Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest actress, Shelly Skandrani.
Shelly Skandrani is best-known for her critically acclaimed co-star role of Leah Lubitch, in Showtime's popular Holocaust film The Devil's Arithmetic starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy, and produced by Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers.
Shelly was born in Tel Aviv, Israel and grew up in London and is often described as a mixture of Israeli passion and British refinement.
Norm: Good day Shelly and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you know you wanted to become an actress?
Shelly: I don’t know when the conscious decision to become an actress was, I started when I was nine in London, I had fun making new friends, going to rehearsals, performing on a stage and hearing the applause of course LOL.
London is cold and kids can’t play outside a lot, this was a way for me to play, coincidently “to act” in Hebrew is “Lesachek” which translates as “to play”.
It was natural to me, as it would be for any kid to go to school, or soccer practice. As the years progressed I got bigger and bigger roles, so I don’t think I ever imagined not being an actress, it was just a part of who I am.
When I was a kid, in my mind, going to an audition was so that the director would choose which role fits me best, I hadn’t realized they could turn me away, even though many other kids were. My mind didn’t fathom it. Ignorance is bliss LOL. Kids have such a healthy sense of confidence.
Obviously as a grown up that’s different, I am aware of failure these days, as all grown ups are, but I’m also aware that without failure there is no true growth or success, so I take it in my stride.
What was your training and do you specialize in any particular acting technique?
I went to weekly acting classes for eight years from the age of nine to seventeen in London. As well as performing in about twelve theater productions during those years. So I took my craft very seriously from a very young age.
Then when I went back to Israel I did a year foundation course at a school called Nissan Nativ and then spent three years getting my degree in Theater and Performing Arts from Beit-Zvi, the most renowned acting school in Israel. We studied many different methods; Uta Hagen, Stanislavski, Laban, Chekov, Meisner, Improv and then we studied dance (classic, ballroom and modern), movement, voice work, singing, yoga, theater history, poetry, we went to two plays a week and basically never slept LOL!
We studied sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, and then had to go home and do our homework. I remember during my half hour dinner breaks I would gobble down my food in ten minutes, find a quiet classroom, set my alarm for twenty minutes and pass out!
I don’t really know that there’s one method I use today, it’s a mixture, and I choose different things for different characters.
I also went to more classes in Los Angeles, it’s always important to keep yourself trained, like an athlete really.
What motivates you to act?
Well… I can’t not :) It’s just who I am.
Even if I don’t have a role or a stage, I’ll go to a dinner party and tell a funny story to all my friends for a half hour. I love story telling. I love to share experiences, to connect with people, to be real and open, to make them feel safe and loved and comfortable, even it means making myself silly, just so that they laugh a little.
On a higher level, I really enjoy the idea that through art we can change the world, we can open people’s hearts and minds, we can make things better. That’s what I truly strive for, to use my abilities to leave the world a little better off than it was when I got here.
Norm: When did you first perform and how did you get the part?
Shelly: My first performance was when I was nine, in a play called Dream Date. A local theater had evening classes for kids and we rehearsed for a couple of months. Then at the end, we got to perform on the theater’s stage in front of 400 people! It was very exciting!
It was also a test, which I wasn’t aware of till after the show, when the theater director came to me and told me I was fantastic and ready to audition for their plays. That’s when my acting world opened up!
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your acting career?
Shelly: I’d say “The Devil’s Arithmetic” in Film and my lead role as Alma Winemiller in the play Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams have been my greatest accomplishments.
Alma Winemiller is an incredibly complex and yet charming character, it was an honor to play her. First of all I loved working with the director Gheorge Miletineanu, who taught me so much! Also, I love Tennessee Williams, I feel he truly knows how to put into words the complexities of the female thought process. This play specifically is considered one of his more “intellectual” plays, though if you ask me they all are, because it is a very verbal play and it’s three hours long!
In particular the role of Alma is especially demanding. She is a very nervous and self conscience daughter of a minister in a small town in Mississippi. She has a certain air and reputation to uphold, and a crazy mother to take care of, but underneath it all she has very strong and passionate feelings towards her childhood friend and neighbor, John, the town doctor. These feelings she doesn’t have the capacity to either contain or express, and so she develops this emotional “doppleganger” in her mind and is prone to panic attacks and anxiety for which she takes medication, so that she can seem healthy and normal in society.
It’s an extremely challenging role. What’s more is that the play is three hours long and there’s not one scene that Alma is not in, and she dominates all of them, she also has several long monologues about her life and fears and so really it’s a lot of pressure on an actress’s shoulder.
