The beautiful mother in Jerusalem

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The beautiful mother in Jerusalem

Beautiful Hila Saada has been cast in two of Israels’ most successful series. She doesn’t always get the glam role though

Naomi is a freelance features writer

Hila Saada is not what you expect. Fans of the hit Israeli series The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem know her as drab and downtrodden Rosa, mother of ravishing and flirtatious Luna (Swell Ariel Or). But it’s a role that belies Hila’s real life good looks, which are evident from the moment she arrives on Zoom.

Elegant and beguiling, with the whitest teeth, her long dark hair sweeps over her shoulder showcasing tiny gold hoops. I marvel aloud that she could be the ‘beauty’ of the title’s subject. She laughs. “Throughout my career, I’ve been cast in colourful and glamorous comedy roles, like Vanessa in the popular series Beauty and the Baker. However, as Rosa, I undergo a transformation with minimal makeup that dulls my skin. In later scenes, I’m aged with lines on my face and grey hair.”

I suggest this must have been difficult. “To begin with, it was challenging to see myself like that. However, after a few weeks, I grew to love it, as I became someone else entirely – I embraced Rosa fully.”

This is reflected in her performance as the poor, illiterate woman who Gabriel Ermoza (Michael Aloni) is coerced into marrying by his overbearing mother Mercada (Irit Kaplan).

Michael Aloni and Hilda Saada. Photo: Osnat Elrom

Following Sarit Yishai Levy’s book of the same name, the series is dominated by the female protagonists, with Rosa as the stalwart, scowling supporter of anyone in a crisis, of which there are many as the family live through the Ottoman Empire, The British Mandate and Israel’s War of Independence. The series also presented a new linguistic challenge for Hila, as the script moves between Hebrew, English, Spanish, Turkish and Ladino, the Judaeo Spanish language. “Learning Ladino with the cast’s private tutor was lots of fun,”  she tells me. “I love acting in other languages”.

Hila was always destined to be a performer. Growing up in Migdal Haemek, a small city in the north of Israel, her family were her first audience. “From the age of five, whenever my family gathered at my grandparents’ house on a Saturday afternoon, I would have them sit like a proper audience. I performed little shows, acting and singing, and I absolutely loved it when they clapped for me.”

Following her army service, Hila attended Yoram Levinstein’s acting studio in Tel Aviv. She had numerous theatre roles after drama school and, about five years later, landed significant TV parts. However, it was her role in Beauty and the Baker that was a turning point in her career. One of Israel’s most successful romantic comedy series, it gained international recognition when its format was sold and remade in the US. But it was in Israel that Hila became a household name, propelling her career to new heights.

The cast of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem Photo: Osnat Elrom

Hila was the first member of the cast to be chosen for Beauty Queen and the author Sarit told the actress “she couldn’t imagine a better Rosa,” and she is indeed mesmerising with every subtle gesture and expression revealing the depth of her emotional turmoil from being unloved, marginalised and neglected by her spouse.

I’m curious to know if Rosa’s subservience annoys Hila?

“Actually, Rosa has a lot of inner strength. She holds the fabric of the Ermoza family together! I especially loved playing her in season 1 – when she was 17 years old. So young and so determined”.

Can she relate to Rosa at all in her own life? “Well, I’ve gone through life being a strong woman – so has Rosa! Our lives are completely different and set in different eras but in every situation I tried my best to access her emotions, her inner desires and honestly they are relatable – after all, many of us have been in similar situations without love, battling difficult mothers-in-law, ungrateful daughters!”

Hila says the cast are all good friends. “Irit, who plays my mother-in-law Mercada, is my bestie from the set. She’s an amazing woman. We actually just celebrated her birthday together! Michael Aloni who plays my husband Gavriel is so funny. We joked together a lot on set – a contrast to how serious we are together on screen! Swell, who plays Luna, my eldest daughter, is awesome – we have a very positive mother-daughter relationship in real life, don’t worry!”

Hila Saada. Photo: Shai Franco

Working with the cast felt like being part of one big family, particularly during the first season when they filmed during quarantine. Both seasons were shot in Tzfat, an ancient city with striking similarities to Jerusalem, except it’s notably quiet – especially during quarantine, when it was basically empty.

“We all stayed in one hotel – every night was pizza or sushi with wine! Tzfat is famous for its wine! We all meet up regularly, we have a WhatsApp group. Playing a character who isn’t well loved or appreciated was strange for me because everyone loves me in real life! At the end of the day, Rosa’s role in the Ermoza family is that of survival.”

With a blossoming music career as a songwriter and singer, currently showcased on her YouTube channel, Hila has also collaborated with one of Israel’s leading performers, David D’Or, on a touching duet inspired by Gabriel and Rosa’s story in the drama. Song For Gabriel, sung in Ladino and Hebrew is about pure love, explains Hila. “When I was young, I didn’t know as much as I do now about relationships. I’m an artist – so for me to act and sing is all the same, both are opportunities to express myself.”

And finally, as fans including myself want to know, will she be expressing herself as Rosa in a third season of the series? “We will just have to wait and see!” she says, with the smile of a Beauty Queen.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.





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