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Billy Crystal plays a rabbi in the indie drama “Untogether”

By Stephen Silver

(JTA) – On the surface, “Untogether” is a drama about a pair of young women struggling to come into their own as adults in contemporary Los Angeles. While that setup may sound mind-numbingly familiar to fans of American indie film, “Untogether” – which debuted Friday, Feb. 15 in theaters in several cities as well as on demand – is different from the norm in a couple of key ways.

Billy Crystal as a rabbi in “Untogether.” (Freestyle Digital Media)

First, the film is very Jewish for the genre, both in theme and cast. Second, it represents the anticipated film debut of Jewish writer Emma Forrest, the British-American journalist and novelist who wrote an acclaimed memoir, “Your Voice in My Head,” back in 2011 (it covered, among other things, her relationship with movie star Colin Farrell). She wrote the “Untogether” screenplay and directed the movie.

Real-life sisters Jemima Kirke (best known for her role in Lena Dunham’s “Girls”) and Lola Kirke (best known for roles in “Mistress America” and “Mozart in the Jungle”) play the main characters. Jemima’s character is an ex-junkie and aspiring writer who is dating a doctor-turned-war-memoirist played by “Fifty Shades of Grey” heartthrob Jamie Dornan. Her sister, a masseuse, is dating a much older rock star (Ben Mendelsohn, to whom Forrest was formerly married) but soon finds herself drawn to a liberal rabbi played by Crystal, who’s even older.

“Untogether” marks the first time Crystal has ever played a rabbi in a movie.

In addition to Crystal, “Dirty Dancing” star Jennifer Grey has a small role in the film, as does Scott Caan (son of Jewish actor James Caan). The Kirke sisters have a Jewish mother and Israeli grandmother.

Lola Kirke in synagogue in a scene from “Untogether.” (Freestyle Digital Media)

Several scenes are set in a synagogue, and at one point, one character suggests that another has “copy-edited the Torah.” The rabbi character, Forrest said, is inspired by an “amalgamation” of Los Angeles rabbis, including David Wolpe, Mordecai Finley and Sharon Brous.

While the film is Forrest’s first to be produced, it was far from her first screenplay. In fact, she’s spent several years in Los Angeles as a screenwriter, and had two different films for which she wrote screenplays fall apart shortly before production. She was able to get the film financed, with herself as director, by agreeing to a low budget and by getting Dornan, then in the middle of the “Fifty Shades” series, on board to star. She described it as “a small film, just with people talking in rooms.”

The London-born Forrest became a music journalist when she was a teenager, later writing three novels and then her memoir before getting into screenwriting. “Untogether” isn’t 100 percent autobiographical, but Forrest did incorporate various inspirations from her own life.

“Yes, in the sense that I take things that have happened to me, or I wish things that had happened to me, or things that happened to me where I wish I could change the ending,” she said.

One big thing that inspired her was her Jewish background. Raised in a Jewish family in London, Forrest wrote in her memoir about how affected she was, at a very low moment in her life, by a synagogue sermon delivered by the well-known Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. She described Wolpe as “a real moral force” and added that “certainly Billy’s character is the one in the piece who has the strongest moral clarity.”

“[Being Jewish] is a massive part of who I am,” she said. “In the time of my life a long time ago when I didn’t like myself, it was one of the things that I did like about myself … When you’re struggling with how to stay alive, it’s helpful to recognize [that you are] singing the same songs that people had sung a thousand years earlier. And part of that choosing to stay alive was carrying on a bloodline.”

Crystal at first passed on the part, but a rewrite ultimately got him on board, and Forrest said she got valuable input from him, which “really enriched the script and the film.”

As for the Kirke sisters, Forrest knew that she wanted real sisters playing sisters. She also praised the acting the Kirkes do, particularly with their faces.

“[They] have really lively, interesting faces. It has to be a face that you want to stay with. It means a face where you can feel what’s happening underneath the surface,” Forrest said.

As for the line about copy-editing the Torah, Forrest said that came from her own observations about how, as the character says in the film, “there are too many ‘and’s’” in Jewish prayer texts.

“I think that’s from me,” she said.


Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross nominated for NAACP Image Awards


(JTA) – The NAACP Image Awards are an annual celebration of the accomplishments of people of color in film, television, music and literature. First presented in 1968, the ceremony is celebrating  50th anniversary this year, on March 30. Announced on Feb. 13th, here are the nominees who are also Jewish, or have a Jewish connection.

“BlacKkKlansman,” the Spike Lee film that deals with antisemitism in addition to anti-black racism, is up for seven awards, including for best film, ensemble cast, writing, and directing. Lee recently told JTA that the Jewish character of Flip Zimmerman made “this a better story to tell.”

