Not just a pretty face

Stereotype of the beautiful but vacuous model who stumbled into acting flies out the window within a minute of talking to Moran Atias.

Moran Atias, (photo credit: ALEX LIPKIN)
Moran Atias,
(photo credit: ALEX LIPKIN)
Before the Haitian earthquake, the most pressing issue on Moran Atias’s plate was which dress to wear for her next film audition or how to juggle her three-continent acting/modeling career as she burned frequent flyer points regularly crisscrossing from Hollywood to Milan to Tel Aviv.
All that changed a little over a year ago on January 12, 2010, when a 7.0 earthquake struck 25 km. west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au- Prince, killing more than a quarter of a million people and leaving more than a million homeless. Days later, the 29-year-old Haifa native joined actor Sean Penn and others in the film industry, through the Los Angeles organization Artists for Justice and Peace, on an 11-day volunteer mission to provide whatever help rescue professionals needed.
Her stunning looks and star charisma were of little help to her in the rubble and ruins (in fact IDF soldiers who had arrived to aid the rescue effort saw her and didn’t recognize her until the second day), but something deeper unexpectedly surfaced which ended up making an immeasurable difference in the lives of some of the quake victims – her Israeli hutzpa.
With the help of IsraAid, the volunteer organization which set up relief tents at the site of the disaster, Atias was able to push through and coordinate the evacuation of 29 quake victims to Florida for emergency surgery which saved their lives.
That role – the biggest of her life – has fueled her very being ever since, whether it be undertaking return trips to the ravaged country or using her rising profile in Hollywood to organize fund-raising concerts and dinners.
“It was such a humbling experience being in Haiti, and the challenge was to go back to La La land and face the silly elements of my work, the part of the business that’s not connected to the art,” she said during one of two phone conversations from her Los Angeles apartment.
“We were sleeping on the ground in blankets with animals crawling in. So to now go to planning a charity event and having to deal with a security company or a celebrity telling me that they need this type of car or that type of food, I just go, ‘Oh, really?’
“And to be honest, I don’t really enjoy putting together the charity events; it’s not as gratifying as being on the ground. But if I can raise a million dollars, which is what’s needed, then who cares if I enjoy it?”
THE STEREOTYPE of the beautiful but vacuous model who stumbled into acting flies right out the window within a minute of talking to Moran Atias. Fluent in five languages (Hebrew, English, Italian, French and Spanish), she exudes a girl-next-door charm with her unaccented English spouting from-the- heart thoughtfulness instead of Hollywood glibness. She seems oblivious to the fact that there are likely thousands, if not millions, of admirers who ogle her photo spreads in men’s magazines like Maxim or her vast Internet portfolio of pinups – or in one of her increasingly high-profile US roles, like last year’s part in The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks and her recurring bad girl character over two seasons in the TV series Crash.
Maybe it’s that unique combination of kid-sister nonchalance, strong-willed determination and that body of gold that has enabled Atias to shoot for the impossible and succeed at most everything she’s attempted – whether it be saving Haitian lives, forging an astonishingly successful career in Italy at 18 even though she hadn’t yet learned Italian or dropping her big-fish Italian status three years ago to start again in the huge pond of Hollywood.
An hour after our talk, Atias was leaving for a whirlwind work visit to Israel, where she was on the ground for a total of five hours to appear at a promotional shoot for a jewelry designer’s campaign. The trip’s brevity wasn’t a prima donna’s first-class prerogative, but because Atias was juggling her professional obligations with her academic requirements at a writers’ extension program at UCLA, where she’s taking a full load of courses and involved in writing two different scripts.
“I’ve overloaded myself with courses, but I love being in an educational environment. Anything to do with the creative process makes me feel very much alive,” she said.
But the chance to come home even for a few hours – as well as an undoubtedly hefty paycheck – was enticement enough for Atias to make the grueling 15-hour flight from LA.
“I always get excited to come to Israel, something pretty emotional happens. When I land, I can’t help but smile like a little kid. And I still clap.”
That enthusiasm and outward emotion may have sprouted from growing up in an bustling, extended Moroccan family environment in Haifa where her grandparents instilled the traditional values of family and welcoming guests. Atias caught the acting bug early, attended acting classes and by 15 was appearing in the youth TV show Out of Focus. Despite the youthful success, her long-range plans were focused on serving in the IDF and then studying psychology. However, fate took a turn when she contracted meningitis at 17.
“After I recovered, I was turned down by the army. I wasn’t ready to go on to college at 17 and a half and study psychology for seven years, after just spending so much time on the matriculation exams,” she said.
