Rotem Sela and Yehuda Levi discuss starring in Israeli surrogacy drama Goof Shlishi (A Body that Works), playing a married couple and tackling tough subjects on television.
It’s one of the biggest Israeli series of the year – so perhaps it’s no surprise that an English-language remake is already in the works.
Goof Shlishi (A Body that Works) is the story of two women: Ellie, who longs to be a mother but can’t carry a pregnancy to full term; and Chen, who is in desperate financial need and is able to grant the gift of life on Ellie’s behalf. But although their hopelessness unites them, their transaction is far from simple – and while one’s dream dies, the other must give up control over her body for nine months.
Rotem Sela and Yehuda Levi star as Ellie and Ido, whose attempts to conceive naturally and numerous rounds of IVF have all been unsuccessful. When surrogacy becomes their only option, they turn to disillusioned call-centre worker and single mother Chen (Gal Malka) to help them start the family they’ve always wanted.
However, Ellie and Ido’s relationship is turned upside down as they are confronted by challenges they hadn’t anticipated, while events bring Chen and Ido closer together. Matters become further tangled by editor Ellie’s strengthening connection to her new client – actor, director and aspiring writer Tomer (Lior Raz).
The eight-part Hebrew series, produced by Kuma Studios for Keshet 12 and distributed by Keshet International, had its international premiere at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year, where Sela and Malka shared the International Panorama prize for best actress.
Producer Keshet UK is now developing an English-language adaptation of A Body that Works, which was originally written by Shira Hadad and Dror Mishani and directed by Shay Capon.
Here, Sela and Levi tell DQ about starring together as a married couple striving to complete their family in a story that blends love, jealousy, desire and the wish to become parents.
The show has been a huge success. What have you made of viewers’ reactions?
Levi: It’s a very cinematic series about people and relationships, and an amazing subject that has never been dealt with, surrogacy. It’s amazing how the audience has evolved and [is now more open to watching] something like that on TV. It’s a major thing for the broadcasters to understand that while we can push the gas and make all kinds of commercial stuff, sometimes things that aren’t commercial can become commercial, and that’s beautiful.
Sela: And also personally, as actors, we get so many responses from couples that are dealing with the same stuff as Ellie and Ido. I get thousands of messages every day from women who are so happy that we are sharing their stories and their struggles and giving people around them a sense of what they’re going through. So it’s super important.
What were your first thoughts on the series when you read the script?
Sela: I felt right away that Ellie tells a story of so many women who are struggling that we don’t often get to see on TV, and if I am going to take this role, I’ll have a big responsibility to tell her story right. It was a no-brainer. It was like, “OK, I’m in. Please let me in.”
Levi: I actually joined the project two weeks before it was shot. I wasn’t supposed to do it. There was another show that was delayed, and then Shay, who had I worked with before, really wanted me there. I read it and I wanted to tell the story of Ido. I wanted to tell his point of view, and I just flew into the character in two weeks.
I had incredible actors around me and it was a celebration. We had so much fun and had so many emotions and debates while we were shooting. Sometimes, you just have to jump; you just have to take the leap of faith, even if it’s two weeks beforehand, which I usually don’t do. But as soon as I read it, I totally connected with it.
Sela: Yehuda was the perfect Ido for us. We auditioned so many super-talented actors in Israel, and after every audition we said, “Wow, this guy was so good. But maybe we’ll call Yehuda. What do you say? Let’s call Yehuda.” We knew all through the process of auditioning for it that Yehuda was going to be the one who was going to deliver the best Ido. And he did.
Levi: Thank you so much. And of course, Rotem is the biggest star in Israel. She also has so many hats and she’s so talented at so many things. She also hosts many shows in Israel. We knew each other, but we hadn’t worked together for a long time. This was the right project. We had a lot of fun, but we had to connect really quickly. We needed to bring that relationship to the table in a really speedy way, and that’s what amazing about it. We just went for it.
How did you prepare for roles in a show that deals with a particularly sensitive subject?
Sela: Nowadays, we are surrounded by people who share the struggle of Ido and Ellie. Most of my best friends at some point have struggled to have babies and to get pregnant. I also have have a couple of gay friends who went through the process of surrogacy, so it wasn’t new to me. But when I got the role, I sat down with some of them and asked them to take me to specific moments, specific emotions, and tell me how it really felt. That was my research.
I empathised with Ellie on such a deep level that I couldn’t disconnect when I came home. I took a lot of her pain and emotions with me. It wasn’t easy, but I felt like if I was going to tell Ellie’s story in the proper way, I had to feel Ellie. So for me, it was a very emotional role.
Levi: Surrogacy, of course, is a subject that hasn’t been really dealt with, and it’s fascinating because surrogacy is kind of an alternative to spontaneous pregnancy. People are sometimes ashamed of that, but maybe they shouldn’t be ashamed because maybe it’s also part of evolution. Maybe that’s a spiritual way of thinking of it and not an earthly way of thinking about it, but I think it’s really important to put that on the ground and make people think of it and just calm it down, because there is a different way of looking at it.
What was it like working with Capon on set?
Levi: Shay is amazing. It’s in the gestures. He was an actor once, so he knows actors’ gestures and he is deep, he’s philosophical. He’s like a horse whisperer – he gives you the right whispers.
Sela: Shay is amazing. He is just a gift for actors. He doesn’t let go, so if he thinks the scene is not as accurate as he wants it to be, then we’re not moving on. So for us as actors, it was a celebration because it’s not every day that you get a chance to work with that kind of director who is on the details at such a level. We did have a lot of fun during the shoot, even though it was so emotional, but Yehuda is Yehuda.
Levi: Which means?
Sela: He’s so funny and he likes to fool around. So it was fun.
Levi: I do shapeshift very quickly. I can have so much fun, and then when it’s time for action, I shift and I get into the situation. Maybe because it’s so embodied in me, right? It was very easy for me to connect to the subject. We had a lot of fun, we had a lot of arguments – it’s just like life within life.
Yehuda, your drama Fire Dance was at Series Mania last year, while Rotem’s The Baker & the Beauty has sold around the world and been remade in the US. What do you make of the international success of Israeli series?
Sela: It’s amazing that the world is now so global and you can do something that you think only the Israeli audience will see, but it turns out not. For us as actors, it’s amazing.
Levi: At the end of the day, it’s about universal subjects, so they touch the hearts of everyone. We also have great creators and great stories to tell, and we do it all so well. We’re a very young country, but we sped it up in a way. And it’s fun that people get to see our stories.
Would either of you ever want to direct?
Levi: It’s funny that you say that because I’m thinking about it on and off, because I’m an actor. Now something has erupted in me, this passion that I may want to be a director someday. Maybe not now, but in a few years.
Sela: And to cast me?
Levi: Of course! If I direct then of course I’ll hire you.
Sela: Thank you. It’s a promise now! For me right now, acting is enough. I also host two shows in Israel, so I’m fully booked with my kids and everything.
Levi: The question is, would you be able to take comments from me?
Levi: OK, then you’re in.