Tracee Ellis Ross is nominated as outstanding actress in a comedy series for her role in the ABC sitcom “Black-ish.” She has won before in this category – for the last four years straight.

Rashida Jones‘s film “Quincy” about her father, music icon Quincy Jones, received two nominations, including a nod for Rashida’s directing.

“RBG,” the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is nominated for outstanding documentary.

“Saturday Night Live,” created and run by the Canadian-Jewish producer Lorne Michaels, was nominated for best variety show.


‘The Band’s Visit,’ Drake win Grammy Awards

(JTA) – “The Band’s Visit,” the Tony Award-winning musical set in an Israeli village, added a Grammy Award to its list of accolades and Jewish rapper Drake also won a Grammy for best rap song. The musical, which is based on a 2007 Israeli film, won for best musical theater album during the live award presentation on Sunday night, Feb. 10. The show is leaving Broadway in April, but will go on national tour.


‘Game of Thrones’ actress to star in Israeli horror film


By Gabe Friedman/(JTA) – Lena Headey, the English actress best known for portraying the diabolical ruler Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” is going to star in an Israeli film. Headey, 45, will have a major role in “Gunpowder Milkshake,” which was written and will be directed by Israelis Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. Karen Gillan, who has appeared in “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Doctor Who” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” also has signed on to the film. Quentin Tarantino, whose wife is the Israeli singer Daniela Pick, called Keshales and Papushado’s 2013 film “Big Bad Wolves” the best film of the year, according to Haaretz.


Broadway’s “Evan Hansen” talks about his Jewish heritage 

By Shiryn Ghermezian

(JNS) On Jan. 30, Andrew Barth Feldman, a high school junior, made his Broadway debut as the lead role in “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Tony award-winning musical about a high school senior who has severe social anxiety that holds him back from connecting with people and making friends.

Feldman comes from a Reform Jewish family – his mother is an alumna and administrator at his private high school, Lawrence Woodmere Academy, his father lives in Manhattan, and he has an older sister. The family celebrates the holidays (Chanukah being his favorite) and goes to synagogue. Judaism, he says, has “always been part of my DNA.” He went to a Jewish nursery, Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, all of which he feels “very lucky” to have experienced. His Jewish identity has made him a “really well-rounded” person, he says.

“I think being a Jewish person in Long Island, you’re really a part of something bigger, and there are lots of Jewish people around us, and it creates a community and something to bond over from a very, very young age,” he told JNS. “It’s always what I’ve wanted–to be a part of this world, and to be a part of this community and be on this stage.”

Aside from a few casual and quick references to bar mitzvahs – and something about getting to second base with an Israeli soldier in the script–it’s never specified if Evan Hansen is Jewish himself, but Barth Feldman said in his mind, his character definitely is. He explains that there are components in Evan’s family dynamic life that resemble a Jewish family structure, but, he added, “I think it’s never really specified because he’s so universal and because everyone can be seen in him, no matter what denomination or race or etcetera.”

The creative team behind “Dear Evan Hansen” consists of a number of Jewish talents aside from Barth Feldman, including Benj Pasek, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for the show; Steven Levenson, author of a book by the same title; and the show’s producer, Stacey Mindich, who saw Barth Feldman perform last June at the National High School Musical Theater Awards, known as the “Jimmys,” and offered him the lead role in the Broadway musical.

He is representing the Jewish community now with taking on Evan Hansen, and expressed pride in the number of Jewish members on the show’s team.

“We’re doing it!” he said. “I think Jews love to take ownership, and rightfully so, of those of us who can make it, so I’m happy to give another one. I think it’s so necessary to see Jewish people playing roles like this that aren’t stereotyped and are authentic to the experience. … I think Jews can absolutely find reflection in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and so can everyone.”

Feldman first fell in love with theater at the age of three when he saw “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway. When he was eight, he starred in his first show: a community theater production of “Annie” in which he played Mr. Bundles, the launderer at the orphanage who has an unrequited love for Miss Hannigan. “Dear Evan Hansen” is his first professional production.

For his bar mitzvah project in 2014, he started Zneefrock Productions, a theater company run entirely by teens that fundraises for the charity NEXT for Autism. The theater company he founded is still going strong; last year, Zneefrock put on a production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years” about a failed marriage, with a different gender pairing at each performance to showcase various types of relationships.

He is the youngest person to take on the title role. All of his predecessors were in their 20s when they played Evan, and Jewish actor Ben Platt, who won a Tony Award as the first to star in the title role, was 23 when the show opened on Broadway in 2016.

He shared some advice to young actors hoping to succeed in show business, saying “learn as much as you can and from as many people as you can. But trust your instincts because you are a person, and if you’re in theater, you are probably a very emphatic person.

“But in that same way,” he added, “to build your craft you have to keep working hard and want to keep growing. You’re never done growing. You’re never done learning.”

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