Jessica Meyer: Journey Through Judaism

From faking a British accent to score a role in the film “The Pianist” to training to become a rabbi, Jessica Kate Meyer has had a life full of exciting changes, which she described to students last Saturday. Meyer created an informal atmosphere that invited the audience to join in the discussion. The event was attended lightly, probably because it was held in the choir room, a location that was somewhat unknown, but the audience was attentive and asked plentiful questions. Meyer’s participation in “The Pianist” was her first film experience. She compared her receiving the job while she was still in acting school to “a student of political science getting a job at the White House.” “The Pianist” started as a memoir written by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish-Polish pianist, titled “Death of A City.” After recording his experiences of the Holocaust, Szpilman stored the book away in his library, and there it lived unnoticed until his son Andre discovered it and got it published in 1999 under the new title. At the time the book was published, Meyer was attending drama school in London. Her sister recommended the book and told her she should play Szpilman’s sister, Halina, in the movie. Meyer laughed at the suggestion, considering it too lofty, but bought the book and felt so inspired by it that she went on a mission to get the job, or at least audition. She came across the phone number of the executive producer and talked to him personally, even though the casting for the film hadn’t started yet. On the phone, Meyer spoke in a British accent because people had told her that if her American nationality were discovered she would never get the job. She told the executive producer about the connection she felt with the sister’s character and inquired about auditioning. Meyer auditioned in London and received the job with satisfaction. The first day of filming, at a small read with only the rest of the cast of the family and director Roman Polanski present, Meyer spoke in a British accent, fearing she would be fired if her nationality was discovered. Polanski immediately said to her, “Jessica, rumor has it you are American. Why are you speaking in a British accent?” She was mortified, but relieved at the same time that she didn’t have to lie anymore. For Meyer, filming was filled with transformational experiences, many of which were emotionally draining. In preparation for shooting, the cast of the family lived together, viewed footage from the Holocaust and met survivors. They spent time with Andre, Szpilman’s son, who was mystified when meeting them because they represented the closest thing he had to a family. The actors shot the film in Berlin and Poland, which helped them understand the setting of the story. Meyer listened to music from the time period to immerse herself in the character. Upon arrival in Poland, the actors visited the remains of the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto. The wall was situated in someone’s backyard, virtually unnoticeable. When the actors saw their set of the ghetto, they were astonished by the detail for which director Roman Polanski was known. Sometimes the filming would shock the actors to the point that at night they either went dancing or straight to sleep to forget the horrors of the life they were only pretending to live. A powerful experience for Meyer was shooting the scene before the family got shoved on the cattle car. Polanski purposefully gave directions in Polish, German and French, the languages spoken by the extras, but avoided English to disorient the main actors and make the scene more realistic. Meyer noticed the attention to specifics while shooting the scene in the warehouse, when the family was sorting the belongings of the unfortunate people taken to concentration camps. At first, the suitcases were filled with scarves, ties and other random articles of clothing. When Polanski noticed this, he immediately stopped filming and stated enraged that if someone had five minutes to pack a suitcase of things, those were not the items one would bring. The next day, when the actors opened the suitcases, the items therein were photographs, books with torn pages and other little objects that would only be meaningful to people fleeing their homes. After filming, Meyer moved to Los Angeles, but everything seemed less meaningful after her partaking in “The Pianist.” She began to practice Judaism more seriously and started teaching children in Hebrew school. She started leading prayer and enjoyed it because she felt that the religious community was “a community where things actually happen,” not like a film set. Meyer said this radical change was “going from the soulless world of Hollywood, to an incredibly soulful world.” Later, Meyer received an invitation to play Cleopatra in the HBO series “Rome” at the same time as an offer of a Jewish fellowship. She chose the fellowship and did not regret her choice later on, when his father, after seeing the series, told her Cleopatra was naked almost all the time, something that probably would not have suited Meyer very well in her possible career as a rabbi. Now Meyer is at school training to become a rabbi, but she still remembers “The Pianist” as the experience that spurred the tragectory of the rest of her life.