Israel’s gutsy young actresses breaking through onto the global stage

A new crop of young Israeli actresses are beginning to attract attention abroad and may well attain mainstream international stardom.

SHIRA HAAS receives the prize for Best Supporting Actress at the 2018 Ophir Awards ceremony (photo credit: FLASH90)
SHIRA HAAS receives the prize for Best Supporting Actress at the 2018 Ophir Awards ceremony
(photo credit: FLASH90)
While Israeli television and movies are now hugely popular around the world, actors from Israel have rarely crossed over into mainstream Hollywood success. Until Gal Gadot broke out as Wonder Woman, the Israeli actor with the highest profile career was Chaim Topol, aka Topol, who was nominated for an Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof. And in 2009, Ayelet Zurer starred opposite Tom Hanks in Angels and Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. But given the talent of Israel’s actors, you might expect that more of them would have made it abroad. Now, a new crop of young Israeli actresses are beginning to attract attention abroad and may well attain mainstream international stardom.
Obviously, the Israeli megastar is Gal Gadot, whose latest Wonder Woman film, Wonder Woman 1984, was released by the streaming service HBO Max last December but has not yet had a wide theatrical release due to the pandemic. The truncated release didn’t stop Vanity Fair magazine, one of the upscale gatekeepers of international stardom, from featuring Gadot on its cover. She has more than 50 million Instagram followers who are eager for news of her every move and when her first high-profile, non-Wonder Woman movie is released – Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile – she may turn out to a highly regarded actress, as well as an action-movie star.
While Gadot is essentially in a league of her own, a number of other Israeli actresses have gained worldwide acclaim in roles at home that are then featured abroad on streaming services such as HBO Max, Netflix and Apple TV+. While the series these actresses have played in have been varied, one element is common to all of them: Like Gadot, they play gutsy young women who fight for what they want.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the Israeli entertainment scene knows that the story of the year has been the emergence of Shira Haas as a genuine star. In spite of having the bad luck of having her breakthrough roles during a pandemic year, has become an “It Girl.” She was already known to Netflix audiences as the fiercely intelligent ultra-Orthodox girl who is one of the most memorable characters on Shtisel. But in 2020, she made waves in two roles:
One was the Israeli feature film Asia, directed by Ruthy Pribar, which was shown in the online Tribeca Film Festival and for which Haas won the Best Actress Award. The other was playing a young woman fleeing the New York haredi community in Netflix’s Unorthodox, for which she was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Chanel dressed her for the awards ceremonies and Vogue reported that her gown for the Emmys featured 2,000 embroidered flowers and took 1,200 hours to create, certainly a milestone of sorts for the Israeli entertainment industry, and dozens of international magazines have profiled her.
But while Haas has launched into the stratosphere, there are a number of other Israeli actresses whose careers are drawing international attention.
LIHI KORNOWSKI with Ori Atia from ‘Who Died?’ (Courtesy Yes/Ohad Romano)LIHI KORNOWSKI with Ori Atia from ‘Who Died?’ (Courtesy Yes/Ohad Romano)
Like Haas, Joy Rieger won the Best Actress Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, an event that tends to be a launching pad for Israeli talent. Rieger won in 2018 for her performance as a rebellious, discontented teen in an out-of-kilter world in Keren Ben Rafael’s Virgins. But she is better known to international audiences for her more recent role as the lone major female character in Valley of Tears, the drama series about the Yom Kippur War which was a hit in both Israel and the US, where it was shown on HBO Max in 2020. 
Rieger plays Dafna, a courageous young woman who refuses to go home when other female soldiers are evacuated from a besieged command post on the Golan Heights, and ends up being a key player in the behind-the-lines defense system as the Syrian troops greatly outnumber the Israeli soldiers stationed there. Eventually, she strikes out to try to find her lover who has been injured and left in enemy territory.
WHILE HOLLYWOOD has certainly beckoned, Rieger spends a great deal of her time acting in the theater, which keeps her firmly a part of the Tel Aviv arts scene. Her next major film role will be in another war story, Avi Nesher’s Portrait of Victory, a fact-based drama about the battle of Kibbutz Nitzanim in the War of Independence in 1948. She portrays Mira Ben Ari, another woman who stayed and fought when the battle intensified. 
The film marks Rieger’s third collaboration with Nesher, who discovered her when his daughter, Tom, used Rieger for a high-school film project. Rieger went on to star in Nesher’s 2016 film, Past Life, in which she played an aspiring composer and opera singer who fought sexist male teachers at her music school who thought women could not compose music. Rieger actually learned to sing opera for the role. In Nesher’s 2018 film, The Other Story, she played a young woman who rebelled against her secular parents by becoming religious.
She has enjoyed and learned from her collaborations with Nesher.
“Avi takes a long time casting, he looks for people who will bring something of themselves to the characters.... We did a lot of improvisations, and some of the things we said were added to the text,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
JOY RIEGER from ‘Valley of Tears.’ (Courtesy Yes/Alon Lutsky) KAN 11/Vered Adir)JOY RIEGER from ‘Valley of Tears.’ (Courtesy Yes/Alon Lutsky) KAN 11/Vered Adir)
Another actress who has broken through in the past year is Lihi Kornowski, who has a quirky, offbeat presence. She has moved up over the past five years through the ranks of Israeli television, graduating from roles in children’s television series to more substantive roles, such as in the thriller series False Flag, in which she had a key role in its second season, and a juicy, scene-stealing part in Queens (Malkot), a series about the women in an Israeli crime family, the American remake of which is being produced by Gadot.
She has a supporting role in Eytan Fox’s Sublet, as a young dancer with an Arab boyfriend who is planning to move to Berlin, and she has two scenes that showcase her talent as a dancer. The release of that film, which was the opening-night movie at the Jerusalem Film Festival, was postponed due to the pandemic and will be hitting theaters soon.
International audiences as well as Israelis have gotten a chance to enjoy Kornowski’s vibrant screen presence in Losing Alice, which was picked up by Apple TV+. Losing Alice, created by Sigal Avin, is a trippy story of a woman director (Ayelet Zurer) whose career in recent years has not been going as well as she would have liked, and who finds herself directing her actor husband in a film written by Sophie, Kornowski’s character. But the director finds herself losing her grip on reality in this erotically charged thriller, which keeps playing with audiences expectations.
Kornowski told Interview magazine, “Sophie is totally a lunatic. She allows herself to act in any way she wants. And she has so much confidence. She talks however she wants, to whatever she wants. It was such a liberating part to play because I could do anything.” And audiences around the world now enjoy watching her do anything. 
Her latest role is as a free-spirited cancer patient in the drama Who Died? and she appears in most scenes completely bald with no wig and somehow makes this look more attractive than hair. Who Died? could well be the next Israeli show to travel around the world, and when it does, it will introduce even more viewers to Kornowski.
Whether these actresses will end up seeing their names in lights around the world or simply continue to do outstanding work in Israel, one thing is certain: It will be fun !watching them.