When Michael Aloni first read the script for Shtisel, he felt it was so good – “I almost kissed the pages,” he sighs. Yet in spite of being charmed by its brilliance, the actor had only one thought: “Who is going to watch this? It’s not like any other hit show, and it isn’t sexy. So I just accepted we’d make something good and no one would watch it.”
But Michael was wrong. The series about the Orthodox community in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim was an award-winning hit after it aired in Israel in 2013. When Netflix started streaming it last December, tens of thousands around the globe got hooked on the Charedi kitchen sink drama and besotted with the handsome Michael, who has turned a painter with payot into a pin-up.
Remarkably, even the Charedi community were beguiled by him, with some believing that Akiva the artist was the real deal.
“Before making the show we lived with a Charedi family for research, studying all the rules, the prayers, and body language,” says the 35-year-old actor, who is disarmingly good-looking in real life and charmingly self-effacing.
“I’m a pretty well-known face in Israel from hosting The Voice, but they didn’t know me in Mea She’arim and we were able to shoot the first season undercover with a hidden camera inside a vehicle and a phone mic in our ears for instructions.”
But blending in as part of the black hat crowd was not as simple during the making of season two.
“Places vary in levels of orthodoxy, depending on how closed they are, and while there are signs in the neighbourhood saying ‘no internet’ and ‘no television’, they had a kosher WhatsApp group and found a pirate route to downloading the series. So for the second season they were all shouting ‘Akiva, Hello Akiva’ and some of them thought I was really an artist and wanted to arrange shidduchs.
“I got requests in my Shtisel inbox from mothers claiming to have wonderful daughters and they had no problem with them marrying a poor artist.”
Just as viewers applied for jobs at the Crossroads motel in the 1970s, invites also went out in Mea She’arim for Shulem’s wedding and a bereavement notice followed when his mum, Bube Malka – olav ha shalom – died.
The tribulations of Shulem, as portrayed by veteran star Dov Glickman (in full beard), were all-consuming in much the same way that Akiva abandoning his art for Libbi made us cry.
“Things became so real,” laughs Michael, who took his role as the gifted portraitist seriously enough to take lessons in shadow art from Alex Tubis, the man really responsible for Akiva’s gift.
The Akiva self-portraits are the only mementoes Michael took from the set, but he felt having them on his wall at home was a step too far.
That the actor, who many describe as the ‘new Paul Newman’, immerses himself in a role is a mark of his dedication, and he brought the same mindset to portraying a gay lawyer in love with a Palestinian in the film Out of the Dark and a cancer-riddled soldier in When Heroes Fly.
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As a former Israel Defence Forces member, the latter was close to his heart as he has his own band of brothers and is very involved with NATAL,
a charity helping soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a theme in the series.
“PTSD is not a scar you can see,” he says, waving a bandaged finger. “This was a stupid accident that was dealt with in a day at the hospital, but that isn’t how it works for these soldiers. The disorder is something they have to live with. When Heroes aired, people started calling the NATAL hotline and talking about trauma they had not even spoken to their wives about. So, besides the ratings and success, it gave huge awareness to a situation that was ignored by the government.”
Switching from intense drama to the live entertainment format of The Voice is a “joy” for Michael who will weave hosting the search for a singer with performing Martin Sherman’s play Bent at Tel Aviv’s Bertonov theatre this summer. And having directed his first film – a short, Shir – he is now looking for funding to make another. There’s also his next lead role in the film Happy Times, which is now in post-production: “I think of it as a dark comedy, but the director thinks of it as an apocalyptic view of the world,” grins Michael, who eagerly awaits the verdict. “To play different people and invade their worlds, that is what I love about being an actor.
“To be able to infiltrate a society I’ve never been part of, and adopt a new language, different codes and body language, I just love that. For Shtisel, we had to learn Yiddish, as Hebrew is barely spoken in Mea She’arim. So I imitated their speech patterns and brought a whole set of different, emotional values to Akiva. I’m sure if I were to go to Manchester and meet a kid who grew up there, I would be able to do the same thing.”
Having performed a flat vowel Mancunian accent and a posh English one that would pass muster at Downton Abbey – “I would love to be in that!” he exclaims – he slips into a mid-Atlantic roll and is delighted when I tell him he sounds American. What’s more, people are even starting to know who he is there. “On the subway in New York they recognise me,” he says, which suggests that the heavy clothes and subdued Akiva demeanour did not distract from his heart-throb potential.
Dikla Barkai, the brilliant producer who leads every aspect of the series, half-jokes: “We have to make a third season of Shtisel before Michael runs away to becomes a movie star.
“We looked at many actors to get the perfect Shulem and wondered who could play the beautiful boy Akiva. Michael was that person, as he is very human and very sensitive.”
Michael, who regularly posts online surfing selfies and pictures of his dog, has definitely won over the women, including the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who tweeted her approval. So imagine the commotion when Shtisel co-writer Yehonatan Indursky (Ori Elon is the other) announced, when he appeared in London, that a third season was happening. “The response from people all over the world has been so exciting we feel we have to do another,” says Dikla. “But the TV process is slow and nothing is confirmed, even in Israel. Just the writing of it takes a year or more.”
Dikla always wanted the world to see the Israeli-created series before a US version appears from Friends creator Marta Kauffman, who bought the rights. “Viewers are so emotional about our show, their reaction is like a love letter,” sighs Dikla.
“A third season will be our letter back.” Here’s hoping Michael Aloni hand-delivers it.