LOS ANGELES – Like many young people, Marnina Schon moved from the Bay area to Los Angeles to study theater at UCLA, hoping to pursue a career in Hollywood. Unlike others, she landed her big break half a world away in Israel, playing Noki, Aleeza Chanowitz’s best friend in the hit Israeli television series Chanshi.
Schon’s first job out of college was working at Rabbi Sharon Brous’s IKAR as a program director. However, over the years, the now 29-year-old actress, comedian, musician and B’nei mitzvah teacher landed an agent and found industry work, including starring as Margot in a production at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance in Anne, A New Play, (about what might have happened if Anne Frank had lived), small onscreen roles, performing every weekend at the comedy club The Second City, in Hollywood, and popping up in local Purim plays.
However, everything changed when the pandemic hit. Forced into lockdown along with everyone else, Schon and her partner, Michael O’Konis, decided to make irreverent videos that they posted on Instagram. And that’s how Schon was discovered, by the Chanshi team in September 2021.
Shtisel actress Moon Shavit had been following Schon on Instagram and knew the production was still looking for an American actress to play Noki. She had also seen Schon in Anne, A New Play and recommended her to the director Aaron Geva. “[Geva] reached out to me on Instagram,” Schon said during a Zoom interview. “He said, ‘Do you want to audition for the second lead in this Israeli TV show?’”
“I thought, how cool would it be to submit a tape for an Israeli TV show? Like, that’s never gonna happen.”Marnina Schon
Schon was in the middle of leading High Holy Day services at the time. “I thought, how cool would it be to submit a tape for an Israeli TV show? Like, that’s never gonna happen,” she recalled, laughing. However, she did submit two scenes. One was mostly in Hebrew with a smattering of English. While Schon went to a Jewish day school and has a rudimentary grasp of Hebrew, she admitted, “I need the nekudot (vowels) to read but I wanted to show I knew some Hebrew so I rewrote the scene to mostly English with some Hebrew.”
Even after landing the role, Schon found herself sometimes struggling during the three-month shoot. “Not only was I learning my lines but I also needed to understand everything that was being said [in Hebrew], not just my cues. I needed to be in the moment, in real-time, understanding what they were saying because my character would understand.”
She also admitted to embarrassing incidents when filming but laughs at her faux pas. “There were sometimes when we were asked to improvise scenes – to just keep talking,” she said. In the first episode when Chanshi drags Noki to visit soldiers in the hospital, “We did some bantering with a soldier’s girlfriend. After we cut, I thought, “Wow, I think I understood that whole scene and I did great.” Then they told me ‘She asked what genre of book do you like?’ And I answered, ‘Totally.’ (legamrei).”
The insanity of getting the part and filming it
FOLLOWING A callback in October, Schon was offered the part and the contracts were signed in December, with her slated to fly out ASAP. “But then the Omicron ban went into effect,” she recalled. “I was told to sit tight, while they applied for a special permit for me.” That, to Schon, meant she’d have a few weeks to organize. “But then they called me in the middle of the night after I’d just dropped my partner off at the airport and said they had my permit.” The catch? It was valid for 24 hours and she needed to get on a plane in the next eight hours.
Despite the insanity of her quick departure, Schon said she loved everything about the shoot, her character and being in Israel. “I love that a light on the set was called a menorah,” she said. “Yes, it’s just a lamp but to me, it was like, “There’s menorahs everywhere!’” She also relished that they never worked on Fridays or Saturdays. “It was so beautiful, taking Shabbat off.” She also recalled one morning where they did have to work very early on a Friday. “But when they let us out, they sent everyone home with challah. It was just so beautiful.”
Regarding her character, the Orthodox woman in Jerusalem about to get married but harboring a big secret, “I had an instant connection with her,” Schon said. “She speaks Hebrew, she’s wrestling with Judaism, she’s wrestling with queerness. I’ve been preparing for this role my whole life.”
Schon identifies as queer and said, “I felt when I was reading [the script] it spoke directly to me. It explores questions of Jewish identity and how you relate to tradition and community while also trying to figure out who you are and figuring out how your sexuality plays into that.” She said being an actor, taking on roles where characters are exploring their sexuality helped her do that in her own life. “But,” she quips, “I also grew up in Berkeley. I never thought I was straight but the conversation about authentic casting and representation [in the industry] is something I definitely thought about when I was accepting this role.”
Schon also found working with Chanowitz (the creator and star), a dream. “I really believe Chanshi is about Noki and Chanshi’s relationship,” she said. “Aleeza’s just so warm and inviting. She invited me to her home every Shabbat or to her in-laws.”
Schon’s big break also saw her working with two well-known stars: Henry Winkler and Caroline Aaron. “They’re just so cool and wonderful,” Schon gushed. “And even though I’m only in one scene with them, we got to tour round the country together, like a VIP Birthright.” She also revealed that back in LA, Winkler and his wife have invited her over for Shabbat dinner. “Henry (who is known for being dyslexic), was talking about trying to read for his Barmitzvah, saying it’s like reading backwards. He called learning Hebrew as ‘other characters and the booms.’ The booms of course being the nekudot. And it’s the most Henry Winkler thing I’ve ever heard,” she cackles.
Schon’s life has been a whirlwind since the show wrapped, returning to Israel for the premiere in December and heading to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Now, she’s working on an upcoming show for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, still teaching B’nei mitzvah classes and prepping for IKAR’s Purim Shpiel.
“I think the main thing I’ve learned from [Chanshi] she said, is that I have more self-assuredness that I’m an actor and I can do this. I keep reminding myself that the career of an artist is non-linear.”
She hopes there’s a second season of Chanshi. “There’s plenty more to explore and I think it’s very Jewish to have a story that leaves you with more questions and I’d love to go back and work in Israel.”
If the show takes off (there’s already an effort to find a US distributor on the heels of the show’s success), and there’s a second season, calling Schon directly for an interview may not be so easy next time around.
“Don’t worry,” she promised. “I’ll always take your calls.”