I LOVED the role! I loved the challenge! As far as I’m concerned, the harder the role the better, the more I can engage my already overly busy analytical brain the better, it actually relaxes me.
We performed that play is a smaller theater of about three hundred people, but it was packed every night and we got standing ovations every time.
I got a lot of praise for the role, and a lot of newspaper coverage for it, which is very encouraging and is also what landed me my top tier agent in Israel.
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being an actress?
Shelly: Making decisions LOL. I feel like every character and every scene has so many different variations. I’m lucky to have lived a very full and varied life thus far, so I have a ton of experiences and personality traits to pull from.
I really enjoy working with directors that can help me hone in on the parts of me that are necessary for the role. A director with a clear vision that can tell me what they are looking for from each scene, the tone, the style, the emotions. Of course I bring a lot to the table, but I like to give options and let the director decide what’s right for the film.
In fact, the more restrictions I get given the freer I feel to explore within those restrictions, otherwise I feel like I’m shooting in all directions and I worry about bringing the wrong tone.
I see the art of creating a character as a collaboration between the actor and the director, and even the costume and production designers help shape my role.
Norm: How do you set about working on your roles and how much research do you do?
Shelly: It really depends on the role. There are so many ways to approach them.
Obviously, a lot is in the script. I break it down into units and try to understand the flow of the scene and which puzzle piece I am within it. I want to understand what the character wants and strives for, what their fears are, their dreams.
A trick I have is taking out only my lines, and reading them over and over. I find patterns in the things my characters say, or repeat, the themes they bring to the film. I see the arc more clearly. I get very analytical.
Some roles that are more quirky or strange, require that I dress in their clothes and walk around town in their shoes, literally and figuratively. That way I get to see how people react to them. I believe that a lot of who we are is, unfortunately, shaped by how we are perceived. For example kids that were bullied at school have perceptions about who they are that affect how they behave and react to a situation even in later life, as opposed to someone who was super popular who was affected differently. Obviously that’s a generalization but it’s often where I start.
If it’s a period piece, I make sure to research the time, as well as research women’s rights at the time. For example in the film “Suffragette”, (Directed by Sarah Gavron) which really affected me, women couldn’t vote, therefore had no say in how they were treated at work or at home. That affects their behavior. Being a woman, when acting in a play or film set in the 1600s I feel I need to know about societal expectations of the time. Even if my character breaks those expectations, that would tell me a lot about the character. For a woman to voice her opinion today, she’s be considered a regular person, 400 years ago she’s be a rebel, or even a witch!
Norm: What are the qualities in actors you most admire?
Shelly: Versatility. I love seeing actors who can play completely different roles, so much so that I don’t recognize them, or forget it was them!
For example I watched American History X twenty years ago, and I thought the lead actor was amazing! I never forgot how good he was! But when years later I watched Edward Norton in Fight Club and someone said to me ”he’s a genius I loved him in American History X I was like “wait- what? who did he play??” LOL it didn't even register to me that it was Edward Norton! That’s how good he is.
Same with Emily Blunt, I watched Sunshine Cleaning and The Young Victoria in the same week and didn’t realize it was the same actress! When I went home and checked IMDB I saw she also played Emily in “The Devil Wears Prada! That blows my mind.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to act? What was least useful or most destructive?
Shelly: Working with seasoned directors is an incredible learning experience, especially when you’re in rehearsals. Rehearsals are a great tool, they taught me how to work on a character, they taught me to have patience and allow for the pennies to drop in their own time so that the character forms organically. When you’re performing it’s harder to try new things, there’s the pressure of “bringing your best” when you’re rehearsing you’re observing, watching, growing, taking it in. It’s where I learned the most!
For me the most destructive thing is working with aggressive or mean people. I can handle it, but it takes me time to recover afterwards and I probably don’t do my best work. Some actors need it, they need to be pushed to the edge so that new and unexpected colors come out of them. But I’m very sensitive so I don’t, I just need one finger, to push the right button, I don't need the button to be “punched” by a whole fist.
Norm: As an actress, which characters are the easiest to portray? The Most difficult?
Shelly: With me it’s strange, the more complicated roles are easier for me to portray.
The more intricate they are, the more my brain fights to solve the puzzle, so I end up getting obsessed, researching, rehearsing, learning who they are. The longer I spend doing that, the more I know the character and the easier it is for me to portray her in the end.
When a character is more simple, my brain doesn’t engage as much and my adrenaline doesn’t kick in and it’s harder for me to connect to her.
