NESSA STEIN seems to have everything, including the resources to bring about some reconciliation in the Middle East.
She’s not the first to discover that’s harder than it looks.
Still, she tries, which is the right thing.
“You don’t have to do it perfectly,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Nessa Stein in “The Honorable Woman,” a BBC Two series that debuts here Thursday night at 10 on Sundance. “But you have to do something. This (story) is about acting, getting involved, putting your feet in the water.”
In an eight-part drama that’s part action thriller and part psychological drama, Nessa runs the Stein Group, a multinational firm she steers toward large-scale philanthropic projects.
In the Middle East, of course, not even the best-intended gestures can stay above conflict.
For Nessa, the seemingly benevolent act of installing high-speed data service between Israel and the West Bank triggers a backlash that quickly becomes whiplash.
Her plan becomes embroiled in external conflicts that eerily mirror the current real-life battles in Israel and Gaza — though this script was written some time earlier. As complications arise and dominoes fall, “The Honorable Woman” takes off on a ride that’s both fast-paced in its action-adventure story and contemplative in letting us see the complexity that drives and at times threatens to smother Nessa’s own life.
While the show’s title reflects her aspirations and her most fervent hope, the course of events makes it clear that unblemished honor is a luxury not available to mortals and perhaps not even to gods.
Gyllenhaal — who declined to comment on the current real life violence in the region — is okay with that.
“None of us,” she says, “ever do anything perfectly.”
Nessa Stein has a very personal reason for wanting to do something meaningful in the Middle East.
When she was a young girl, she and her brother Ephra were dining with their father Eli, who then ran the Stein Group, at a fancy restaurant.
She’s focused on trying to bring people and countries together. She’s focused on the large issues.
One of the waiters pulled a gun and shot Eli in the head, leaving Nessa and Ephra spattered with his blood.
In the eyes of the waiter, it was more assassination than murder. One of the Stein Group’s primary enterprises was supplying guns to Israel.
Gyllenhaal says growing up with that memory, and in that shadow, became part of what inspired Nessa to take the present-day Stein Group in a very different direction.
“She understands why her father did what he did,” says Gyllenhaal. “Still, she’s the daughter of a Zionist gunrunner and she’s accepting some responsibility for what his company did.
“So she’s focused on trying to bring people and countries together. She’s focused on the large issues.”
In one early scene, she and her brother walk a short red carpet into a concert hall for a Stein-funded musical gala. A reporter asks her about reconciliation, she gives a bland answer. Then she returns to add that she’s not sure anyone has one single solution, but that at least “we are no longer part of the problem.”
Meanwhile, her personal life is almost as complicated as regional politics. She’s efficient, highly competent, skilled in social situations and entrenched behind the walls she’s been building since the day she saw her father die.
“It almost feels like Nessa is holding her breath until this moment where she can’t hold it any more,” says Gyllenhaal.
“The Honorable Woman” heightens the tensions in both her professional and personal lives by watching Nessa’s small moments.
Gyllenhaal notes one early moment where Nessa “snaps at one of the bodyguards, seemingly out of nowhere.” It’s a glimpse, she suggests, of what’s really simmering inside her walls.
“One of the things I loved about the script is that a lot of things surprised me about who Nessa is,” she says. “She’s always trying to avoid revealing herself, and there were times when I didn’t know myself what was going on. There’s a scene in one episode where I’m crying on the floor in my underwear, and I don’t know why.”
One of the larger beauties of “The Honorable Woman,” Gyllenhaal says, is that this kind of self-deception is not peculiar to women from wealth and privilege. It’s common right down the socio-economic line.
“The public/private dichotomy is a huge part of who Nessa is,” she says. “When she’s in public, she’s performing. She’s playing herself.
“I can certainly relate to that, and not just because I’m an actress. It’s definitely an occupational hazard of being an actress, but I think every human being in the world, on some level, is performing herself and themselves.
“And the reason is because what’s underneath it can be terrifying.”
For an actress, of course, “terrifying” is code for “Bring it on.”
“I was attracted in this script to the whole spectrum of expression that was available to me as Nessa,” says Gyllenhaal. “Because, yes, she’s very powerful and graceful and intelligent. She’s also really childish and broken and hungry and desperate.
“I recognize those qualities in myself. They all exist in me. I like big shoulder pads, but I don’t necessarily want to play just a powerful woman, because I don’t buy that. There are moments I feel very powerful, and then there are moments where I really don’t. This role allowed all that to exist at the same time.”
That explains why she took a relatively rare step in her own life, which was accepting a role in a TV series. At 36, she’d never done that before — and in this century she has only done three other TV projects, two movies and a hosting gig on Discovery.
But she couldn’t turn down “The Honorable Woman,” written by Hugo Blick.
“It’s always more interesting to watch someone actually learning something or actually having an experience than to watch them pretending,” says Gyllenhaal. “And the only way to do that is if you’ve created a situation where that freedom, that surprise, that question mark is possible.
“It’s unusual. It happens, like, once every five years. You get together with a group of people, and something actually happens. You actually come out a different person.”
Nor did she emerge from “The Honorable Woman” simply feeling personal satisfaction. She also hopes the audience, besides enjoying the story and spectacle, will spend a little time contemplating the all-too-real Middle East issues the show raises.
“We don’t tend to think about them, perhaps because they seem so hopeless,” says Gyllenhaal. “I’m hoping this show will create a little space where people might.
“Our project doesn’t say this is right and this is wrong. It just points out the things we need to consider. It doesn’t even matter where you come down as long as you think about them.”
You don’t have to be perfect. Just be in the game.
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