Israeli impresario

Actress/model/producer Noa Tishby is only adding to her repertoire of roles - on and behind the silver screen.

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June 26, 2008 09:36
Israeli impresario

Noa Tishby wow 88 224. (photo credit: Michael Alo Kovac)

 
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Noa Tishby has a lot on her mind, but it doesn't seem to bother her appetite. As the dynamic Hollywood-based actress/producer digs into a shakshuka breakfast with all the trimmings at her favorite Rehov Sheinkin café in Tel Aviv, she reels off a list of professional and personal projects that would have us ordinary mortals gasping for breath. Besides just finishing a feature role in an upcoming Warner Brothers film - Ghosts of Girlfriends Past with Matthew McConaughey, Michael Douglas and Jennifer Garner - the pinup-worthy 31-year-old Ramat Aviv native was about to start playing a recurring role in a new HBO series on Mormon polygamy called Big Love. At the same time, her fledgling production career, based on bringing Israeli ideas to American TV screens, is taking off with the recent success of HBO series In Treatment (based on the hit Channel 2 series B'tipul), and the upcoming adaptation of Touch Away (Merhak Negia). And let's not forget a little thing like planning a gala wedding at the end of June to Australian celebrity Andrew G, host of Australian Idol, which includes flying in 100 guests from abroad to Israel. "It's quite exciting that all these things are happening right now," says the nonplussed Tishby, who for the last nine years has been flying back and forth from Hollywood to Tel Aviv every month or two. Equally at home in front of the camera or in the board rooms of studios and networks, the one-time teen star of the landmark Channel 2 drama series Ramat Aviv Gimmel is living a well-thought out dream come true. But it hasn't happened without a few unpleasant wake-up calls along the way. "The first few years, it was like what the...? What's going on? It was much tougher than I expected, much tougher," says Tishby in unaccented vernacular-drenched English, a talent she has no idea how she acquired. Picking up small parts on US TV series, like Coupling, Nip/Tuck, Las Vegas, CSI, Charmed, The 4400, and in the feature movie The Island, Tishby found the constant auditions, call-backs and rejections disheartening. "I was a bit of a snob and I had this feeling of coming from stardom in Israel, and I'm not going to do soaps in America, I'm not going to go on auditions for stuff that I'm not into. In addition, I had no concept of what LA is like, how to get through the doors. For anything," she says. The doors are wide open for Tishby now, both on the acting front and as a TV producer, through a combination of talent, determination and that old Israeli unbeatable combination of improvisation and bravado, all traits that were evident from an early age. "When I was young, I asked my mom to take me to auditions and she refused. She didn't want to be a stage mom - none of my family was in show business. Her attitude was if you really want to do it, you'll do it as an adult. Which was great. Because I waited until the adult age of nine until I took the bus on my own to a commercial audition in Tel Aviv. At the time, it seemed like the calmest and most rational thing to do, but looking back on it, I can't believe I did that," she recalls with a hearty laugh. By 14, Tishby had received a drama scholarship from the Tel Aviv Museum of Arts, and developed her craft there under the tutelage of a young drama teacher named Yaron Kafkafi, who went on to become the dean of Israeli musical productions. Kafkafi cast Tishby in her first major role at 16 in the rock musical David, based on the life story of King David. "From the moment I was on stage for the first time, I felt like I was at home," says Tishby. Her roles in Ramat Aviv Gimmel, the film Five Minutes Walking, Habimah's production of West Side Story, a chart-topping album in English called Nona and high-profile modeling assignments all contributed to make Tishby a household name by the end of the 1990s, and prompted her to look to Hollywood for the next phase of her career - without giving up her Israeli identity. "I like to challenge myself. And I love Israel. That's the reason I've never stopped working here. It's very important to me. It was always important to maintain my career here, while creating a career there," she says. "I have a huge family - four sisters, a half brother and eight cousins, and I miss them a lot. There's a lot of family events," she laughs. "I knew that when I relocated to the US, that I was going to live between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. And I wanted to be able to combine my history here and my future there, to enjoy and combine both worlds. It's now really coming up lovely. I had a couple of confusing years there in the middle, though." Things began becoming a little clearer two years ago when Tishby, on a visit home, read about a new Israeli TV series called B'tipul about a psychologist to be broadcast daily, with a different patient every day. "I was at my friend's house on the beach, and I put the newspaper down and I went, 'Damn, I've been to therapy, why didn't I think about this? It's brilliant!'" The next time Tishby returned to Israel a few months later, everybody was talking about the show, now on the air. A light bulb went off in her mind and she told her Israeli manager, "I'm going to take this idea to HBO." "Bear in mind, I had not seen a frame of the show by that time and didn't know anybody at HBO. But I called the show's creator Haggai Levy, nonetheless. We met for coffee the next day and I told him what I wanted to do. "Producing was something I always knew I would get involved in. I've always been interested in initiating and creating projects and seeing them coming to fruition. In Treatment was my first project, but it wasn't something where I thought, 'Oh, I'm going to look for something Israeli to bring to the screen,'" she says. Tishby acknowledges Levy for trusting her with his baby and allowing her to bring a team together in Hollywood to develop the show. "He's the most incredible talent - for him to go, 'All right, I don't know that person but I'm going to give her a chance,' was amazing." Not having any connections at HBO didn't prove to be an obstacle for the resourceful Tishby. She had recently signed an artist management contract with the Leverage company in Los Angeles which was responsible for putting together the popular cable series Entourage. At their initial meeting, Tishby had raised the issue of producing shows. "They said great, sure, whatever. They were supportive, but they didn't realize how quickly it was all going to happen," she recalls. "I think I signed with them about a week before I went to Israel. And when I came back to LA with B'tipul, I called them up in an absolute