inspired them.

“It’s like playing basketball. You can play with a good player, and be OK. And you can play with a great player and be great,” says Tagar.

“And we had the best coach,” says Rieger. “He really appreciates actors, he believes they can go farther than they have before.”

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