How Daniella Kertesz Transforms Into Orthodox, Bipolar Racheli Warburg on the Hit Show ‘Shtisel’
How do you solve a problem like Racheli? You’re Daniella Kertesz, you’ve starred opposite Brad Pitt in World War Z, and you’ve been in countless other TV and film productions, but now you’ve got a challenge unlike any other in your acting career.
The writers of Shtisel have approached you to play the part of a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, young Jewish woman who happens to be an art dealer and also happens to be bipolar.
You grew up in Jerusalem, not far from the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood where the show takes place. But you grew up in a secular Jewish family and a secular Jewish world, so the specific traits of an ultra-Orthodox woman don’t exactly come naturally.
What do you do?
For the uninitiated, Shtisel is an international television phenomenon. Who imagined that a drama about the lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews could capture the rapt interest not just of Israelis, where the show is produced, but of viewers around the world?
Shtisel is the top-rated program in Israel and is also extremely popular in the United States, Western Europe and anywhere that screens can be found. Ironically, the one place where Shtisel is seldom seen is the Jerusalem neighborhood where it takes place, because people in Geula don’t watch popular entertainment.
So how do you create a character like Racheli Warburg who fits effortlessly into her ultra-Orthodox milieu?
“I had worked with the writers, Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky, before,” recounts Kertesz, “and I was certainly familiar with the show. They brought me in for the third season, and by then, it was already an international hit. The show is written beautifully and sensitively, and the writers gave me a lot of clues about how Racheli, my character, was to live her life.”
In order to prepare for the role, Kertesz said she had to forget everything that she knew from her secular upbringing and instead watched a lot of documentaries about ultra-Orthodox life, “as if I didn’t know anything about it,” she says.
“Normally, if it weren’t for COVID, I could have just spent a lot of time wandering through the neighborhoods of Geula and Mea She’arim and seen things for myself, as if I were a spy. But even if you were going through those neighborhoods, there is still plenty that you will never see.”
Specifically, Kertesz says, she was most interested in how single women in the Haredi world conduct themselves on dates.
“They don’t go to bars, or movies, and there is absolutely no physical contact prior to marriage,” Kertesz says. “Instead, they will go to a café or a hotel lobby and sit and talk for hours. I wanted to understand how the women sit, how they hold themselves, how they hold their hands. These subtleties make the character credible, so that was the beginning of my ‘research’ for the role.”
The fact that Racheli is bipolar added another level of complexity to her preparation.
“Racheli’s manic state will look different from that of a different person with bipolar,” Kertesz says. “I was trying to find the right notes to hit, so she doesn’t appear drunk or out of it. Instead, she’s buzzing from the inside, and she has trouble containing it. That’s what I was aiming for.
“The moment before they call ‘Action,’ I have to bring that energy in my body so I can play the role properly,” she adds. “I can psych myself into the character forever, but if my body doesn’t react, then I’m not being the character from the inside out. I have to make my body believe that I’m in that state, so that my mind will follow.”
Filming in Jerusalem is not like filming in any other city, Kertesz laughs.
“At one point,” she recalls, “we were shooting a scene where I’m walking down the street in my manic state, and the camera is tracking me. An Israeli man saw me and said, rather disdainfully, ‘You’re acting like you’re in a movie! Snap out of it!’ That probably wouldn’t happen in Paris or New York.”
Kertesz cites her training with fabled Parisian acting teacher Jacques Lecoq, who trained actors to think about their characters in terms of what animal their characters are most like.
“From Lecoq,” Kertesz says, “I learned to study how animals move. We would actually go to the zoo and study animals and then take back what we learned to our class. Racheli is a water creature, a bird who can be in water and can also fly. That’s something else I bring to the experience of being Racheli.”
“My initial training in the arts was as a dancer, so I’m always asking myself, how does my body touch the ground? What’s my relationship to the ground? Is it light? Is it heavy? That helps me understand how Racheli moves,” she continues. “And I work with music. I have a playlist of party songs for her manic side, and a list of heavy songs for her depressed moments.”
Kertesz says that in the Haredi world, everything has a justification, and everything that she does has to match up perfectly with the way the Haredim live their lives.
“When I’m on a date,” she notes, “the door never closes. There’s a reason for that. A couple cannot be alone in a room, according to Orthodox Jewish law. When you walk into the room, you kiss the mezuzah—a small box containing a parchment with Biblical scripture on it—but you have to do it a certain way. We had a religious consultant who made sure I was kissing the mezuzah the right way. You’d think that someone in Israel would know how to kiss a mezuzah! But that’s why the show works so well, because there is such focus on detail.”
Kertesz says that when she first learned the character was bipolar, she called the director and explained that she did not want to play a mental patient or victim. The director explained that that was not how they were approaching the character at all.
“We’re doing someone who has it together, who handles it,” Kertesz recalls being told. “She’s self-sufficient. She’s an art dealer. She’s not ashamed of her diagnosis.”
Put all that together, and then add the costuming, and you’ve solved the problem of how to play Racheli.
“I can do all the work at home to prepare,” Kertesz says, “but then put me in an unrevealing, restraining dress and high heels, and everything comes together. It’s an amazing show, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
“Is this the biggest acting challenge I’ve ever faced? Definitely. And in many ways, it’s the most satisfying.”