Life & Culture

The real beauty queen of Jerusalem

Swell Ariel Or on how she found herself as the leading lady of one of Israel's biggest shows


Imagine being a  21 year-old actress, rejected by 99 per cent of the agents you approached and then in your first professional job you land the title role in your country’s most ambitious television drama to date.

This is what happened to the intriguingly named Swell Ariel Or, who plays Luna in Yes Studios’ Beauty Queen of Jerusalem based on the best-selling novel by Sarit Yishai Levi, now streaming on Netflix.

“I know! it’s crazy, isn’t it?” says Or when we meet on Zoom. Suffering from a cold and dressed down in sloppy sweater, Or looks like any other young beach-loving Israeli girl. On camera, though, she shines. In the trailers for the show, with her cheeky wink and slick 1930’s hairstyle, she oozes life and luminosity. It’s easy to see why the producers cast her.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem has it all: drama, conflict, steamy romance, belly dancing, horses, fashion and more. It’s a multi-generational costume drama and another offering in Israel’s extraordinary television miracle.

Central to all this is Luna, the so-called beauty queen of Jerusalem, the wayward, striking and confident daughter played by Or “I love her. She’s born into a rich family so is privileged but she’s rebellious. She dates boys, doesn’t believe in arranged marriage, drops out of school. She has fire and passion. It’s the greatest gift ever as an actress.”

After a lengthy audition process, Or learned that she got the part, just as the pandemic started. “It weird because people aske me what it was like filming during that time but I didn’t know anything else. I hadn’t filmed before. We rehearsed on Zoom, which was very very weird. On set we had to wear masks all the time. We had temperature checks five times a day.  If you are even a little bit sick, everything stopped, until you got a negative result back. We filmed in Safed from Sunday to Thursday. They really asked that we didn’t see anyone over the weekend which was very hard because being away you wanted to see family and friends. But if you caught something everything would stop.”

She researched the 1930s by watching old movies and listening to the music of the period. “It was important for me to learn how people lived in that time. Especially women’s dreams and desires. Also, I had to learn the dances of the time because Luna enters a dance competition. So, I learned to waltz, tango and swing. It was terrific.”

Michael Aloni —Shtisel’s Akiva — plays Luna’s indulgent father Gabriel and the two became close. “He was like a father figure in real life too,” she says. “He took me under his wing and taught me a lot of tricks and methods. He basically adopted me, and I’ve learned so much from him. Things that I will take with me for all my life.”

Or definitely has Lunas’ confidence, not even being daunted when she had to film some fairly intimate love scenes. “I was shocked at how technical those things are,” she tells me. “It’s literally not sexy or romantic at all. We had an intimacy co-ordinator. She asked us what our limits were in sounds, touch, facial expressions. Then she designs it like choreography. ‘Hold your head there for a second, then slight turn this way, that way.’ Then you have a camera here, another camera, the sound man, the director, so it’s not very risqué.”

Or was raised by the beach by parents of Russian, Iraqi and Yemenite descent. “I suppose you would say they were hippies,” she smiles. Her name is surfer slang for riding the crest of a wave. “You could say it was a laid back childhood, a lot of freedom.”

Her mother taught kindergarten and her father worked in construction. “I saw their potential in arts though. They were both very talented but didn’t take that route because of life and fear. It was harder for their generation. They were new olim, and it was about getting good jobs. My dad is the most beautiful sculptor, but he does it for fun. My mum sings beautifully.”

It was left to Or to follow the dream. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. It was different, I was in the army, you’re not allowed to leave the army and go to school, but you are allowed one night off so I took a course and found love.”

The “love” she found was drama on a course run by Fauda star Doron Ben David, who along with being a famed actor in Israel is a renowned acting coach. “He’s a great, great teacher. I learned so much,,” says Or who went on to do several other drama courses.

“I don’t know, I didn’t particularly want to go to college, so I tried to get an agent and literally everyone turned me down, except one.”

The risk that the Zohar Agency decided to take on Or has paid off.  She has just finished working on an Israeli film, Kissufim, where she has the lead role; she’s just back from Rio de Janeiro filming How To Be A Carioca for Disney+. “It’s going to be on in August. They wanted an Israeli actress, and they auditioned a lot of girls, it was a four month audition process. I didn’t know initially it was for Disney. Only when I got there, I realised how big it is. Every episode stands by itself with a character from a different country coming to Rio. My character, Laila, goes to visit her rich aunt in Rio and falls in love with the favelas, the slums.  She likens it to the war-torn areas of Israel and she falls in love with it. “

Filming took place in a real favela in Rio. “We shot in a specific favela, they were very welcoming. The people seemed happy for little things and had no envy. Such a different rule book, they can’t dream as high as we can, they can’t see their future. We shot on Friday because people work on Friday, very strange for me.  People were on the streets, dancing, eating meats, for nothing just because it was the end of the week. The sense of community there was so strong. I envy that.”

In case Disney come calling again, Or has recently obtained an American work visa. She’s a star in the making but most of the time she’s like any other Israeli young woman. She goes to dance classes, works out by doing kung fu. “I’ve got a boyfriend, but it’s very new, so I’m not saying much because it’s so new. But I’m like everyone, hanging out with friends, going to the beach, visiting art galleries.”

If you think Or is carried away with her success, think again. “I’m auditioning,” she says. “Look this is the profession, whatever you have done, you have to come back to earth. If not, you’ll get very diva like or lose your mind. So you start all over again.”

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