Life & Culture

Meeting Israel's answer to Jennifer Coolidge

Irit Kaplan plays the matriarch of the Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, Israel's hottest new show


If an Israeli TV company ever remade the hit HBO series White Lotus, Irit Kaplan would be a shoo-in for the part of Tanya McQuoid, played in the original by Jennifer Coolidge. Kaplan laughs. “I’ve heard that before, “ she says. “I love her, so it’s great to be likened with her.”

It’s hard to equate the glamourous Kaplan I meet on Zoom with the dour matriarch Mercada Ermoza, in the Netflix hit series The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. It’s early morning in Tel Aviv but the voluptuous Kaplan has full make-up on, her long luxurious dark hair is piled up in a pony tail showing off big gold hoop earrings. She’s earthy, laughs a lot, and is someone you imagine is a terrific dinner guest. There’s not a trace of the grim-faced Mercada.

Clearly, the directors knew something, because it’s Kaplan’s scenes that draw you in.  Mercada controls the Ermoza family with an iron fist and harsh words and at times even harsher decisions.

“I may look glam,” laughs Kaplan, “but inside of me is an evil dark and grey woman. When I was first asked to audition it was going to be shooting Kyiv but my daughter Luna was too small, I told them I couldn’t go away for three months.”

The producers kept asking, but the answer was always the same. Then the pandemic struck and the filming location shifted to Safed in Northern Israel. Kaplan’s agent emailed the producers who came back within ten minutes, saying “yes, yes, yes”.

Kaplan is a renowned actress in Israel. Although she has a lengthy screen CV, her most lauded body of work is in the theatre. She’s been a stalwart of the leading Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv for well over a decade, where she is currently starring in the epic Angels In America.

From the age of four, she knew she wanted to act. She even got her teacher to change the casting in the Purim play so she could be Queen Esther.

“I was a very shy girl, I didn’t talk a lot back then,” she laughs. “My kindergarten teacher changed the role of Esther to another girl. I was shocked. I said to him, ‘there is only one Esther and it’s me.’ I got the courage to tell him the other girl wasn’t right. He asked the other girl if she wanted it. She said no, so I was Queen Esther. I sent my mother to find me a big dress. He told my mother after the show, that I would be an actress. After that, I did all high school shows, directing some, I took over, manipulating like Mercada.”

The love of acting may have been a form of escape as a child.  It’s not that she and her elder brother Arik had an unhappy childhood. Their father Benjamin was a Holocaust survivor. His father, Arye Live Kaplan was a partisan fighter during the Second World War.

“My grandfather was a hero, a real hero, he blew up a train. My grandfather told the family something terrible is going to happen come and hide in the woods, but they didn’t believe him and didn’t go, His wife, my grandmother, took their children, one of which was my father and left with him. They survived but eventually they caught my grandfather and he was killed. But my grandmother kept moving with two small children. She had a very tough life. They came to Israel, my father learned to become an engineer. He was a very smart man.”

Clearly emotional, Kaplan recalls: All of this scarred my father badly. He died a few years ago. He was strict, he was tough and nervous and had tantrums. Now I understand it was because of his background. I used to think that maybe he didn’t love me because he was tough. But you know he was only about ten years old when they went to hide in the woods. With bullets whistling overhead, having to beg for food. You can’t get out of that without trauma. He was cracked from inside.”

She is married to cinematographer Nitai Netzer, who won an Israeli Academy Award for his work on Fauda. When I  suggest they are a starry media couple, Kaplan laughs. “You know my husband and I say that if we lived in America we’d be rich. But in Israel everything is a much smaller scale and budgets are smaller. Look we still have a mortgage. As for starry, I come in from the theatre and within seconds the children are on at me ‘I’m hungry, where’s my notebook?’ Nitai is saying ‘shall I take the laundry?’ Nothing starry here.”

Kaplan is 50 in July. The couple’s eldest child Ilai will be bar mitzvah this year and their daughter Luna is six. She says being an older mother has its benefits. “I think my profession helps me behave and feel younger. It keeps you young because you are working with young people. It’s not so easy to run after a small daughter when you are in your mid-forties. But age makes you cooler, more tolerant and patient.”

As for getting older she is embracing it. “I do a lot of sport so I keep fit. I’m an actress, I need all my wrinkles so no surgery for me. From time to time I’ll have a treatment, but nothing big. My husband is a photographer and he says ‘don’t do it, the camera sees all’. I have wrinkles. It’s part of life.”

Not for her, then, the airbrushed, pouty Instagram photos.

“They all look like plastic. I don’t like it. I like Instagram, it’s a good tool. But the girls all look like artifical and the same, it’s boring. I want to think it will pass. Every trend eventually passes. There was a trend to have boobs enlarged, now they are all having the implants removed.”

She goes on: “I tell my daughter, ‘Look like you want to look, be what you want to be, have fun, enjoy being you.’ But when she becomes a teenager, she will probably be like all the rest on social media, you can’t avoid it, really.”

Kaplan has been hailed as a “real woman”, unlike many actresses working today. “My husband loves a voluptuous woman,” she laughs. “I work out and do a lot of sport because I have to be fit for work, but why waste energy on weight issues? I wasted a lot of energy on it when I was younger. I wonder now, why?”

She recently auditioned for a leading role in a production to be made in London but ultimately lost out because she wasn’t old enough. “They had seen me as Mercada in Beauty Queen, so they thought that’s what they were getting. Then of course they saw me. Even though I told them I could do their role because it I obviously age up for Mercada, in fact she’s even older now in series two. But it didn’t work out.”

Memories of her grandmother helped Kaplan flesh out Mercada’s character. “I bring lots of things from my Soviet grandmother. They were the same. A lot of people recognise their grandmothers in Mercada. She is a very strong typical woman, a matriarch. She needs to survive and preserve her empire. She had no choice in a world of men, she needs to be tough.

“I wanted the audience to see her and love her. She is sarcastic and sharp as a knife. I want the audience to say, ‘She’s evil but we love her.”

Michael Aloni plays Mercada’s feckless, hopelessly romantic son, Gabriel, and the two are old friends. “My husband worked on When Heroes Fly, one of Michael’s series, so he’s like family. We laugh a lot and make little comedy videos in between shooting”.

As well as acting, Kaplan is a successful writer. “I wrote the play Genius in a Cage with the actor Yoav Bar-Lev, and the children’s play The Witch in the House Across the Street, which has been running for ten years, and we are now working on the next thing. Writing is a Sisyphean operation, but I love it. When you crack something you’re on fire.”

In September 2021, Kaplan was hospitalised with Covid. “I hadn’t had the vaccine, I was afraid of it. The night before I was admitted to the Ichilov Hospital, I couldn’t sleep, both from the anxiety and from the coughing. I felt that my whole body was being pulled out of it and that I was very unwell, and I was right. That night my condition was acute and my lungs were in a very bad condition.

“After I recovered, everything changed. A fire was lit in me to achieve, to want, to do and to put myself in front, to conquer and not see eye to eye. I am on good terms with everyone, but if someone stands in my way…”

Her voice trails off and you suddenly see the flinty strength of Mercada Ermoza.

Kaplan feels the pandemic gave her a spiritual awakening. “I’m not innocent anymore. I realise the world is moving. I believe our body is kind of machine, when it dies, I don’t think our inside soul and energy dies. The one source whether it’s God, Buddah or Allah, is the soul. We are here on earth to spread love and promote love.” She then adds: “And to enjoy ourselves of course!”

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is on Netflix.

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