While on location in Rome for “Angels & Demons,” Ayelet Zurer sat in a cafe not far from the Vatican, querying her mother, who as a child had to hide from the Nazis in a convent.
The Israeli-born actress was shooting the Ron Howard thriller to be released May 15 in which, in one of life’s odd turns, she now plays a woman orphaned and raised in a convent. A kindly priest eventually takes in the child, Vittoria Vetra, and she follows in his career footsteps to become, like him, a physicist. Early on in the film, Vetra is shocked to learn that he has been murdered, and his life’s work, a canister of volatile “anti-matter,” has been stolen. She soon teams up with Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to solve the mystery of the death, racing through crypts and catacombs to unravel a conspiracy pointing to a secret society of “free-thinkers,” the Illuminati, who are bent on revenge against the church. The movie is based on the Dan Brown best-seller of the same name, and serves as a sequel to 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code,” also based on a Brown novel, directed by Howard and starring Tom Hanks.
Zurer tends to meticulously research her characters, and she read several books on particle physics in preparation to play Vittoria. But one of her best resources for the film proved to be her own mother, who was separated from her parents at age 5 and raised Catholic for three years in Czechoslovakia.
“I wanted to hear her memories of the priests and the nuns,” said Zurer, who is in her late 30s and lives with her husband and their 4-year-old son in Venice. “I also wanted to learn about the separation from family, because when you lose parents at such a young age, something very intense happens to you, which I thought might happen to my character as well. Perhaps it could have something to do with how Vittoria deals with life — her relentlessness, her independence of thought, her fight for her way, even in the male-dominated world of the Vatican.
“It was fitting that my mother and I had this conversation in Rome, the most Catholic of cities,” Zurer added. Church officials reportedly did not allow the production to shoot in Vatican City, a reaction to what they perceived as church-bashing themes in “The Da Vinci Code.” During one night shoot inside the St. Angelo mausoleum, “someone literally turned the lights out on us,” the actress told Entertainment Weekly.
Howard has actively defended the film, writing on The Huffington Post Web site that “Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie for what it is: an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome.” Zurer also views the story as “a fiction” rather than an anti-Catholic crusade.
After the war, Zurer’s mother was reunited with her parents, former lumber manufacturers who survived the Holocaust in hiding. The family relocated to Tel Aviv, where Zurer was born and raised and pursued acting in high school.
She is now perhaps the most prominent Israeli actress of her generation, winning the 2003 Israeli Oscar for her performance in “Nina’s Tragedies” and playing the role of a sexy but troubled character in the wildly popular Israeli TV series, “Be’Tipul,” now adapted for HBO as “In Treatment.” In 2005, Zurer made her Hollywood debut as the lively wife of a tortured Mossad agent in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” She has since portrayed an alluring assassin in the high-grossing “Vantage Point” and a sadomasochistic nurse in love with Jeff Goldblum in Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected,” which is still on the festival circuit. When Ron Howard cast her in the coveted “Angels & Demons,” it was reportedly over high-profile actresses including Naomi Watts.
Although “The Da Vinci Code” received relatively poor reviews — it grossed more than $750 million worldwide — the sequel is practically guaranteed to kick Zurer’s American career up several notches. Asked about becoming the first Israeli actress to achieve such visibility, she reacts more like the Israeli girl next door than someone who can pick up a phone to call Spielberg or Howard for advice, blushing and pretending to hide her face beneath her shirt collar.
“It’s funny, because I’ve never had a publicist before,” she said over lunch. If she has managed to avoid Hollywood’s stereotyping of Middle Eastern actors as terrorists, it is not because she tried to avoid such parts. “I did play a terrorist in ‘Vantage Point,’ but she was Spanish, not Israeli,” Zurer said. “And I did make a conscious decision to try for very diverse roles, which I think has helped.”
Zurer’s delicate hands gracefully work the air as she describes working with Jeff Goldblum, “an eccentric, hard-working, flirtatious creature;” she recalls Schrader as a “poetic soul” who loaned her his iPod so she could get to know him in a nonverbal way; Hanks as a “wonderful partner who gives an actor space,” and who is a “great listener” on set and off. When Zurer once told him a story while preparing to shoot a scene, he listened so intently that he put his shoes on the wrong feet.
It is remarkable that Zurer pursued acting in the first place, given the intense stage fright she experienced as a teenager. “Even when I was doing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ at Habima [theater] for three years, I would still get really nervous before stepping onstage,” she said. “I could have totally thrown up, that’s how bad it could get, with my heart beating, hands sweating, like the prey before the predator.”
In college, Zurer assumed she would become an illustrator until she spent a month modeling in Japan one summer. During that time, she hung out with a British model who had experienced drug addiction and boyfriend troubles; when she returned to Israel, she was cast as an abused model in a school production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” “Only then did it occur to me how deeply you can go in portraying a character, and how your real-life experiences can be reflected in the theater,” she said.
Zurer studied acting in New York for three years before returning to Israel, where she married in 2003 and gave birth to her son, Liad. “I thought I was just going to be a mother and that my career was pretty much over, but I was content,” she said. She only reluctantly accepted the “Be’Tipul” role, and was even more reluctant when the call came to audition for a filmmaker the casting director described only as “a famous director from America.” “I didn’t have a fax machine to receive the lines, and I was only sleeping four hours a night because of the baby,” she recalled. But she immediately changed her mind when she learned the director was Spielberg.
“Munich” — which depicted Mossad assassins in moral crises — was perhaps even more controversial than “The Da Vinci Code”: “The film was really a peace offering, and I thought it was 15 years ahead of its time,” Zurer said. “It’s an existential piece about human nature, but the media focused on politics because of current events.”
Zurer says the main difference between acting in films here and in Israel is the budget; the costlier American films often allow for more equipment and takes per scene. One day while filming “Angels & Demons,” Zurer was startled to discover that there were four cameras rather than two, but Howard proved understanding and made sure to enlighten the actress about technical issues.
In Israel, less money also means the focus is on intimate stories and family dramas, rather than effects — which translates into more roles for women of every age.
In Hollywood, Zurer acknowledges, youth and beauty are valued, and attending to her own appearance requires more work. She’s taking Pilates to stay in shape and passes up ordering a hamburger and fries for soup and a seaweed salad. But she doesn’t intend to go overboard.
“I see myself primarily as a character actress, although I would love to get other kinds of roles,” she said. Zurer now considers Los Angeles her home and intends to pursue Hollywood projects full time, including a screenplay she is adapting from a novel, which Howard has agreed to read. “You never know how you’re going to get that really big, juicy part,” she explained. “You don’t know how it will come your way.”
“Angels & Demons” opens May 15 in Los Angeles.