via The Brooklyn Rail (Dec-Jan):
by Williams Cole
Zoe Lister-Jones with Williams Cole
Zoe Lister-Jones is a star of the new film Arranged, the story of the friendship of two women, one an Orthodox Jew and the other a Muslim. Directed by Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer, the film is set in contemporary Brooklyn. Opening at the Quad Cinemas on December 14th, the film premiered at South by Southwest and went on to win the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Lister-Jones, a Brooklyn native, has appeared on Broadway in The Little Dog Laughed, has had a one woman show at P.S. 122, and is the youngest actor to ever appear on all four Law and Order TV series. She was also featured in Guy Richards Smit's art video Nausea II (2004). The Rail's Williams Cole sat down with Lister-Jones and talked about her experiences growing up in Kings County, playing an Orthodox Jew, wearing snoods and showing skin.
Williams Cole (Rail): Tell us about the plot of Arranged.
Zoe Lister-Jones: Arranged is the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman and a young Muslim woman who are both teaching at a Brooklyn public school and connect because they're both outsiders sticking to what most people think of as antiquated traditions. As they get to know each other they find out they're also both going through the process of arranged marriages. I think it's a wonderful story to tell, especially because it's so Brooklyn-centric. What's amazing about Brooklyn is that you have neighborhoods where it's literally the Jewish block next to the Muslim block and while the communities are so weirdly segregated from each other, they're so head-to-head that they're much more aware of each other than more spread-out communities, where I think it's easier to be ignorant. And in both the Muslim community and the Orthodox Jewish community there are political ties abroad and, at this time especially, that clearly has an impact on their relationship here.
Rail: You grew up in Brooklyn. What was your perspective on the Orthodox Jewish communities?
Lister-Jones: Growing up my perception was fairly negative, because I was raised by artists who had a very distinct connection to their own Judaism and spirituality. So it wasn't just like "Oh, that's some Jewish nonsense." We were very identified as Jews, but the Orthodox seemed like Evangelists to us. I remember that some Orthodox rented a space underneath us in our synagogue and that they were very judgmental. And I didn't like their judgment. It was really uncomfortable. And I also remember my mom teaching me that when the Hassids would come up to you and ask "Are you Jewish?" on the street, that I should say "Yes, but I don't believe in your brand of Judaism!" which is really a funny thing to teach a kid to say. But because I don’t have balls like my Mom does, I would just say "Uh, no." But she was like “don’t say no! You are! You are Jewish! You just take a stand!" I think she was always questioning their line of thinking because, as Jews, you are ultimately sharing the same beliefs. For her, it was about questioning why those communities do what they do and asking: Why do they have to be so based on tradition?
Rail: Arranged is loosely based on an Orthodox Jewish woman from Brooklyn who is actually the executive producer of the film, right?
Lister-Jones: Yes, her name is Yuta Silverman and she's a totally interesting character. I wanted to meet her before I started working on the film because I was struggling with inhabiting this woman whose community I judged pretty heavily. So my mom and I went to meet her in Borough Park, which is an Orthodox hub. And it was really funny because my Mom and I knew that area of Brooklyn pretty well because we’d go and get our hallah there. My mom and I keep kosher, so there's an aspect that we share with that community. But Yuta was surprised and asked, "How do you know about this place?" It was like we were coming in from Mars. We would say, "We're from Brooklyn, of course we know about this place." Then we got into this really interesting discussion where I asked her what she thought about feminism and she said, "I don't like the 'Feminist Group.' I don’t believe in the feminist group. You know who I like? Rush Limbaugh." And I was like, "Oh no! Here we go, my mom’s gonna have a fit!" But my mom then said, "Well do you think it’s fair that women teachers don't get the same salary as male teachers?" She said no. "Do you think it's fair that a man can divorce his wife but a woman can't divorce her husband?" And she said, well, no. So it was about kind of taking away the stigma of the so-called feminist group and actually asking her questions that she could relate to specifically.
Rail: How does the Orthodox community look at what she's doing?
Lister-Jones: What's so fascinating about Yuta is that she's an executive producer of a film—something that, in that community, to my knowledge, is pretty unheard of, especially as a female. I think she's totally revolutionary in her actions but has no idea she is. But that's what's so cool about her. She's in a community that seems misogynistic and really old school, and still, within it, she's pushing certain boundaries with no real self-awareness. That's what I could relate to in her character. She's just like a really ballsy tall chick with flaming red hair—she kind of looks like an Orthodox Molly Ringwald. Most interesting characters are the ones that don’t wear things on their sleeves and have a certain mystery. I was fascinated with playing her character but I guess I didn't know how to play it without judging her. I was actually judging the community as a whole rather than seeing there are really cool things going on in that community which I don’t think get a lot of press. There are women who are actually trying to push the envelope. Just the fact that Yuta isn't married and has found a life where she loves to be independent of a mate is something really subversive in that community. She's also started to make her own all-women films that are shown only to women! And it's so funny to see a young woman who says, "I don't believe in the feminist group" to essentially become a feminist filmmaker—and she does it all on her own. Also, one thing most people don't understand about these communities is the different levels. For example, there's modern Orthodox and regular Orthodox and, of course, that's very different from the Hasidic communities. A lot of the time you can tell the differences in dress. I actually became obsessed with dress during shooting because sometimes I'd see a woman, say, showing elbow!
Rail: Clothes seem like the most obvious thing people outside these various communities notice. What did you start to see while inside the community?
More about Arranged, show times, etc...