Personality Complex is a new regular feature of Complex's Pop Culture channel, where you'll be introduced to rising stars of film and television. Check back in March for the next installment, with Admission's Nat Wolff.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Nine years ago, Alona Tal—star of the ambitious new The CW thriller series Cult (which premieres tonight at 9:00 p.m. EST)—was ready for a change. A working actress in her native country of Israel since the age of 6, the then-21-year-old veteran wanted to take her career to the next level. That level, as is the case for any aspiring TV or film performer, existed in Los Angeles. The only problem: Commuting from her home of Herzlia, Israel, to the City of Angels required a 17-hour flight.
You have 18 years to prepare yourself. Here in the States, you graduate, go on summer break, and then start college. In Israel, you finish high school and go into the force.
She decided to uproot her entire life to America, a drastic change of lifestyle that would've been all the more daunting if Alona hadn't experienced a similar alteration three years prior. When she was 18, Alona began her mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force. For a performing arts high school student, it was a serious departure from her previous ways of life. Stage plays and fictional characters were replaced by automatic weapons and superiors with titles like General and Lieutenant. But she wasn't scared. "It's a cultural norm, so you know it's coming," says Alona, 29. "You have 18 years to prepare yourself. Here in the States, you graduate, go on summer break, and then start college. In Israel, you finish high school and go into the force. It detached me from the umbilical cord a little bit."
Alona's military duties kept her within Israeli borders, traveling from one base to the next, though she didn't participate in many dangerous missions. She ranked as a "samal," two levels above a private. "I wasn't in a very high-profile combat unit, but I traveled to all sorts of areas," says Alona, whose high school sweetheart became a paratrooper sniper. "I would be in a camp and the alarm would go off, and we'd have to go and secure an area. But, overall, I was very lucky that I didn't have to see too much action."
Throughout her two years with the Israeli Defense Force, Alona didn't have to put her career on hold, thanks to some leeway that she was given by the military's highest ranking individuals. "I approached it as a two-year break from acting, but I was very lucky that I got permits to work as an actress while I was serving," she says. "They make exceptions; they're not pig-headed. The thing is, they don't want the soldiers to have their photos taken, as a security issue, but they did give me some exemptions."
For women in Israel, the required amount of time served is two years; for men, it's three. Once she was out of the forces, in 2003, the success-hungry actress dedicated all of her time to her on-screen profession. When it came time to permanently take that 17-hour plane ride to Los Angeles, Alona—the youngest of three female siblings—didn't have to persuade her parents all that much. Although she's a lawyer by trade, Alona's mother is an "artist at heart." "She writes, she dances—she missed her calling," says Alona. "She's from a generation where you needed a profession, so she got a profession and didn't follow her passions."
In Alona, however, her mother saw an opportunity to give somebody the chance to follow her own dreams that she was never able to receive. In 1989, as a 6-year-old, Alona landed her first one-scene acting job in an Israeli short film, Ha-Kluv (translation: The Cage), because her mother, who'd taken two years off from the law field to become a freelance assistant director, was working on the right set at the right time. They needed a little girl, and there was Alona. Her mother's support carried on from there. "She swore that she would allow me to pursue whatever passions I had, and part of that was to allow me to move across the world, while she stayed in Israel. That takes strength as a parent."
Along with her older sister, Alona traveled to Los Angeles as a tourist, having done little to signal her arrival to agents, managers, or any other Hollywood move-makers. Together, the sisters subletted an apartment in Santa Monica, a strategic move that allowed Alona to take some auditions and test the Tinseltown waters. She had a reasonable outlook: If nothing happened within four years, she'd head back to Israel, her pride intact. "I had a career at home, and I just knew that it'd be OK if nothing happened in Los Angeles," she says. "I had family and friends back home. Just because I could potentially feel alone in Los Angeles, that didn't mean I was alone."
As fate would have it, that four-year window only needed seven days. A week after stepping foot in L.A., Alona went on an audition for a Warner Bros. Studios project that ultimately didn't land her a job. What it produced, though, was a holding deal, which meant Warner Bros. would pay her for forthcoming, still-undetermined work as long as she agreed not collaborate with any other agencies while their contract was in effect. With that sudden income, she acquired a work visa and secured her own L.A. apartment within a month. "That was a very, very big sign the universe was holding in my face: 'You've made the right move here,'" says Alona. "I remember calling my mom and saying, 'Remember that sign from the universe I was going to look for? I think I got it.'"