Meet the Israeli actress telling the story of Israel’s creation – on Netflix

After taking on the leading role in ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,’ Swell Ariel Or tells Jewish Insider that she’s heading to Hollywood

Israeli actress Swell Ariel Or is only 23 years old, but as the star of a period drama airing on Netflix that for the past year has been drawing in worldwide audiences, she now finds herself in an important role: sharing with a global audience key elements of the backstory of Israel’s founding.

“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” which is based on the novel by Israeli author Sarit Yishai Levy and launched its second season on Netflix last month, follows three generations of a Sephardi family living in Jerusalem beginning in the 1930s and set against the backdrop of the struggle for modern-day Israel.

“Do you know how many messages I get from all over the world, from people who love the show, who said it was amazing, and tell me that they did not know there were Jews living in Jerusalem before the Holocaust?” Or, who plays the role of Luna, the beauty queen of Jerusalem in the Israeli-made show, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview.

Not only are many of the show’s fans surprised to learn that Jewish communities resided in Jerusalem long before the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, Or told JI that they are also shocked to learn that most of those communities were comprised of Sephardic Jews, who emigrated to the holy land when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

“This community is so under-represented in films and on television. This is a huge win for Sephardic Jews,” she said. 

“I really recommend that everyone watch this show, Jews and non-Jews,” Or continued. “Everyone talks about the Middle East so much and they all tell us what we need to do or not do, but not everyone knows the real history of this area.”

Carrying the burden of telling these crucial details of Israel’s history might seem like a tall order for someone so young, and someone who never had any real experience in acting before, but Or, whose personality seems to blend perfectly with the part of a headstrong and ambitious young woman who is very much ahead of her time, is unphased.

“I grew up in Tel Aviv, near the beach in a very free way,” Or said, describing her typical Israeli upbringing and explaining that her parents were “hippies” who decided to give her the unusual name of Swell, slang for a surfer’s wave.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem characters Luna, Gabriel and David

While she did not have the classic and focused childhood of someone who dreams of becoming an actress – her father worked in construction, her mother in a kindergarten, and Or herself did not act as a child – she was drawn to the profession and decided to sign up for an acting class during her compulsory military service. When she completed the army, the actress told JI, she took a few more courses, secured an agent and then headed out to audition. It took just a year and a half of tryouts for her to land her first-ever acting job. By chance, the role was in one of the biggest television productions ever undertaken in Israel’s ever-growing film industry.

“I always knew I was more film-orientated than theater,” said Or. “And I just got very lucky in getting that role [in ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’] as my first job.”

In preparation to play Luna, a teenager living nearly 100 years ago, Or said she meticulously undertook historical research, watching other shows and reading books to learn about life in Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as listening to the music of the time. She also took to journaling, filling four volumes of her own thoughts, so she could really feel what it might have been like to come of age back then.

“Of course, this is the story of a Sephardic family living in the 1930s and 1940s and of course, it’s a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story set in the Middle East, but it is really about the establishment of Israel from the inside and that is very interesting,” noted Or.

“Luna was a character who was born ahead of her time,” she added. “She was very progressive in her opinions, her attitudes and her dreams, and I wanted to understand what it was like to be an ambitious woman in that period and to know where the glass ceiling was.”

“It was so different from today when a woman can do whatever she wants and marry whoever she wants,” said Or, describing how she really tried to understand the inner monologue of the character she’d been assigned to play.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem characters Luna, Rosa and Mercada

Or said she received some expert advice and guidance, not only from the show’s production team but also from her fellow actors, “Shtisel” star Michael Aloni, who plays Luna’s father, Gabriel, in the show, and Hila Saada, known for her comic role in the Israeli series of “The Beauty and the Baker,” who plays Rosa, Luna’s mother.

“They were just like real parents to me,” Or described, adding, “It was the best acting school ever; I got to work with experienced actors who I really admired and they taught me that being an actress is so much more than just acting – it’s about how to behave on set, how to prepare yourself between the scenes – it was an incredible lesson to me, and I am so grateful to them for being so open and sharing their own experiences with me.”

Or has already put those lessons to good use. Next month, she will appear in an episode of the Brazilian series “How to be a Carioca,” which airs on Disney + and she has also just wrapped up production on her first feature film, “Kissufim,” which follows a group of volunteers on the kibbutz of the same name. Once again, Or has the leading role.

As for her next venture, Or says she has her sights set on Hollywood.

“I want to bring an Oscar to Israel and I can’t do that through Israeli films,” said the young actress, who has already secured a U.S. work visa and will head to La La Land next month. “My only chance to do that is in L.A.”

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