A Mossad agent, a Russian spy and an ultra-Orthodox housewife: Israeli actress Neta Riskin is a chameleon on screen. She was nominated for two Israeli Film Academy Ofir Awards. When Netflix launched Shtisel, a TV series about an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, Neta Riskin became famous overnight. With her outstanding interpretation of Giti Weiss, an ultra-Orthodox mother of five who is abandoned by her husband, she conquered the hearts of millions of viewers who had a sceptical attitude towards the Jewish community.
Neta Riskin, tonight you’re going to present the film Shelter at the Yesh Jewish Film Festival in Zurich. How often do you go to film festivals abroad and how important are they for you as an actress and as an ambassador of the Israeli film culture?
I don’t see myself as an ambassador of the Israeli film culture, I don’t play such an important role. I go to film festivals quite often to present my films. I’m glad to say that most of them have been quite successful abroad. Every actor, screenwriter, film director or producer wants to promote his film and present it to a wider audience. There is a renaissance in Israeli cinema and television, and I’m very proud to be part of it. It has a special DNA, which took years to be found. Today, people around the world want to see our films.
In Shelter, an Israeli film released in 2017, you play a Mossad agent who has to protect a Lebanese double agent who worked for the Mossad and who underwent plastic surgery to change her face and identity. What was special about shooting Shelter and how was it to work with Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani?
Everything was special about this film. It was shot in Germany for two months. It was a unique experience and an honour to work with film director Eran Riklis. Meeting the co-star Golshifteh was like meeting the enemy. I had never met a native Iranian and Golshifteh had never met a native Israeli. There was a kind of curiosity and suspicion from both sides. We were very intrigued by each other. But given the fact that we are both actresses, I have more in common with her than with an Israeli banker or lawyer. For two months, we did not only work together but also live together. Therefore, we became very close friends.
Speaking of identities. You hold a dual citizenship, Israeli and Lithuanian. Are you still attached to the country of your parents and grandparents? Do you speak Lithuanian?
No, not at all. I hope my passport won’t get confiscated now that I tell you the truth. (she laughs) My father is from Lithuania and he spoke Russian. But I didn’t learn it.
How did you prepare for your role as a Mossad agent?
I had to learn what it is like to be a real Mossad agent. It’s the opposite of what you would expect. Secret agents are usually portrayed in a very glamorous way, like in a James Bond film. In reality, they must be unnoticeable. A secret agent is always the last person you would suspect. You have to take off your colours. Naomi is introverted and has a post-traumatic disorder, while Mona (Golshifteh Farahani) is extrovert. I don’t play the most important agent in the film, but I work for higher ranked male agents. For years, a tough female spy had to be like a man. Today, it is accepted that the story of a female spy or agent is not less interesting.
You coached Natalie Portman for three months and helped her to improve her Hebrew pronounciation and accent for the film A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015), in which she had to speak like an Israeli housewife in the 1940s. Portman was born in Jerusalem, but raised in the United States. How was it to work as a language teacher with an Oscar award winning actress?
It was a challenge to transform Natalie into an Israeli. I’ve always been fascinated by languages, because you can learn a place and a culture by its language. It also gives you the biggest freedom. If you don’t have a voice, you can’t speak up and you’re not free.
Photos: © Heimatfilm / Gordon Timpen
VIDEO: TRAILER SHELTER