“So I decided for the year and nine months I would have been in the army I was going to travel to Europe and try to model. It was the profession I could make the most money in within a short time to pay for my studies. I had no desire to be on the cover of magazines; it wasn’t something I aspired to.”
After a short stint in Germany, Atias was recruited to Italy, where she was discovered by an agent and introduced to noted fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. She became his home model and also began modeling for other companies.
“My manager was this woman who really saw things in myself that I didn’t see at the time,” said Atias. “She said, ‘You’re going to be a star here.’ I didn’t even speak Italian, but when somebody believes in you that much, you also start to believe. So literally in three months, I learned the language.”
That opened up the entertainment industry for Atias and she was soon an ubiquitous figure on Italian TV, hosting programs and emceeing events. She was catapulted into a household name, one that was known even by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which given his penchant for beautiful women may not be such a surprise.
In 2003, when prime minister Ariel Sharon made a state visit to Rome, Berlusconi mentioned at a joint press conference that an Israeli woman was a popular TV presenter. Neither Sharon nor the Israeli journalists accompanying him had heard of Atias. However one of the scribes went home and wrote about her, resulting in an hour-long 2004 Channel 10 documentary called Cinderella, ironically introducing her to her countrymen.
“The show was basically about this Moroccan girl from Haifa ending up an Italian TV star. I didn’t think that anyone would be interested, but I guess that people from your own country are curious and happy when one of their own succeeds elsewhere. I think they were impressed that I spoke Italian so well and looked like a native,” she said.
The exposure catapulted her into instant celebrity status at home, and over the last five years she’s regularly appeared on TV, hosting variety or game shows, and has been the cover girl for modeling campaigns and TV commercials including for Strauss and Renuar.
Her bread and butter remained in Italy, however, where she was as popular as ever. When her admirers and Italian directors began to urge her to try her hand at acting, Atias was intrigued, but it wasn’t a move she was about to enter into lightly.
“Before I made that decision, I wanted to see if I was even capable of acting and if I had something that I could possibly develop. I did an acting workshop and loved it, and then got a part in a film called Gas, a small indie movie with an incredible character role for me that took me away from whatever image I had cultivated in Italy until then,” she said.
Atias was nominated for a best supporting actress award at an Italian film festival for the role, and she was hooked.
“Of course, only about 90 people saw the movie, but they were all from the industry, and I gained a lot of respect from them. After that, I knew there was nothing left for me in TV, I only wanted to act.”
The role led to more high-profile films like director Dario Argento’s 2007 fantasy-drama Mother of Tears, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival, but Atias came to the decision that if she was really going to pursue an acting career, it might as well be in the center of the film world – Hollywood.
“It’s been the biggest challenge I could put myself in, between the language and the lack of experience acting in English,” she said of her 2008 move to Los Angeles. “But I feel like I grow and blossom when there’s a challenge.
“It’s an Israeli quality I’m really blessed to have. We’re accustomed to working under pressure and I think the most creativity comes from those surroundings. The creativity level and the discipline and work ethic that we have in Israel is definitely a huge advantage that I might have that other actors in the US don’t.”
DESPITE HER ability to think on her feet, Atias encountered many obstacles upon her arrival in the US which she set about correcting – first and foremost her English. She spent months losing her Israeli accent and working on speaking the American vernacular. And even though she’s mastered it, she said it remains a constant struggle.
“When I act, it’s my subconscious that’s talking, so for example, since I do a lot of high stakes drama with lots of action, if something terrifying happens to my character like an accident, the first thing I’m inclined to yell is eema! It’s just not natural for me to yell something in English,” she said.
Since all of Atias’s work at that point had taken place in either Italy or Israel, she possessed no US track record and had to struggle to just get invited to auditions.But persevere she did, and in 2008 she landed a plum supporting role in the Starz network series Crash.
The series was directed by Paul Haggis who also directed the 2004 Oscar-winning film about racial tensions in Los Angeles on which it was based. Atias’s character Inez, the wife of a high-ranking member of a Gypsy clan, is a beautiful temptress who uses her charms on unsuspecting men, playing games with the law or scheming for money.
“My character was a Gypsy trying to create an identity for herself in the US, and in a way, so was I,” she said.
“Obviously, she was doing it in an illegal manner by conning people, which for an actress is a lot of fun – going to such an extent with my character to be so bold both physically and verbally. When you have courageous characters, it’s so liberating, because in life we’re so constrained by fears – the older you get the more fears you have. When I first left Israel for Italy, I didn’t have any fears – what did I have to lose? But when I left Italy for the US, I was much more aware of the consequences.”
