Actress Shelly Skandrani talks about her role in ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic,’ her personal inspirations, and what’s next.
Tell us about your background; how did you begin your acting career? I was born in Israel and when I was seven my family moved to London. I think for me acting was a way of connecting with people, of overcoming language barriers and different upbringings and just communicating through the interaction of the characters. You almost get to know people better when you see them act with you on a stage. Everything is heightened.
So I started young, when I was nine, in the theaters of London, any play that needed child actors, I was in it. I spend eight months out of the year in rehearsals after school, on weekends, and winter/summer breaks. I performed about forty shows per production on two productions a year. I was very devoted. It was fun and exciting, and it felt important. Even as a child I could see the morals of the stories I was telling and the effect they had on the audience.
You are most well-known for your critically acclaimed role in Showtime’s popular Holocaust film ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic’ starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy, and produced by Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers. Describe the process you underwent to prepare for this role, namely shaving your head on camera to portray a young bride whose wedding ceremony is destroyed when Nazi soldiers invade her Polish village and carry her and her community to concentration camps. Well, honestly, nothing can prepare you for what we did in that film, and nothing can prepare a sixteen year old girl for the moment she looks in the mirror and her hair is gone. But of course I didn’t know that before hand and so I tried to prepare nonetheless.
Firstly, I read up about the holocaust, and saw documentaries. Being Jewish myself, I obviously already knew a lot about it and also had family friends who were survivors, but I still wanted to read more. Also I had to start working on my Polish accent, I’d never acted with an accent till then, so that was an interesting challenge!
But once I was there, everything hit me on a very emotional and physical level, and all the “knowledge” I had took a back seat.
Unlike acting on a stage, there’s no audience, and no fourth wall, everyone around you is in character. The director (Donna Deitch) also had clever ways of making sure the cameras weren’t visible, so most of the time it just felt absolutely real. I’d never experienced that before. It was my first film.
We were pushed and shoved into trucks on my character’s wedding day, we were pulled into rooms and “tattooed”, we were pushed outside into the snow wearing underwear and a thin blanket, then forced onto a chair and had our heads shaved. For real. And when the director yelled “cut” and I ran my fingers through my hair to “fix it” I realized it was gone! Those were real tears, that was real fear, we were really cold, and tired, and distraught.
The miracle is that because all the main actors were from America and England, we were all far away from home, and so we were in the same boat and we bonded, so at the end of the day we managed to pull each other out of it, brush it off and relax. But we were in the trenches together, and no amount of preparation would have helped me shape my character more than actually experiencing what I did and allowing myself to be engulfed in it and connected to it emotionally.
You were born in Tel Aviv, Israel and grew up in London, England. What has this mixture of cultures brought to you, and how has it influenced you? That’s a great question. I’m a big melting pot of cultures, I’ve also been in Los Angeles for nine years and so that has changed me as well.
I think being Israeli makes me a very expressive person, I like to communicate and clarify everything, which really helps when I’m acting because I’m not shy about revealing myself within my characters and I enjoy digging deeper and deeper into the story.
It also makes me very accessible when talking to directors, I have no problem asking them what they’re looking for, or talking about intimate and private life experiences that might help fuel my character or intensify the scene. I’m very open and usually confident. I’m also able to play very dominating and strong characters that might not usually be given to women my age.
Growing up in London brings out completely different aspects of my personality. British people are more sensitive and nuanced, there are ways in which people must behave, a more contained aspect, which enables me to work more internally with my characters, and bring out the more vulnerable sides of myself.
Of course there’s a huge demand for history and knowledge of the classics in England, and so I find that I’m more prone to research and development of my characters. There’s a certain pedestal effect in England, where the craft is something to be admired and actors are held with great regard and it inspires me to constantly grow and learn, rather than rest comfortably on my laurels.
And now in America I’m learning to be more bold, to fear less, to take risks, to promote myself. Of course I’m also older so my view and understanding of the world as a whole has expanded and I like to bring that knowledge to my acting as well.
I think in general, the more life experience you have the more you have to offer to the arts, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters how much you allow yourself to jump into the world and soak it in.
What do you find most inspiring about the work you do? I think what inspires me the most is the idea that I can reach out to people with a message.
