Maia Morgenstern has the pale white skin of someone who lives in a cold climate. Her ivory eyelet shirt, heavy plaid skirt and thick black shoes seem out of kilter in the sunshine of wintertime Los Angeles, amid the effortless sleekness of the denizens of the Four Seasons Hotel, as does her air of sober thoughtfulness. This is only the second time the Romanian star has visited Los Angeles and the first time the 41-year-old actress, who's appeared in 28 films, has found herself in the middle of the major American movie, one that's rapidly transforming from a film into a cultural watershed: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
Over lunch in the hotel dining room, the jet-lagged Morgenstern keeps fingering the large, gold Star of David that hangs from her neck. Morgenstern, who's Jewish, insists that it's not something she's purposefully wearing to promote the film during a rash of interviews. "I always wear it," she says in accented English. "Not on the stage, or on the set when I'm filming, depending on the character. Since my parents and my grandparents were forced to wear yellow Jewish stars on their clothes as a sign of racism and anti-Semitism during the Second World War ... " her voice trails off. "So it's jewelry and beautiful jewelry."
Still, it's hard not to see Morgenstern as a skirmisher in the war against the bad publicity that has beset the hugely popular film, which presents in gory detail the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. Many critics have noted its harsh portrayal of Jews, and some Christian and Jewish groups have questioned whether the film will encourage anti-Semitism. The film has received mixed reviews, although it has scored at the box office, earning $125 million in its first five days.
Gibson first saw Morgenstern in a videotape from "The Seventh Room," in which she played Edith Stein, a Jew who became a nun and was killed in the Holocaust and later canonized. "The film opens with a big close-up of her," the director says. "She's so beautiful. I just fell in love with her from the screen, from her eyes, the soulful stuff she's able to exude without much effort, just what's intrinsic to who she is." He wanted to steer away from the sanctified, perennially haloed vision of Mary that dots much religious art. "I wanted a mother who had a heart," he says, adding that it was a felicitous coincidence that she happened to be Jewish. "Mary was Jewish. What could be more perfect?" He even took Morgenstern's suggestion to add the line "Why is this night different from all other nights?" -- a traditional Jewish Passover prayer, although it plays as a double-entendre, to mean that this is the night Jesus is killed.
To prepare, Morgenstern read not only the Gospels but many histories of the period and took inspiration from such art as Michelangelo's famous statue of Mary, La Pieta. "I was very much interested in my character as a mother losing her child," says Morgenstern, who happened to be pregnant with her third child during the arduous filming. "I was trying to avoid traps, 'Mary, her eyes filled with tears.' We were trying to work hard on each detail that makes her human and not a blanket of water, despite her desperation."
Morgenstern is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and many of her relatives perished in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. She had much early success in Bucharest's Yiddish theater and is famous in her country for performing such classics as Aeschylus' "The Oresteia" and plays by Gogol.
"I don't think the film is anti-Semitic," she says. "The Jewish people are not blamed. I wouldn't have accepted [the part], although I was very honored, and very pleased that Mel Gibson had [offered]. My grandfather was killed. He is a victim of the Holocaust, and I'm very sensitive to the subject."
Coming from a former Soviet Bloc country, which labored for years under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, she sees the film's drama through a political prism, where corrupt officials bend a weary populace to their rule. "It's so easy, I've discovered, to manipulate poor people," she says. "I was living in a country. I'm living in Romania. I do remember how easy it was to manipulate us when we were in the streets shouting against Ceausescu, shouting against communism. There were some of them [the leaders] trying to push us in the direction they wanted. We have to be very careful when we are thinking about leaders -- religious, political or military leaders. The people are so easy to manipulate."