While making the film “A Tale of Love And Darkness,” Natalie Portman had to put her palm in front of her mouth, repeat Hebrew words and feel how the air hit her skin.
If Portman felt her breath, it meant she was saying the words in an Israeli accent — or something close to it.
Along with directing, writing and starring in the Hebrew-language film, which recently hit American screens, Portman had to learn how to speak like an Israeli housewife in the 1940s.
Portman was born in Jerusalem but grew up in the United States, so her fluent Hebrew came with a heavy American inflection. In the movie, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s 2002 autobiographical novel of the same name, Portman plays Oz’s mother, Fania, a Russian immigrant living in Jerusalem during the time surrounding Israel’s independence in 1948.
To study the accent, Portman hired Neta Riskin, 39, an Israeli actor known for her role in “Shtisel,” an Israeli television show about an Orthodox family. For three months during filming, Riskin and Portman practiced daily, covering vowels, consonants, syllable emphasis and sentence flow.
Riskin said she read the film’s script 200 times.
“I can’t tell you how hard it is to act not in your language,” said Riskin. “It’s like walking with crutches. They’re not your legs. They’re artificial. To do a full movie in that is amazing.”
What made the project more difficult was that pre-state Israelis spoke differently 70 years ago than their descendants today. Back then, Riskin said, the population had a “mixed multitude” of accents, from local Middle Eastern pronunciations to different shades of European. The contemporary Israeli accent, Riskin said, emerged as a composite of all those.
To be true to her character, who originally is from what is today Ukraine, Portman would have had to adopt a Russian accent. But Riskin thought that would sound like a parody next to the neutral accents of the other actors, who were native Israelis.
“The problem with Natalie is that there were Israeli Russian, Polish, Arabic accents that were legitimate accents, [but] there was only one accent that wouldn’t work and it was American,” Riskin said. “We decided to leave something that sounded foreign, but you don’t know where it comes from.”
Most observers, said Riskin, assume the hardest part of an Israeli accent is pronouncing guttural consonants like the het and resh, which aren’t so much pronounced as gargled. But Portman had no problem with that; she got hung up on the vowels.
“You need to know how to connect the words in a way that it sounds natural, so you don’t sound like a robot,” Riskin said. “In Israel, it sounds much simpler to have one vowel, but for Americans it’s a lot harder to get used to.”
Israeli vowels are pronounced near the front of the mouth, Riskin said, while American sounds come from further back. By putting her palm in front of her lips, Portman could tell how her breath was flowing and where the sounds were coming from.
When a word in the script was difficult for Portman to pronounce correctly, she and Riskin would try to find an easier synonym. The changes fit with Portman’s character, who was meant to speak a relatively basic Hebrew. Her husband — a librarian and author — used more complex words.
“We wanted her Hebrew to not be at a high level,” Riskin said. “We wanted everyone to have something a little strange in their language.”
This isn’t the first time Riskin has helped an actor perfect an Israeli accent, but she said the job isn’t in high demand. Hebrew isn’t a widely spoken language outside Israel, and some other actors who portray Israelis don’t seem to care whether they get it right. Riskin was particularly irked by Adam Sandler’s turn in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a 2008 comedy in which he plays a Mossad agent.
“That drove me crazy,” she said. “That was a Yiddish accent, not an Israeli accent. They speak that way in Brooklyn or in a shtetl [European village], but not in Israel.”
Riskin said she was “in awe” that Portman not only acted but directed a full film in her second language.
“She needed superpowers to do this altogether,” Riskin said. “Even if we cleaned up all of the American characteristics, there would still be a shade of foreignness. If Natalie had stayed in Israel another year, she would have sounded like a sabra [native Israeli].”
Ben Sales writes for the JTA international news agency and wire service.
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