Knowing that I can expand people’s understanding of the world through my work excites me, that I can influence someone for the better, or inspire, comfort, console and uplift them. It’s the connection to my community and society that really inspires me.
That’s why I’m quite selective with the roles I take on, I always make sure they align with my integrity as an artist and as a woman.
“I’m quite selective with the roles I take on, I always make sure they align with my integrity as an artist and as a woman.”
What is a typical day-in-the life like when on and off the set? I think that’s what’s hard for most people to fathom about the film industry is that there is no typical day. There are days where I’m working sixteen hours straight and there are days where I have “nothing” to do. I say nothing in quotations, because when you’re an actress there’s always something to do; update my website, email old contacts, email new contacts, read books, take classes, submit to auditions, go to auditions, go to meetings, networking events, exercise, photoshoots … the list is endless.
The trick is to learn to balance it all, otherwise it becomes quite an emotional rollercoaster. Imagine one week you’re shooting a film, everything is exciting, there’s adrenaline, emotions, intensity, it’s fast pace, you’re meeting new people and having fun… then suddenly the next day… nothing.
You can find yourself feeling empty, after such a high. So it’s important to wake up and get to work. Usually after a shoot I’ll be shut up in my house for two days on my lap top catching up with emails and audition submissions, and doing some yoga so my body can recover from working long hours. Once in a while I’ll get a good massage too.
What’s important to me, and I’m trying to do more, is to find quality time for friends, as well as the outdoors, like hiking, or yoga in the park, it helps me stay grounded so that I can come back to set fueled and ready to go!
I also like to read a book for a half hour before bed so I can switch my brain off, that way I sleep much better and can focus longer the next day.
What book is on your nightstand? “The God of Small Things” written by Arundhati Roy.
It’s a story about the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by an event that happens to them. I won’t reveal too much, but I’m really enjoying the way she develops the whole family history, all the relationships between the parents and grandparents to show us how it all shaped the journey leading up to that event. It’s beautiful, and dark.
I tried reading this book years ago in Hebrew but it was too difficult, the sentences are long and intricate, the metaphors are complex, it’s much easier for me in English.
Actually it’s a typical type of book for me in some ways. I spent several months traveling in India, so I enjoy books with stories about that culture. I also enjoy looking into the affects that childhood and family have on a person as they become an adult. It fascinates me!
Best advice you’ve ever received? I’ve probably received a lot of good advice but what springs to mind is something my brother told me when I finished college.
He said that I have chosen a risky path, that there will be ups and downs, times when I’m overwhelmed with work and other time that I’ll have nothing going on and I will question whether to quit the arts and get a regular job.
He said, work really hard when the work is there, know that you can handle it and just keep going. However, when it’s not, enjoy your life! Don’t sit at home worrying about when the next job will come in, travel, play, go out, meet people and rest. That way, when the next job comes in you’ll be inspired, you’ll be happy and you’ll be ready to take it on.
To this day, every time I have a few weeks between projects, I find a weekend to travel, or have fun. That way I’m always being inspired by the world, and being productive doing things that make me happy.
What is your next great endeavor – personally and professionally? There’s so much! I just acted in a pitch for an HBO competition for Women in Comedy. Natalie Marciano, who’s a comical genius, brought me on board. The idea is to get her directing work and my acting work noticed and use the pitch to start a conversation about some TV shows she wrote and wants me to act in. I’m super excited about it, they’re editing it as we speak, she sent me a sneak peak and it’s hilarious! I haven’t done a lot of Television in comparison to film and theater work, and I’d love to sink my teeth into a cool role and see it develop over the seasons!
And then there’s an online talk show called “Black Sheep Revelations” which I’m co-hosting, it’s also being edited and that will be a funny and witty take on being individual and developing self acceptance and empowerment in our viewers. We will approach current subjects and digest them through our “Black Sheep” point of view. It’ll be hilarious!
There’s a few more projects, but I can’t reveal all of them yet, which is really annoying but is totally understandable.
On a personal note. I’m hoping to travel again soon, some time between the films that are coming up. Africa has been a huge dream of mine since I was a child, I’d love to spend a couple of months there, traveling, experiencing, connecting to new cultures and learning more about the world. Maybe I’ll even connect with a non-profit and help teach kids, or build communities in some way. I’m looking into my options. It will literally be a dream come true!
Image credit: Emad Asfoury