whirlwind of an attitude... we have to meet, we have to do this... The initial response I got was, 'A show from Israel? Why?' But the minute they saw it though, the product won." As co-producer of In Treatment, Tishby was involved in all facets of the show, which debuted last year to generally positive reviews. She credits her belief in herself and a good dose of Israeli chutzpah as the catalysts for her inroads as a producer. "Having an Israeli mentality in Hollywood absolutely helps. They kick me out through the door, and I come back in through the window," she laughs. "Hey, I served in the army - do you think I'm going to be intimidated by a bunch of executives? We come from a country where there are real problems we go through - I was in the Gulf War being bombed by Saddam Hussein with a gas mask on, I was in Gaza, in Hebron, on the border with Syria. I'm not scared of LA. Sure, it's stressful and challenging and trying, in terms of your self esteem, but having that Israeli makeup definitely helps." Once the first barrier was broken regarding her production career, it became easier the next time around. Since In Treatment, Tishby has also played an integral role in making a shidduch between HBO and another acclaimed Israeli series Touch Away (Merhak Negia) about a religious-secular, immigrant/sabra romance in a Bnei Brak neighborhood. The show's creator Zafrir Kohonofsky and Tishby have a mutual admiration society, with Kohonofsky praising Tisbhy for making the Israel-US connection possible, and Tishby spouting superlatives about his work and Touch Away in particular. "Zafrir was the first person to ever put me on Israeli TV - when I was 14 on a kids' talk show. When I saw Touch Away, I was mesmerized, and inspired beyond and moved. I knew it was going to be a matter of adapting the series to American eyes in a sense that there are immigrants everywhere - America's a country of immigrants, it's the fabric of American society. And Touch Away is an opportunity to explore that." The show's in the development process now ("way past negotiations," says Tishby), and she's already working on other ideas. "But I can't talk about them." Now that she's immersed in the behind the scenes aspect of Hollywood, she finds her level of confidence, if possible, rising higher. "If I think a product is right for a certain director or producer or studio, I will move mountains to make sure it gets there. I'm at an interesting place right now, where I'm getting calls from people in LA asking, 'What have you got?' And I have a lot to tell them." With all the energy she's putting into making deals with studios, it's a wonder Tishby has time left for acting. But just as her production career is busting out, so is her acting career. She's still bubbling over her role in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which filmed in Boston. "It was great, I'm now a Matthew McConaughey fan. I play one of his ex-girlfriends. It's a small but very funny role," she says, adding that she enjoys switching personas and getting in front of the camera. "I love being able to wear a couple of different hats. It's fun to get to the set, and just act and not worry about all that other stuff." For her role in Big Love, based in Utah and filmed beginning in June, Tishby plays a strong-willed Israeli woman with an equally strong accent. "They were looking for an Indian or Italian woman, and the casting director had this brilliant idea - she thought that if the character needs to be tough and wear the pants - she needs to be Israeli. She told me, 'Just do your Israeli accent,' so I laid it on thick. It's easy to play an Israeli wearing the pants in a couple - that's life, the curse of the Jewish woman," she laughs. To Tishby, an important fringe benefit of gaining a higher profile in Hollywood is to help alter Israel's image in the US, which she claims is outdated and more clichéd than Adam Sandler's Zohan. "I think that the perception in the US of Israel is very skewed, and just wrong. The only reason people in the US hear about Israel in the news is when something bad happens," she says' "I remember that a friend of mine - an Oscar-winning actress - was fascinated by the fact I was from Israel when we first met. She was like, 'Wow, so how does your family feel about you?' I told her 'What do you mean? They feel all right.' She said 'Well, you know, about you being modern and all that. You're not wearing all the head covers and all that.' "I was just shocked. We're not Afghanistan. So it's always been very important for me to do what I can to alter the perception of Israel." She's doing her own part in her personal hasbara campaign by inviting more than 100 guests from all around the world to her upcoming nuptials to Andrew Jonas Ginsberg on June 26 in Caesarea. "I'm actually doing what I'm talking about - putting my money where my mouth is. We're bringing in people from all over - Australia, LA, London, Switzerland and Amsterdam. It was very important for us to have it here and use the opportunity to show people the country," says Tishby. "We're going to schlepp them all over the country - Jerusalem and Yad Vashem and the Old City, then the Dead Sea, Masada, then the Kinneret and the North. Andrew's been here many times and he's obsessed with Israel." Ginsberg, who's also based in Los Angeles, travels to Australia to shoot Australian Idol, so it will be a two-continent marriage for the couple, a challenge that Tishby has no qualms about. While Israel will also be regularly in the mix, Tishby has no plans to leave her hard-won Hollywood independence. However, she sees some advantages to the tightly-knit Israeli entertainment community, and now views the industry here in a different light since transplanting to Hollywood. "I think the advantage of a small market like Israel is that you really have to be good. In America, you can be average and still be moderately successful and have a small show on a niche channel and make so much money that you never have to improve yourself," she says. "In Israel, if you're not excellent, you're not getting on television, as a writer, actor, creator or producer." Now that she has "made it" in a sense in Hollywood, Tishby sees herself as a bridge between Israel and America. "I'm very careful with the product I pick from Israel, and very careful with the people I work with in America. I'll find the product in Israel, and usually the creators and the networks are very happy to work with me because I'm very hands-on in the sense of picking the best team for the particular product," says Tishby. "I feel privileged to be able to have the creators in Israel trust me with their stuff. It's like my kids, I take care of them, and make sure the adaptation and the team is right... make sure everyone is always excited and moving forward." Sounds like the same formula Noa Tishby has adopted for herself.

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