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Jewish Journal

From Tel Aviv to Tinseltown

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 29, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Mili Avital stars in "Uprising," opening Dec. 7 in theaters.

Mili Avital stars in "Uprising," opening Dec. 7 in theaters.

Mili Avital is describing the difference between paparazzi here and back home in Israel. "It's not hysteria in Israel, except about politics," she says.

Avital should know. The gregarious actress, 29, is perhaps the only ingenue of her generation to successfully segue from Israeli to Hollywood films. And while she's done her share of ethnic work -- including a turn as a Warsaw ghetto partisan in Jon Avnet's NBC miniseries "Uprising," to open in movie theaters Dec. 7 -- she has also played characters who are just plain American.

In the Jim Jarmusch Western, "Dead Man," she was the fragile ex-prostitute who slept with Johnny Depp's character and got him in trouble. In the 1998 romantic comedy "Kissing a Fool," she was an ex-Catholic schoolgirl stuck in a love triangle with David Schwimmer and Jason Lee. (Schwimmer and she had a relationship off-screen for a while.) In "Animals," she played a Southern gal opposite Tim Roth.

Not bad for an actress whose English was so poor when she arrived at New York's Circle in the Square Theater School in 1994 that she couldn't even find the bathroom. But as Avital explains it -- in almost perfect, unaccented English -- much of her career has been a glorious fluke.

Growing up in Raanana, she was inspired to become a performer after viewing Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" at age 5. "I was always running around and putting on little skits," Avital says. "But my mother forbade me to go professional as a child -- though I was begging [for] my life."

She attended the prestigious Telma Yalin High School of the Arts in Giva'atayim, bordering Tel Aviv, and got her big break at age 17 when a teacher recommended her for the young virgin Cecille in a stage production of "Dangerous Liaisons" at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater. Within a year, Avital had an Israeli Oscar under her belt.

"I had all these offers to do film and Shakespeare, but my career was just going so fast that I realized if I really wanted to act for a living, I needed to study seriously," she recalls. "I tried to learn in Israel, but I wasn't anonymous anymore so I felt really odd; it was too weird to go to class at night and then go on talk shows and pretend I knew what I was talking about during the day. So I came to New York to study, which probably wasn't a rational move. But I didn't, in a million years, think I would stay. I had a whole career lined up back in Israel."

Avital arrived in Manhattan with her $6,000 paycheck from the film "Groupie," which she says was "one of the highest salaries ever paid an Israeli actress" -- and received a rude awakening. "All my Israeli English teachers had been sabras, so I got here and I was like, 'Wow, I guess the language sounds really different!'" she says. Avital pored over "Romeo and Juliet" with an English copy in one hand and a Hebrew one in the other.

She still had the accent a year later when, while she was working as a waitress, a customer stopped her midway through reciting the daily specials. The patron turned out to be a Hollywood manager who was so captivated by Avital that she signed her on the spot. Two weeks later, the actress was cast as James Spader's love interest in the 1994 sci-fi flick, "Stargate."

A career crisis ensued. "I had to decide whether to work really hard and try to climb the Hollywood mountain, or 'It's not worth it, and I'll go back and do leading roles in Israel,'" Avital says. "In the end, I just gambled."

To perfect her English, she says she worked with a coach, watched how newscasters move their lips, listened to the radio, and imitated people. "To learn the language itself, I read a lot of everything -- newspapers, literature, I fell asleep with the dictionary; but mostly adopted the way children learn to speak: ... trial and error, no fear."

By 1995, the actress had caught the eye of independent cinema guru Jim Jarmusch, whom she describes as "part philosopher, part clown." Gigs followed in films such as "Polish Wedding" and the acclaimed ABC miniseries "Arabian Nights," in which Avital played the sultana Scheherazade.

Mili is an active committee member and celebrity chair for Jewish Federation's 3rd annual Vodka Latka scheduled for December 13th; other celebrities include Joey Slotnick, Evan and Jaron Lowenstein, Greg Grunberg, Kevin Weisman, William McNamara and David Schwimmer. The evening will consist of a fashion show sponsored by Sharon Segal at Fred Segal with hair and makeup by Fred Segal Beauty.

"I think Jewish Americans are more similar to non-Jewish Americans than they are to Israelis," she told The Journal. "It's just the fact that they didn't grow up with a threat.... Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people in show business used to think I was insane because I'd never open a letter if I didn't know who the sender was -- which is what everyone does in Israel. Of course, that's all changed now."

On movie sets, Avital sometimes feels she's translating Jewish culture for her non-Jewish co-stars. When Avnet took his cast to synagogue in preparation for "Uprising" -- which Avital considers one of her most important projects ever -- she and the other female cast members were shuttled to the women's section in the back. "All the actresses like Leelee Sobieski and Radha Mitchell were just looking at me like, 'What the heck?' And I had to explain that women sit separately in an Orthodox shul."

Today, Avital describes herself as a "really weird" hybrid of two cultures. "I've made an emotional connection with America, and I've made the language my own," she says. "But then again, if I have to choose just one thing in my refrigerator, of course it would be hummus."

For information about the "Uprising" screenings starting Dec. 7 at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, call (323) 655-4010.

For more information on Vodka Latka and to purchase tickets please go to www.jewishla.org  or call 323-761-8316.

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