In fact, on her relocation flight to Los Angeles from Rome, Atias experienced a premonition she could only describe as a religious experience.
“Here I was, 26, and this was my turning point. I was leaving Italy and everything that was comfortable for this unknown adventure, And what film did they screen? Crash!
“Watching it made me so emotional and humbled. This was exactly the type of film I wanted to be part of, the kind that’s so important to tell, educational, provocative and challenging. I saw the clouds around me and felt closer to God, and I began to pray – ‘How can I be part of something like that?’”
The irony of nabbing a role in the TV version of the film isn’t lost on Atias, but she doesn’t see it only an act of synchronicity.
“To me, getting that role was the symbol of the American dream. You come, you do the best you can and you’ll get recognized. It’s not about politics, although I’m sure that’s there, but to me, it’s such an American experience,” she said.
Last year, Atias appeared with Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks in The Next Three Days, a drama which received mixed reviews, and she’s recently completed filming on Crazy Eyes with Lukas Haas and appears in an upcoming episode of the series Rules of Engagement.
“Russell allowed me to feel very comfortable; his sense of humor is very similar to Israeli – dry. To other people it could be intimidating or not funny, but to me it was the language I grew up with,” she said.
“We were always joking around, but once you start doing something as important as telling a story, the jokes end. People like Russell and Sean Penn are so dedicated and disciplined in trying to serve the story and produce something significant that provokes thought.”
With the face and figure that she’s been blessed with, there may be something more than thought provoked when Atias appears on the screen. The notion that moviegoers may be more interested in seeing her move than hearing her emote is one that Atias accepts and embraces.
“At the end of the day, most actresses that I know and admire are beautiful and sexy – from Julia Roberts to Penelope Cruz to Nicole Kidman. I think it would be easier to mention actresses that haven’t appeared in Maxim,” she said.
“It’s only an obstacle if you make it one, if you think I’m not going to get that part because I’m too pretty. It’s like being stereotyped as an Israeli – are all Israelis aggressive? Are all Jews cheap? It’s the perception that maybe the masses have, but the directors and actors I admire and want to work with usually think out of the box. Clint Eastwood isn’t going to not hire Angelina Jolie for a dramatic role because she’s beautiful. I think it’s a challenge all actresses might have. But it’s up to you to open the door and introduce yourself with a smile.
It made Julia Roberts’s career. Who doesn’t want to see her smile?” With Atias’s smile starting to light up American screens with more regularity, it wasn’t necessarily a brilliant career move to suddenly drop it all and leave for Haiti after the earthquake hit. But for Atias, it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision.
“I had planned to go to Haiti even before the quake. A number of friends of mine were active in Artists for Justice and Peace and had gone before to build schools and work with children there. I was supposed to go but got nervous because of my medical history and canceled at the last moment,” she said.“Then when the quake took place and I saw the terrible results, in a silly way I felt guilty that I had not gone before, as if I could have prevented it.”
Atias joined an emergency group which left three days after the disaster and helped set up a makeshift pharmacy to aid the medical volunteers in Port-au-Prince. Surrounded by IDF doctors and IsraAid volunteers, she felt a sense of Israeli pride like she never had before.
“The Israelis came out and brought light to the place, they brought solutions. There wasn’t really time under those conditions to analyze and plan. I was so proud then to be an Israeli. I introduced Sean to the extraordinary group of Israeli volunteers from IsraAid – they work with such humility and discipline, and they’ve been an inspiration to me.”
But not every scene in Haiti had a Hollywood ending, as she discovered when she had to explain to a victim’s brother that his situation was too hopeless to enable him to be airlifted for treatment.
“I had to go to this young man and tell him that his brother was too ill to go on the plane for care, basically sentencing him to death. All he said in response was ‘thank you for visiting my country and helping.’ I still have chills remembering that. He didn’t have a second of anger. I was angry! And you have this gentle person, everything taken away from him, and it was such an inspiring moment for me to embrace and take back home to my life.”
Emerging from the ordeal with a new perspective that has enabled her to achieve a balance in her life, Atias is grateful for every moment she spent in Haiti. And she carries the lessons with her every day.
“The important lesson I learned was that it was easy to be patient and tolerant with people who have nothing. I want to have the same patience for people that seemingly have everything. So if I can find patience with my precious cousin who whines if the Wii [Nintendo game] doesn’t work, then I won’t go crazy and I’ll get close to the person I want to be. But it’s hard – every day I try to work on a tiny part of me. Then I find there’s another piece to work on.”
For Moran Atias, all the parts seem to be falling in exactly the right place.