Listen: ‘Unorthodox’ Star Amit Rahav on Working With Shira Haas, Emmy Buzz and Being a Role Model for LGBTQ Youth

Marc Malkin

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Amit Rahav will never forget seeing himself for the first time in full wardrobe and hair and makeup as Yanky, the Hasidic Jew he plays in the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox.”

“It was wild because I’m very secular and it is quite the opposite of my daily life and style,” Rahav says on this week’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.” “Once I put on the clothes and the payot [the sidelocks that Hasidic men grow], I suddenly felt right. In some way, I got to know the character much better.”

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Based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name, “Unorthodox” stars Shira Haas as Esty, Yanky’s new young wife, who flees her religious community in Brooklyn for a secular life in Berlin. “I read it very quickly because it’s so good,” says Rahav, 24. “It was very important for me to know [Feldman’s] point of view and where she comes from. And she really describes the daily lives in her community. It was very important for my research to get to know as much as I can about their lives there.”

I caught up with Rahav from his home in Israel.

How are you doing?

I’m good. Actually right now it’s starting to get a bit easier [in Israel]. They’re opening some schools only for the first until third grade. So it’s slightly going back to normal life. I’m guessing it will take a few more weeks, but we’ll get there.

“Unorthodox” has been such a hit, but it’s only four episodes. Do you want to do more?

Yes! We had such a good time. We would love to do more.

Tell me about your audition for the show.

It was kind of secretive. We got an audition for “The Orchestra.” This was the name of the project. No one told us anything about Netflix. I just knew that it was for a Hasidic guy from the Satmar community, and I just got two scenes: the first-date scene and one of the bedroom scenes. Then I got to know that I’m doing the audition with Shira. Shira and I have been friends for 10 years. We grew up next to each other. It was so exciting because we were waiting for this opportunity to act with each other. The night before, we were speaking on the phone and did the date scene in Yiddish. We both never spoke Yiddish before and never did a scene in Yiddish. I was in my bedroom speaking with her on the phone, and it did feel like a first date. It did feel very charming. It was magical, this conversation, and we felt this could work. We were crossing fingers for each other: “I wish we would get it. I wish we would do it together.”

How quickly did you have to learn Yiddish?

We had maybe like a month or two. It was very, very difficult and very challenging. But thankfully we had Eli Rosen as our Yiddish dialect coach, and he was there 24/7 helping us and recording himself, and we were listening to all these recordings. I wrote it in English, I wrote it in Hebrew, I wrote the definition, I wrote it in so many ways that I’ve got so many notebooks of the scenes. It really was quite an experience. To act in a different language is something very unique.

Since you and Shira have known each other for 10 years, how did you get comfortable doing the bedroom scenes?

We just jumped into it, literally jumped into it. I must say that on the first take, we didn’t rehearse it. We never did it… We never physically rehearsed it. So in the first take, Shira and I were laughing a bit. But we were hiding behind…the fabric that I’m wearing in my pajamas. So there was like a curtain between us and the camera so we could giggle a bit in the first take. Only the first take, I can promise. Then once we finished the first take, we were like, no focus, it’s important. We were focusing and we got into the zone and we were very determined to do the scene and to give it the respect it deserves. So it was, it was easier after the first take.

What does it feel like when you hear people talk about you possibly getting nominated for an Emmy for your work?

This question is out of this world and I’m very overwhelmed and grateful from the situation and just to be in the talks of it is more than I could ever dream of and I’m just very grateful for this situation only.

In 2016, you made history playing the first character to come out as gay on an Israeli teen show in “Flashback.”

Suddenly there was a kid who comes out as gay on TV for the first time, and he’s … OK with himself. I feel like I was gifted with this role. It was such an honor to portray this role because I feel like it opened a gate to more characters from the LGBTQ community or even from any community to be seen on-screen.

In one interview you talked about coming out to your own family as gay and how they were completely supportive. Did you ever imagine one day you’d not only be out but playing a gay character?

I didn’t think so. But then when I got the character there was like no question for me. It was more than just an acting gig or another role in my career. It’s important for someone to be there and out there and to speak for those kids. And so there was no question with this role.

I’m sure you’ve received a lot of emails and direct messages on social media thanking you. What does it feel like to be a role model for LGBTQ kids?

When the show was on, I got so many messages from kids and teenagers in Israel, and it was the greatest thing you could ask for because people were really sharing with me their secrets and their lives and how complicated it is and how the show is giving them air to breathe. I got very emotional from each message.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Hear it in its entirety below. You can also find “The Big Ticket” on iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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