Sister act

Dana Ivgy on playing Liron Ben-Shlush's sister in Next To Her.

by Jennie Kermode

Dana Ivgy and Liron Ben-Shlush in Next To Her
Dana Ivgy and Liron Ben-Shlush in Next To Her

Dana Ivgy is eating croissants; it’s a busy morning and she’s squeezing in breakfast whilst she can, so I thank her for finding the time to talk. She’s in London to promote Israeli drama Next To Her, which is out this week and which tells the story of two sisters bound together by the fact that one of them has a learning disorder and the other provides her with care. The film is an intense, no-holds-barred look at the complexities of the carer relationship and it demands a lot of Dana, who plays the cared-for sister, Gabby. I ask her what first attracted her to the role.

“It’s a long answer,” she warns me, setting breakfast aside for the meantime. “The director, Asaf [Korman], and Liron [Ben-Shlush, who plays sister Rachel] are both my best friends so I was there from the start when they first talked about it. We went to high school together and we used to always make films together and make songs together. We learned cinema together in high school and I used to act in his films or I was the cinematographer. I knew this film from when it was just a three line synopsis and I immediately thought it was a great idea, and I knew how talented they both were. So I was thrilled when Liron said “You could play my sister.” Because we look so much alike it made sense.”

Getting the look as Gabby
Getting the look as Gabby

The character of Gabby is based on Liron’s real life sister, Nati, which gave Dana an extra sense of responsibility when portraying her.

“It made it a very delicate situation for me,” she says. “I was so afraid of getting something wrong and making her feel insulted or hurt that I didn’t want to show them what I was working on. It took me three months to show them any acting. I didn’t want to seem disrespectful of her because I loved her so much.”

Researching the role was complicated, she says.

“I found that I needed lots information that I just didn’t have so I had do a lot of research about mental disabilities and about autism and check it out with Liron and find out what medication Nati was on and find out about that, I wanted to show what her situation is when she’s normal, what her brain does when she’s normal and then look at what happens when there’s a problem. I had to have all that information before trying really. I spent a lot of time with Liron’s sister. I got to go to the home she was in and see her with her friends and in her classrooms. I really fell in love with her. Through that bonding I could feel what I needed to do more than think about it, which is important because you can’t think on set, it has to be very spontaneous and loose, you have to be able to jump and not hold yourself back with your brain. It was great having Liron there on the set with me all the time because I could ask her any question because she grew up with Nati. Even the way she treated me helped.”

One of the reasons I like the film, I say, is that the relationship between the sisters isn’t one-sided. Gabby is a strong character and in some ways her sister seems dependent on her. Dana agrees.

“I didn’t think of it before but I do think Nati has a way of controlling situations,” she says. “It always impressed me how she could get her way, whether with words or without words, or just with looks. She has a very, very strong energy.”

Another interesting thing the film does is to take on the subject of Gabby’s sexuality and other people’s reactions to it.

“Me and Liron and Asaf, we really wanted to expose the sides of being a carer that are rarely exposed,” Dana says. “When dealing with mental illness and learning disabilities, why is there never any sexuality? When dealing with these subjects it’s treated as if it’s so wrong or bad, like it’s even wrong to show it, but I think we should show it because it exists! Even for small kids these needs exist so of course they exist for grown-ups. These are natural needs but I don’t know, I think it’s something people are always afraid of. Even reading the script, some of my friends were asking ‘How can you do this? How can you be naked in the bathtub in that situation?’ For us it was just a funny thing. We didn’t like the idea of making it something – what’s the word? - something sterile. Characters with disabilities are always portrayed as aesthetic and sterile. Maybe that’s easier for people to accept, but maybe it drives them away from the real thing. We wanted to show the beauty of the unaesthetic parts of that relationship, how many different kinds of things there are in this kind of life when you’re taking care of somebody... it’s not that nice, it’s not that perfect, it’s sometimes really hard and really frustrating and sometimes it doesn’t look that good but that doesn’t mean it’s not love and it doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying.”

A moment of intimacy
A moment of intimacy

It’s an intense film and she delivers a intense performance. I explain that I don’t really know how it fits in with her work as a whole because not many Israeli films make it over here; the only other think I’ve seen her in is Cupcakes. She laughs.

“Cupcakes is very different from anything else that I’ve done!” she declares. “I’m usually drawn to hardcore, intense parts. Cupcakes was the first kind of feelgood film I’ve ever done. For people in Israel the question was the opposite. They said ‘We never saw you smiling for a whole film before!’ It was a lot of fun. It was something I’ve never done – it was a lot about just having fun, mainly working with the ensemble and it was about the relationships between people.”

What was the atmosphere on set like when making Next To Her?

“This was also something I’d never, ever experienced before,” she answers. “For me it was perfect. It felt like I was working in a family business, we were all so close... I know Asaf from high school and I’ve always known he was a genius. I always nagged him ‘When are you going to make your film? Come on, you’re getting old!’ I have complete trust in him and it was a great feeling to know that I could just fall back. I know he’ll make something that I love... Sometimes I found myself being taken care of by Liron between takes because she had got used to thinking of me that way and I had to say ‘No, it’s alright – I can manage by myself!’ I felt I had great freedom to follow my instincts because I didn’t bring my criticism with me; none of the hard parts of me came to work. I hardly even saw anything most of the time. Liron and I spent a lot of time working on that specific look that Nati has, a sort of gaze. Almost all of the people in the home had that look and it was very hard to get it right. When I finally managed to get into it, it was addictive. It was kind of like I gazed all day and everything was out of focus. I was pregnant at the time too and it was kind of like a dream. Because I didn’t see a lot of what was going on while we were filming it was like watching someone else.”

Does she see herself working in that group again?

“I try not to repeat myself,” she says. “I want to keep developing. I want to move forwards... but may someday. There’s a wide range of things to do around that subject.”

She does have future film plans but she’s not allowed to talk about them. Right now there’s another project on her mind anyway.

“I just released my first music album! It’s called I.D., like the first letters of my name. When I was in high school I had to choose between film or music. It was hard. I went to London to check out film schools but eventually I was drawn to study acting and I felt that if I was to study acting it had to be in my own language, because I had to know it from the inside out before I checked out other people’s language or culture. So it ended up that I went to the same acting school where my parents met each other. It’s funny because I tried to do things differently. Now for the first time I’ve been able to work on music, so I’m freeing up some time to do that and my shows.”

Next To Her is now showing in UK cinemas. You can download Dana’s album here.

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