Global crime with a local flavor

Israeli actress Yuval Scharf is one of the stars of the new BBC show McMafia, which has received some criticism for its portrayal of organized crime in the Jewish state

Actress Yuval Scharf in a scene from McMafia (2018) (photo credit: COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS)
Actress Yuval Scharf in a scene from McMafia (2018)
A member of Knesset is involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering. While many Israelis wouldn't be shocked to read such a headline these days, this time, at least, it's fiction.
McMafia Trailer (YouTube/BBC)
That storyline is torn from the opening episodes of McMafia, a new BBC miniseries that began airing last week and is already creating global buzz and garnering critical acclaim. The first episode premiered in the UK on January 1, it will hit US airwaves later this year on AMC and is available elsewhere on Amazon Prime Video.
The TV program focuses on a Russian Jewish family based in London, who are trying to escape from a life of organized crime but struggling not to be sucked back in. Alex Godman, the family's scion who speaks in a crisp British accent and wears impeccably tailored suits, enters an uneasy and reluctant partnership with Semiyon Kleiman, the Russian-Israeli businessman who holds a seat in the Knesset. The show, based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Misha Glenny, depicts the disturbing global and systemic nature of organized crime, as the show flits from London to Mumbai, Prague, Tel Aviv, France, Dubai and more.
McMafia includes scenes set in Tel Aviv and the Negev dessert, though they were actually filmed in Croatia. But while the Israeli beach was fabricated, the Israeli characters - or at least some of them - are not. Kleiman is played by the American David Strathairn, but two of his associates - Tanya and Joseph - are portrayed by native Israeli actors Yuval Scharf and Oshri Cohen.
Scharf discussed the show and her time filming McMafia in a recent phone interview with The Jerusalem Post
"It was an amazing experience - the whole series, the cast, the crew, everyone was so amazing," said Scharf. "For me it's my first international project, so I felt like a little girl in a candy shop and I was super excited about everything." 
While the show has gained mostly positive reviews, there have been some detractors. Not too surprisingly, the idea of a show depicting not just an Israeli, but a member of parliament, as a criminal and gangster has drawn some criticism. The UK Lawyers for Israel group issued a statement last week on Facebook that accused the show of using "gratuitous slurs" in its depiction. It also took umbrage with the character's references to the Mossad, saying that the show "insinuates that Israel officially sanctions deception in its intelligence activities."
Scharf said she has read such criticism, but brushes it off.
"I don't feel that Israel is presented in a more negative way than Russia or England or any other country condemned with corruption," she said. "The show is not about Israel, it's about the way crime touches the core of everything. It's not about Israel, it's not about London, it's about the bad people there."
The Israeli actress said she was glad that the production brought in people from around the globe to portray the international characters in the show and lend a feeling of authenticity.
"It's talking about the globalized world of organized crime and all the globalization of the mafia and we live in a global world now," she said. "And all the accents and all the different people from all over the world - a lot of extras from Russia, India, a lot of accents come together on set."
Scharf said she owes a thank you to her old friend Gal Gadot, for making the Israeli accent a hot commodity in Hollywood.
"I feel that lately people are more open to different accents and I feel that Gal did a lot," she said. "I was in LA now and I had a lot of meetings and the people told me my accent is super sexy and you don't need an American accent... I can say thank you to her, she opened up for everyone the door."
A project like this was a first for Scharf, who is well known to Israeli audiences for her roles in local TV and film, as well as being married to singer Shlomi Shaban. She has been seen in the series Srugim, the Joseph Cedar film Footnote, the 2015 movie Moon in the 12th House and much more. She can currently be seen in the Israeli TV drama Fullmoon and is working on both a new series and a new film right now.
Scharf said working on McMafia was worlds apart from anything else she's ever taken part in locally.
"In Israel, the way we work is we don't have enough money and we don't have enough time," she said. But for McMafia, "it was so new, the way they worked and the process and the respect they gave me as an actress." 
But even when she was filming in Croatia and London, Scharf had a little bit of home with her: Israeli actor and costar Oshri Cohen.
"Oshri and I have been working together for years, this is our fourth or fifth project together," she said. "He gave me a lot of strength and confidence that he was there with me, and we were together in this beautiful adventure."
Scharf said she also built strong relationships with her other costars, including James Norton, David Strathairn and Juliet Rylance, who spent a great deal of time together filming around Croatia.
"We became like a group, like a gang," she said. "It was new for everyone to feel that we're all together, and we're all human beings that want to make art, and want to make change."