Interview: Actress Yael Grobglas on JeruZalem
The Israeli actress talks filming in Jerusalem and found footage.
If you watch Jane the Virgin you know Yael Grobglas for her outstanding work as the frequent antagonist Petra. But Grobglas is a relative newcomer to American television and spent most of her career working in Israel. This includes work as a scream queen in two Israeli horror films; 2010’s Rabies and this week’s JeruZalem.
Written and directed by the Paz brothers, JeruZalem stars Yael as an American traveling with her best friend Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) when the end of days begin in Jerusalem. The film was shot on location in Jerusalem, including filming at several sites never before seen in a feature film, and use of the first person, found footage approach to the story. I spoke with Grobglas about the movie, acting opposite a camera, and lunching with zombies.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): How did you initially get involved in the film and have the premise and concept described to you?
Yael Grobglas: Well, I initially just had a typical audition and sat down with the directors. And it just so happened that we had a pretty instant connection when they spoke about their ideas. I loved all the ideas they had for the film, and the found footage element is something I’ve always found fascinating because of the way it can draw you in. And I loved that they wanted to take it to the next level by filming in first person, point-of-view. So rather than the character holding a camera, she is wearing smart glasses and that makes it feel like you are really seeing it from a character’s eyes. And adding the fact that they wanted to do a horror movie set in my home country and film in Jerusalem, which is one of the most fascinating cities in the world and has a fascinating history, was such an interesting idea. So the combination of those two things really drew me to the project.
TMS: When filming a found footage movie, especially one like this where the character behind the camera is very involved, does it take some adjusting to how you have to interact with the camera?
Grobglas: Oh definitely. Because one of the first things you are taught as an actor is “don’t look right into the camera.” And I’m used to stopping takes when you accidentally look at the camera, but doing this, I had to throw all those lessons away. And the Paz Brothers were there to say “remember, she’s your best friend.” And that meant acting directly into the camera and having very intimate moments with the camera, because I was acting opposite my best friend, not a camera. But the actress who played Sarah, Danielle Jadelyn, was right next to the camera all the time, but I couldn’t look her in the face. I had to look directly at the camera, but tried to imagine it was her face. And doing that added a whole other layer to acting that I’ve never thought about before and part of what I found so exciting about making this movie.
TMS: You play an American but are actually from Israel, so was it challenging to be speaking English and using that accent when people around you were using your natural accent and speaking the language you’re used to?
Grobglas: Well, I was born in Paris and raised in Israel, and the funny thing is was, this was only my second English speaking role. I filmed it right after I filmed my first American pilot, where I played a girl so American she was actually named America Singer. So I had worked with a dialect coach to do that role. But everything I had done in the past was in Hebrew. I went to drama school in Hebrew and spent 8 or 9 years acting in Israel. So this was a fascinating challenge, but I really got into the character, especially because we were kind of guerilla filming. And that actually helped me stay in character, because like the characters, we felt like we were on an adventure.
TMS: The movie certainly has that guerilla feeling, especially when filming in the streets. Did the directors encourage you to improvise on the streets so you could interact with the real-life locations and people, or did you try to stick close to the script and start and stop filming?
Grobglas: It was actually a little of both. We definitely had a script and filmed that, but we were encouraged to improvise and go with what happened around us without breaking character. And that is why they were able to accomplish so much with such a small budget. They had so much footage by the time we were done.
TMS: Did anything unexpected happen on the streets that you just kept rolling and tried to play it?
Grobglas: We had one woman strike up a conversation with us on the street while filming. The other actress had a helmet on with the camera, and this woman just started talking to us. And it was pretty interesting to try to stay in character when that happened. But all sorts of things happened that we just had to adapt to. I’m claustrophobic, so filming in that cave was pretty intense for me. I’m not afraid of zombies or demons, but I am afraid of walls closing in on me. But, I thinking being in character helped me to not panic, because my character isn’t claustrophobic.
TMS: What were your thoughts on the character of Rachel? She is the more free-spirited of the two, and that dynamic of the two women is such a classic relationship in the horror movie genre, but their friendship is front and center in this film.
Grobglas: I specifically liked that towards the beginning of the film, we are just watching them having fun together. And that provided a lot of build-up and opportunity to get to know them, so when things start to go bad, we have a sense about their relationships. And we care about the relationship between Sarah and Rachel and feel for them.
TMS: I’m sure this has come up a lot, but were most of the creatures in the film practical make-up effects or were they created digitally later on?
Grobglas: It was combination. They hired dancers to play the zombies, and I was in awe watching them move and get into impossible positions. And they were in full body make-up, but had to be so physical and were able to make themselves look inhuman. But stuff like wings were added later using CGI. But watching them look and move like that was kind of terrifying. And the best part was sitting around during our lunch breaks and eating and talking with the actors playing zombies in full make-up.
TMS: Are you a fan of the zombie and horror movie genres?
Grobglas: I’m fortunate enough to have been cast in two Israel horror movies. The first one I did was called Rabies and it did well, we went to Tribeca with it. And then I did this film. But horror movies are still very new in Israel, although they are known to have a great movie industry. But most of the movies which reach international festivals are the serious, political dramas or are about the army. And I feel very fortunate to have been part of two movies which really are just about having fun.
TMS: The movie uses so many historic landmarks which haven’t been photographed in films before. Did the movie give you a chance to play tourist in Jerusalem while filming?
Grobglas: It was the first time I’d gone to some of those places, because even though I’d lived in Israel most of my life, I grew up in Tel Aviv. So when I would come to Jerusalem, I would often feel like a tourist, because it is just this magnetic city and I wasn’t from there. But making this movie, I did think about what it must look like to see the city if you haven’t been to Israel before. It must look even more incredible. So I’m just glad to make a movie which showcases the city and hopefully encourage people to visit Israel.
TMS: The movie doesn’t shy away from the religious aspects of the premise, citing religious texts directly and filming in these religious locations. Were you at all concerned about using those elements people take seriously in the movie?
Grobglas: Jerusalem plays such a large part in the film and is a holy city and has been such an important place for people of many different religions. So I think it would be a shame not to include that in the movie. But I think what the directors managed to do in the movie was to show cultural and religious differences, but stress that bottom line, we are all facing the same things. And I thought that was really beautiful.
TMS: Now that you have consistent work on TV, has that changed the types of movies you do during your off-time?
Grobglas: I actually filmed this before Jane the Virgin. But they are just two completely different mediums, and I do agree that TV has become this incredible platform for telling different types of stories. And Jane the Virgin is one of those shows that I think is very different and unique. The biggest difference between TV and film in terms of acting is the journey you go on with the character. Film is more like theater the way you are with the character from start to finish, and you are telling a specific story about a specific time in their life. But in TV, it is more like I’m living the character and you get to discover new aspects of their character. And you are discovering new things right with them, as they go through them and see how things change them.
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