Film & TV

Shira Haas of 'Unorthodox' on Rising to Fame During a Lockdown

While the world was locked-down, actress Shira Haas became an overnight star. Her performance as Esther, a Hasidic girl who escapes her ultra-religious community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for Berlin has catapulted the Israeli actress to Hollywood’s A-list.
Reading time 6 minutes

Photography Dudi Hasson

Styling Noa Rennert

In the hit Netflix limited series Unorthodox, viewers step into the ultra-conservative confines of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Israeli actress Shira Haas plays a petite young woman named Esther Shapiro who becomes disillusioned with her faith and chooses to flee, just as her mother once did, to Berlin, Germany. The first scenes in which Esther escapes Brooklyn play more like a spy thriller than a girl sneaking away to a new city. And at first assessment, it’s not a story that most of us would find relatable, but in moments of immeasurable risk, stark transformation, unexpected self-discovery, and even buying a first pair of jeans, you would be hard-pressed not to see a piece of yourself in Shira Haas’ amazing portrayal of Esther.

The 25-year-old actress, with her small frame and unique saucer-like eyes, gives a performance layered with the sort of nuanced emotion that can’t be taught, and with tens of millions viewers tuning in, the world took note of her massive talent. But as the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped everyone’s lives, Haas has experienced a truly peculiar new relationship with stardom as she rocketed from a locally revered star, perhaps known best for her role in the Israeli television drama Shtisel, to one of the world’s most buzz-worthy actresses-basically overnight.

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“I remember going onto my balcony with my coffee while everyone was in lockdown, and looking into other homes and seeing myself on their TV screens while they were watching Unorthodox,” Haas recalls through stunned laughter during a video chat from her apartment in Tel Aviv. “I swear, and it didn’t happen just one time, it was a few times, like when I went to hang up my laundry to dry or something, so I sort of felt like [my character] was my neighbor.” 

Unlike other on-screen talents her age, her fame, thus far, has largely been devoid of its peripheral trappings. In isolation, red carpet premieres, a breakneck travel schedule, and millions of eyes prying into her personal life haven’t been able to crop up. For now, she remains at home, watching her star rise as the world stands still.

“It’s weird, because when I go out now I wear a mask, so they see my eyes and they start to look closer, but they don’t have enough time to put it together,” she adds. “I think the fact that I could still feel the love for the show, but remain at home sort of helped me process it. I just got to enjoy it, and take it in, and instead of maybe getting overwhelmed, I just felt the love, and was very grateful for it.”

Eventually, once film and television production make their inevitably triumphant return, there is no question that Haas will be a shoo-in for future leading roles. When asked whom she may like to collaborate within the coming years on the big and small screen, she is noticeably strained by the weight of possibility. “It’s a never-ending list,” she exclaims. “This is such an impossible question for an actor!” She lists names of women like Sofia Coppola, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep, the sort of strong, female leads who know that acting isn’t simply reading from a script, and like them, Haas becomes her character, remaining acutely aware of the work beyond her own role. 

When the creators of Unorthodox asked that she shave her head to show the transformative moment in a married Orthodox Jewish woman’s life when she begins wearing a Sheitel wig to cover their head, Haas fully committed to the scene, mixing her joyous newlywed smile with stifled, heart-wrenching tears as the electric razor sheers her locks. During our conversation, her hair is still growing back.   

Before filming, Haas spends time getting in touch with her characters too. She amasses playlists, poems, imagery, psychological analyses, and other assorted pieces of inspiration that end up tacked onto the walls of her living room. “I’m a nerd, so I love doing the research and learning,” she confesses. Currently, these include a screenshot of Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) from the long-running HBO series Six Feet Under exclaiming “News flash, other people exist!”… a blurry capture of Marilyn Monroe kicking a soccer ball… a pithy magazine clipping that simply reads “Darling, you’re different."

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There are more frivolous surroundings too, including a clothing rack of ensembles and gowns selected for the premieres of Unorthodox, as well as Asia, an independent film directed by Ruthy Pribar that garnered Haas an award for “Best Actress” at this year’s digitally-produced Tribeca Film Festival.

“I wear mostly simple outfits during the day, so I really enjoy those events,” she confesses, and while she continues to support local designers and retail shops within her Tel Aviv community much like her career, her view toward fashion has become distinctly more global. “As for international brands, there’s Louis Vuitton, and McQueen, and of course Chanel, which are all brands that I’ve gotten to try recently,” she says. “Obviously, now I love them.” 

And with her next projects kept firmly under wraps for the time being, it seems as if the next time the public will catch a glimpse of Haas – the one so many of us have become enamored with during the peak of this global isolation – is at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, where she plans to turn heads and most likely leave with a Best Actress trophy.

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Presented in partnership with Chanel

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