There must have been hundreds of New York City detectives over the last century of film and television – from Dan Muldoon in “Naked City” to Jake Peralta in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – but few are as unusual as Avraham Avraham.
It goes beyond the whimsical name: Avraham, the protagonist of David E. Kelley’s new Peacock series The Calling, has become more religious with age, but he’s not specifically Orthodox or even kosher. He is a spiritual seeker, quoting the Talmud in conversation and the Bible in inquiry; He prays for murder victims, but sometimes conjures up visual images of victims as he seeks to use his extraordinary empathy as a weapon in the fight against crime.
Even more unusual, however, is the backstory of the actor who plays him, Jeff Wilbusch.
Wilbusch, 34, was born in Israel to a Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish family, the eldest of 14 siblings; He spoke only Yiddish and Hebrew and did not watch television or films until he left his family and community for good at the age of 13 and went to college and then to graduate school, where he earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Amsterdam. At 23 he discovered a new passion and moved to Munich to study acting.
Wilbusch is now also fluent in English, German and Dutch and began earning screen time in 2018 in The Little Drummer Girl and a German series called Bad Banks. But he started attracting attention here two years ago with his appearance in the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox as Moishe, a gunman Hasidic Jew who is sent from Brooklyn to Europe to rescue a woman who fled the community . Last year he starred in the HBO series Oslo and played the Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry during the secret negotiations with Palestine in the 1990s. And he recently starred in Schacten, a German film about a Jewish man in 1960s Europe who decides to take personal revenge on the Nazi commander who tortured his parents.
Though Wilbusch left his family, his religion, and his country behind, he’s clearly not done investigating them — and “The Calling,” which premieres Thursday, is in some ways a play with those projects. Wilbusch spoke about the series and his life experience in a recent video interview with The Times, edited for length and clarity.
Were you even concerned that Avi’s religious and spiritual self was a gimmick that would fall by the wayside when the procedural stuff took over?
I spoke to David E. Kelley about these things and with [executive producer] Jonathan Shapiro. The amount of passion and the way Jonathan looked very closely at the details – like the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi tefillin [black leather boxes holding portions of the Torah] – was very reassuring. They were also really concerned about the character’s backstory.
I’ve read the scripts hundreds of times. I always asked so many questions and pressed for many details and demanded clarity about everything. I can’t help it.
There’s diversity in your recent roles, but you still portray the kind of Jewish characters that don’t typically get portrayed on screen. Are you looking for this or did you make one and now everyone is saying, “He’s that guy”?
That’s the question I ask myself. It’s both I think. They choose me and then I decide whether I want this role or not.
It’s extremely, extremely, extremely important to play complex characters that weren’t portrayed. I always think of Moishe and when I meet people from the Hasidic community I still want to hear what they think. Moishe still lives with me.
I’ve never seen a character like this on The Calling – who’s Jewish and whose superpower is empathy – let alone played one. And it felt very important in these times that we are in now.
Are you planning to look for other types of characters?
I’m definitely drawn to characters who are haunted by their past. But I love comedy, and when I got into theatre, I had to do comedy. There is dry, dark humor in this series. And I think I can be funny in real life. Sometimes people now say, “You’re funny” and are surprised.
Avraham’s emotional certainty misleads the detectives on at least one occasion; he is also once referred to as “the arrogant man in sheep’s clothing”. Do his religious beliefs, spirituality, and empathy make him arrogant or prevent him from being more?
I don’t see him as arrogant. He only has one blind spot. I don’t think we’re all good or bad within ourselves – there are so many shades of grey. Avraham is far from perfect. There are such contradictions in him. He believes in humanity and loves people but is a loner and has no family. He is a master of psychology but knows so little about himself. He solves everyone else’s cases, but there are unsolved mysteries in his own life. He reads philosophers but is attracted to his religion but not so dogmatic about it. All this fascinates me.
How much do you draw from your own heritage and self for a character like this?
All. everything and more This character is so complex that I have to do a lot of research and then work hard and then learn the lyrics and then put everything that I am into it. And then he becomes Avi.
What made you leave your family and community, especially at such a young age?
That’s a long story and I’ll try to answer it myself. I still don’t have an answer.
Was there a feeling, conscious or subconscious, that there was more to see and experience out there in the world?
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 your masters in economics because you didn’t know you could be an actor. What led to this transformation?
I remember the moment I discovered acting. I was 23 and my then girlfriend’s father was a choreographer and asked me to perform music and that’s how I ended up on stage. This feeling of being on stage led me to audition at an acting school. Rehearsing the monologues for school felt like drinking water after years of thirst. Everything clicked.
Now when I look at my life I am so thankful for everything that has happened. Now everything makes sense, even the detours. I’m so glad I studied economics. Being a student or working in a supermarket – all these experiences make me what I am and I can use them in my characters to tell stories.
Performing and expressing yourself is such a beautiful gift. We all have it. I am passionate about telling stories through characters. People tell me I’m so disciplined and work so hard. But I found my passion and I love being an actor. I can not stop.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-11-10/jeff-wilbusch-the-calling-peacock-unorthodox-netflix Meet Jeff Wilbusch, Avraham Avraham in ‘The Calling’ Peacock