Losing Alice star Ayelet Zurer on how Apple TV+ thriller series plays off perceptions of what it is to be a woman

Ayelet Zurer, who portrays the title character of an erotic thriller director in the Apple TV+ show, describes her role as a phoenix, who 'burns everything down in order to create and rebuild.'

The New York Times January 28, 2021 11:46:59 IST
Losing Alice star Ayelet Zurer on how Apple TV+ thriller series plays off perceptions of what it is to be a woman

In Losing Alice, a new Israeli psychological thriller on Apple TV+, a once-edgy film director named Alice Ginor is about to mount a career comeback. For too long, her talent has atrophied as she took paycheck gigs, like directing yoghurt commercials so that she could raise a family with her movie-star husband, David (Gal Toren).

But her zest for life is renewed by a chance encounter with a sexy young screenwriter named Sophie (Lihi Kornowski) and an opportunity to direct a new movie, which ends up being difficult (it stars her husband) and possibly dangerous (the original director goes missing, and some disturbing violence in the script begins to seem less like fiction). Is Alice willing to risk her family and her marriage to make this movie?

Israeli American actress Ayelet Zurer, known for series like Daredevil and BeTipul (remade in America as In Treatment), struggled with the Losing Alice script at first, unsure how to portray the complex title character. Things clicked, she said, when she realized that Alice is not a victim but simply a woman who is compelled to make some unusual choices, even if some are self-destructive. This comes through in Zurer’s expressive performance, in the way she can sell devastation and pride in a single look as Alice surrenders to her creative hunger.

“I think people are going to think, as I did, that there is a sense of victimisation and then realise, ‘Oh, it went a whole other way,’” Zurer said. “I think they will realise it’s actually very feminist forward.”

During a phone call last week from her home in Los Angeles, Zurer discussed diving into an intense role and why so many people in Losing Alice answer the door in their underwear. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve worked with many notable directors, including Steven Spielberg (Munich), Ron Howard (Angels & Demons) and Zack Snyder (Man of Steel), but few female ones. Did you draw upon anyone you’ve worked with in order to portray Alice?

Sigal Avin, who created Losing Alice, was the third female director in my whole career. That was a very different experience for me because of how she is as a person — very honest and unassuming and trustworthy. There is a sense of deeper friendship in some way that I hadn’t had before. I’ve worked with amazing directors, but I really watched her more than I watched anyone else, to use her for Alice, since she was right there by my side.

There was one moment where I was in awe of Sigal, although this is a reflection of how I perceive women in this field. We had a scene on a train, and the wrong train arrived. It wasn’t what she expected or asked for or imagined. And because the style of the show was so important, and she didn’t let go of any detail, they stopped shooting. She said, “No, I’m not filming this,” and we went home for the night. That has never happened to me on any set. That was such a profound moment to see how she decided that — no apologies, no guilt, no drama. It was just, “No.” And I thought: “That’s Alice. That’s Alice at her best.” If I say no, I feel guilty, you know what I mean? (Laughs.) So Sigal was deep inside of Alice — how she talked, how she behaved, how she responded to certain things.

Losing Alice star Ayelet Zurer on how Apple TV thriller series plays off perceptions of what it is to be a woman

A still from Losing Alice

Not only is Losing Alice about a female director, but it’s about a female director known for erotic thrillers. Did you do any research in that area? Did you watch any female-directed thrillers or erotica?

A: I watched Erika Lust movies. The reason I watched Erika Lust (an indie erotica filmmaker) was that I wanted to understand the early film that Alice did that changed the writer Sophie Marciano’s perception of femininity and sexuality — Sophie talks about reenacting a moment from it. I wondered what was so extreme in that movie that made Alice who she was. I had to find something extreme to sit in my mind.

But for Alice as a whole, I watched Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, All About Eve and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool. Those were the things that were in my mind, mostly.

