While on location in Rome to shoot “Angels & Demons,” Ayelet Zurer sat in a café not far from the Vatican, querying her mother, who as a child hid from the Nazis in a convent.
In one of life’s odd twists, the Israeli-born actress’ role in the new Ron Howard film is that of a woman who was orphaned, taken in by a priest and raised in a convent.
The tightly wound drama is based on the Dan Brown bestseller of the same name, and it serves as a sequel to 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code,” also based on a Brown novel, also directed by Howard and also starring Tom Hanks.
Zurer, who turns 40 next month, said she like to meticulously research her characters, and for this part, she read several books on particle physics (a big part of the plot).
But one of her best resources proved to be her own mother, who was separated from her parents at age 5 and raised Catholic for three years in Czechoslovakia.
“I wanted to hear her memories of the priests and the nuns,” said Zurer, who lives with her husband, Gilad Londovski, and their 4-year-old son in the Southern California town of Venice. “I also wanted to learn about the separation from family, because when you lose parents at such a young age, something very intense happens to you, which I thought might happen to my character [Vittoria] as well. Perhaps it could have something to do with how Vittoria deals with life — her relentlessness, her independence of thought, her fight for her way, even in the male-dominated world of the Vatican.”
The mother-daughter conversation took place in Rome, which is where the film was shot. Catholic Church officials reportedly did not allow the production to be shot in Vatican City, a reaction to what they perceived as church-bashing themes in “The Da Vinci Code.”
Howard has actively defended the film, writing on the Huffington Post Web site that “Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie for what it is: an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome.” Zurer views the story as “a fiction” rather than an anti-Catholic crusade.
After World War II, Zurer’s mother was reunited with her parents, who survived
the Holocaust in hiding. The family relocated to Tel Aviv, where Zurer was born and raised.
She is now perhaps the most prominent Israeli actress of her generation, winning the 2003 Israeli Oscar for her performance in “Nina’s Tragedies” and playing a sexy but troubled character in the wildly popular Israeli TV series “Be’Tipul,” now adapted for HBO as “In Treatment.”
In 2005, Zurer made her Hollywood debut as the lively wife of a tortured Mossad agent in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” She since has portrayed an alluring assassin in the high-grossing “Vantage Point” and a sadomasochistic nurse in love with Jeff Goldblum in “Adam Resurrected,” which is still on the festival circuit.
When Howard cast her in “Angels & Demons,” it was reportedly over some high-profile actresses, including Naomi Watts.
Although “The Da Vinci Code” received relatively poor reviews, it grossed quite well (more than $750 million worldwide) and the 2-hour, 20-minute sequel is expected to lift Zurer’s American career several notches.
Asked about becoming the first Israeli actress to achieve such visibility, she blushed and pretended to hide her face beneath her shirt collar — not a reaction one might expect from someone who can pick up a phone and call Spielberg or Howard for advice.
“It’s funny, because I’ve never had a publicist before,” she said over lunch.
Zurer described Hanks as a “wonderful partner who gives an actor space” and who is a “great listener” on set and off. Zurer said when she told him a story while he was preparing to shoot a scene, Hanks was listening so intently that he put his shoes on the wrong feet.
Zurer acted in high school, but during her college years, she assumed she was going to have a career as an illustrator. That is, until she modeled in Japan one summer and became friends with a British model who had experienced drug addiction and boyfriend troubles. Upon returning to Israel, Zurer was cast as an abused model in a school production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” And the acting bug was planted.
“Only then did it occur to me how deeply you can go in portraying a character, and how your real-life experiences can be reflected in the theater,” she said.
Zurer then pursued an acting career, studying at the New Actors Workshop School in New York for three years before returning to Israel.
Still, after marrying in 2003 and giving birth to a son, Liad, “I thought I was just going to be a mother and that my career was pretty much over,” she said. “But I was content.”
She only reluctantly accepted the “Be’Tipul” role, and, just having had a baby, was even more reluctant when the call came to audition for “Munich.” But she changed her mind when she learned the director was Spielberg.
Depicting Mossad assassins in moral crises, “Munich” was perhaps even more controversial than “The Da Vinci Code.” Said Zurer: “The film was really a peace offering, and I thought it was 15 years ahead of its time. It’s an existential piece about human nature, but the media focused on politics because of current events.”
Zurer says the main difference between Hollywood films and the film industry in Israel is the budget. For example, one day while filming “Angels & Demons,” Zurer had to get a quick lesson on some technical issues when she found out there were four cameras rather than only two.
In Israel, less money also means the focus is on intimate stories and family dramas, rather than special effects — which translates into more roles for women of all ages.
In Hollywood, Zurer acknowledges, youth and beauty are valued, and attending to her own appearance requires more work. She’s taking Pilates to stay in shape, and at lunch passes up a hamburger and fries for soup and a seaweed salad. But she doesn’t intend to go overboard.
“I see myself primarily as a character actress, although I would love to get other kinds of roles,” she said.
Zurer said she intends to pursue Hollywood projects full time, including a screenplay she is adapting from a novel (which Howard has agreed to read).
“You never know how you’re going to get that really big, juicy part,” Zurer said. “You don’t know how it will come your way.”
“Angels & Demons” (PG-13) opens Friday, May 15 at Bay Area theaters.