Jeff Willbush left his Hasidic community at the age of thirteen. Now he is exploring his identity on TV
There must have been hundreds of New York City detectives across the past century in movies and television — from Dan Muldoon in “The Naked City” to Jake Peralta in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — but few are as extraordinary as Avraham Avraham.
Beyond this odd name: Avraham, the hero of David E. Kelley’s new Peacock series, “The Calling” has become more religious as he gets older, but isn’t specifically orthodox or even kosher. He is a spiritual seeker who quotes the Talmud in hadith and the Bible in questioning. He prays for the victims of murder, but sometimes also conjures up visual images of the victims while trying to use his extraordinary sense of empathy as a weapon in his fight against crime.
Even more bizarre, however, is the dramatic story of the actor who plays him, Jeff Willbush.
Welbush, 34, was born in Israel, the eldest of 14 brothers from a Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish family. He spoke only Yiddish and Hebrew and did not watch TV or movies until he left his family and society for good at the age of 13. As well as to college and then postgraduate studies, and obtained a master’s degree in economics from the University of Amsterdam. At the age of 23 he discovered a new passion and moved to Munich to study acting.
Welbusch, who now also speaks fluent English, German and Dutch, gained screen time in 2018 in The Little Drummer Girl and on the German series “Bad Banks.” But he started gaining attention here two years ago with his performance in the “funky” Netflix mini-series as Moishe, a gun-wielding Hasidic Jew sent from Brooklyn to Europe to retrieve a woman who has fled society. Last year, he co-starred in HBO’s “Oslo,” where he played the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs during secret negotiations with Palestine in the 1990s. He recently starred in “Shackten,” a German film about a Jewish man in 1960s Europe who decides to seek personal revenge against the Nazi leader who tortured his parents.
So, even though Wellbush left his family, religious community, and country behind, he clearly hasn’t finished checking it out — and “The Calling,” which premiered Thursday, is somehow part of those projects. Wellbush spoke about the series and his life experience in a recent video interview with The Times, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Was I ever wary that Avi’s religious and spiritual self was a gimmick would fall by the wayside as procedural matters took over?
I’ve talked to David E. Kelley about these things, and to [executive producer] Jonathan Shapiro. The amount of passion and the way Jonathan was so meticulous about details – like the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Tefillin. [black leather boxes holding portions of the Torah] – He was very reassuring. They were really worried about the character’s backstory as well.
I read the texts hundreds of times. I was always asking a lot of questions, pressing for a lot of details, and demanding clarity about everything. I can’t do otherwise.
There is variety in your recent roles, but you still portray the kind of Jewish characters that aren’t usually portrayed on screen. Are you looking for it or have you done something and now everyone is saying, ‘He’s that guy’?
This is the question I ask myself. Both, I think. They choose me and then I choose whether I want that role or not.
It is very, very important to play complex characters that are not represented. I always think of Moishe, and when I meet people from the Hasidic community, I still want to hear what they think. Moshi still lives with me.
With “The Calling,” I’ve never seen such a character before – who’s a Jew and his greatest strength is empathy – let alone play one. And I felt so important in these times that we’re in right now.
Are you planning to look for other types of characters?
I’m drawn to characters who are haunted by their pasts, sure. But I love comedy, and when I started working in the theater, I was doing comedy. In this series there is dry and dark humor. I think I can be funny in real life. Sometimes people now say, “You’re funny,” and they are surprised.
Avraham’s emotional certainty leads the investigators in the wrong direction at least once. He was also at one time called “the arrogant man in sheep’s clothing”. Do his religious beliefs, spirituality, and sentimentality make him arrogant or prevent him from being any more?
I don’t see him arrogant. He only has a blind spot. I don’t think there are good or bad things inside of us – there are too many shades of gray. Abraham is far from perfect. It has such contradictions. He believes in humanity and loves people, but he is lonely and has no family. He is a professor of psychology but knows very little about himself. He solves other people’s issues but there are unsolved mysteries in his private life. He reads philosophers but is attracted to his religion but is not dogmatic about it. All this is great for me.
How much do you draw on your background and yourself for a character like this?
everything. everything and more. This character is so complex that I need to do a lot of research and then work hard and then learn the lines and then put everything I am inside. And then it becomes Avi.
What made you leave your family and community, especially at such a young age?
This is a long story and I am trying to answer that myself. I still don’t have an answer.
Was there a feeling, conscious or not, that there was more in the world to see and experience?
That’s a big part of it. But like Avi, many actors know a lot about their characters but very little about themselves, so…
You said you got a master’s degree in economics because you didn’t know you could become an actor. What led to this transformation?
I remember the moment I found acting. I was 23, and my then-girlfriend’s father was a choreographer and asked me to play music, and I ended up on stage. This feeling of being on stage led me to audition for acting school. Practicing monologues for school felt like drinking water after feeling thirsty for years. Everything was clicked.
Now looking back at my life, I am so grateful for everything that has happened. Everything now makes sense, even the turns. I am very happy that I studied economics. Being a student or working in a supermarket – all of these experiences are who I am and I can use them in my characters to tell stories.
Performing and expressing yourself is a beautiful gift. We all have it. I am passionate about telling stories through characters. People tell me that I am very disciplined and work hard. But I found my passion and love to be an actor. I can not stop.
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