Body image and voyeurism form a big part of this series. Alice is not happy with her body in the beginning, while Sophie’s body is constantly on display. And curiously, a lot of people answer the door in their underwear.

(Laughs.) They do. It all begins with self-image. For Alice, it plays off where she’s at emotionally, the fact that she doesn’t feel fulfilled. It’s a feeling of suffocation. And I can tell you from my personal experience, it wasn’t easy. I used to be very skinny and athletic. I would dance and do Pilates. And a few years ago, I had an injury, and I wasn’t able to quite exercise. It created a huge shift in my life.

When I got to set, I made a choice not to thin myself, not to exercise for this part, because I felt like this is exactly the body that this woman would have — not necessarily feeling great being in her underwear. That’s exactly how Alice feels. The whole idea of almost no makeup, no hair done, looking the way I do when I wake up in the morning being the way that I am on screen — that was sometimes uncomfortable, too. It was actually an interesting, strange moment that the women on set were conveying to me that I was beautiful no matter what.

The people in their underwear, it adds to the sense of voyeurism. Alice’s house has old glass on one side, and you see people getting naked, people getting in and out of showers. Losing Alice is a genre piece, but it’s also naturalistic at the same time. And seeing people in this way plays into the sense of perception — how we perceive others, how others perceive us. It adds to the sense of growing your sexuality along the way. You see Alice becoming stronger when she moves from the T-shirts and underwear into the uniform of a working woman. There’s less of her being there, the more sexual and the more powerful she is. Those body image scenes were the hardest for me, though.

Losing Alice star Ayelet Zurer on how Apple TV thriller series plays off perceptions of what it is to be a woman

A still from Losing Alice

When Alice and Sophie start bonding, they take a nighttime boat ride, and Sophie strips off her clothes and dives into the water. Alice resists joining at first, although 10 years ago, she says, she would have right away. It suggests that Alice used to be a lot like Sophie.

That was a night shoot, and we had to jump from the boats into the water, but at that particular time, there were tons of jellyfish in the water. We feared that night so much! Not only do you jump into the darkness of the ocean, but you jump into an ocean of jellyfish. The producers kept saying: “Don’t worry. We’re taking you to a place where the jellyfish are not coming in,” and when we got there, sure enough, they point the light into the water, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them! And the actress who plays Sophie, Lihi, has a phobia of jellyfish, and she had to play a person who was jumping happily into that water! Luckily, we had someone in the water to help us jump on a paddle board right after, so no one got stung.

At times it seems as if Alice wants to disrupt her own life, like when she directs her husband in an explicit sex scene. What do you think she hopes to achieve?

I think it’s weirdly unresolved. It was almost like a counterphobia, where she goes right into her fear. There is a very thin line between counterphobia and self-destruction, but her process is destruction in order to create. It’s almost like — how do you say it in English? The bird of fire?

The phoenix?

Yeah, that’s how I eventually thought of it. She burns everything down in order to create and rebuild. She’s swimming in a dangerous zone because she believes that’s how she’s going to get the absolute best thing. I know that once you get to the end, you might judge Alice. I just wanted her to have the benefit of the doubt through the emotional space that she was in.

There are all kinds of perceptions of what it is to be a woman, and Sigal is playing off those judgments. We judge by prototypes. If a female is young, beautiful and free, how can she be a good writer? That’s what Alice struggles with. And as the audience, if you see someone behaving a certain way, you think the story must be going a certain way. If you see a female muse, you immediately assume the director and the muse will be lovers. That’s really what you think the show is going for, right at the beginning.

I find it interesting to show the way women are these days. We sort of have to juggle between the life we want and what we have. And the idea of being in a certain place in your life where you seem to have everything, but have a passion to express yourself, and then along comes this creature who ignites a fire underneath you. If you can feed off them, then what happens to you morally? That speaks to me a lot. It’s unique in the sense of presenting women who go for what they want and are unapologetic about that.

Jennifer Vineyard c.2021 The New York Times Company

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