I also feel that when a character is more simple, any actor can play them and so it feels less special to me, and I probably won’t even pass the audition, because anyone can book it.
When she’s complicated I know she’s mine.
Norm: Have there any been any roles that you have turned down and were sorry for having turned them down?
Shelly: I’ve turned down some roles before, it’s a really hard thing to do, but I feel I have to focus on where I want my career to go. Usually it’s because I didn’t feel the script was working for me on one level or another, or I felt like the director or producer weren’t really in alignment with where I was heading as an artist. Or it required over the top nudity which wasn’t really justified within the story…
I actually have a rule to never watch those films LOL it’s too heart breaking and I prefer to look forward than to look back.
Norm: What would you consider your dream role?
Shelly: ouch, that’s tough, there’s so much I’d love to do. Although I’ve been blessed with quite a wide variation of roles, so I won’t complain.
I’d love to do a Jean D’arc kind of role. Someone who is bold, and complicated and vulnerable. I’d love to explore the strength within that vulnerability, the extremes in those opposites.
I’d love a science fiction film and of course, any period pieces are totally up my alley.
Norm: How did you first hear about the part in Showtime's popular Holocaust film The Devil's Arithmetic? Did you do any research before you undertook the role?
Shelly: Actually that’s an interesting story! I was told by my acting teacher about a lead role in a film called “The Lovers” based on a novel by an Israeli author called A. B. Yehoshua. It was a great book and I went through a bunch of auditions and eventually I got the part! It was to be shot in Israel and Italy. So my dad called the top children’s agency in London at the time, Sylvia Young, and told them ”My daughter is the lead in a film, she needs an agent”… it worked!
A week later Sylvia calls me in to her office, she welcomes me with a sad face. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” she says, don’t we all know THAT phrase LOL. The bad news was that they couldn’t get me a work visa for Italy and I lost the lead role. The good news was she got me an audition for “The Devil’s Arithmetic”!
Any other kid would have been really depressed, and it would have affected their audition, but back then, as I told you earlier, I thought auditions meant I got the role and they just need to decide where to put me. So I said “OK I’ll just do that film instead then” LOL!!
Sylvia chuckled, she thought I was being cute. But hey, I got the part!
Looking back, Sylvia must have thought my dad and I were aliens, were so clueless, but somehow we made it happen!
Norm: What was it like to work with Dustin Hoffoman and Mimi Rogers?
Shelly: Well… I never met either of them, unfortunately. The modern New York scenes were shot in America. I only worked with the actors who were in the holocaust part of the film.
And working with them was amazing! We had a little “youngsters” group, and we would all hang out together; Kirsten Dunst, Brittany Murphy, Daniel Brocklebank, Nitzan Sharron and I.
We really bonded because it was a really tough subject matter, with crazy horrific scenes, and we needed each other. We were there to support each other and pull ourselves out of the role at the end of the day. That’s really important, that sense of community, looking out for each other on set, especially when you’re far from home and you can’t go back to your creature comforts at the end of the day.
Halloween was a blast because we were in Lithuania, but with professional hair and make up artists from an American movie making us up. We had amazing costumes! I was the Bride of Frankenstein, someone was a werewolf, with all the hair on the face and hands. It was awesome. We went to a local bar with an underground club, somewhere cool that one of the local P.A.s told us about. We danced all night! It was great to blow off some steam when filming such an emotionally demanding film.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you?
Norm: What is next for Shelly Skandrani?
Shelly: I just shot something for the HBO competition for Women in Comedy. I can’t reveal much, but I play Karma, and she’s not so nice ;)
Also I have an indie feature film called “Phoning It In” set to shoot this year, I’ll be the lead character Astrid, who can’t make decisions to save her life!
Unfortunately I can’t reveal the rest yet… but they will be revealed in time, at the places I mentioned above ;)
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what advice do you have for our readers who might dream of becoming involved in the theater as an actor, producer, director or any other involvement?
Shelly: Watch it. Go to the theater and watch a ton of plays. Also watch the same play more than once. See how it breathes and grows with each performance.
Read plays. Read as many as you can, I’ve read hundreds. Especially read plays that you then see performed. That’s amazing, because you see the before and after.
And of course, study it. Theater school was an incredible place to work out who I am as an artist, to try new things, to triumph, to fail, and to triumph again.
The lack of sleep, made us less critical and so we opened up to new ideas and methods, we soaked in so much! To this day when people ask me what method I use I can’t answer them, I learned so many that they became a part of my DNA, they morphed into each other.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors