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.'"
It's a cold, overcast February afternoon in Manhattan's Flatiron District. Alona is dressed in a vintage green dress that looks like it's been lifted straight from the Mad Men wardrobe closet—it's the kind of classy get-up that Don Draper's go-getter wife, Megan, would wear to a meet clients. To accentuate the look, Alona's hair is done up bouffant style. You'd think it was 1960 if it weren't for her snorkel coat with fur. The reason for her self-proclaimed "demure" appearance: She's en route to an audition for a "1960s period project," though she won't divulge said project's title.
The universe held a promising, figurative sign before her eyes nearly a decade ago, but, nevertheless, Alona is still seeking jobs. It's the never-ending cycle of a hard-working actress on the rise. And she's perfectly fine with that. It also helps that her husband, Marcos Ferraez, is a fellow working actor. "He pulls me down to earth," she says. "When he sees that I'm stressing, he'll tell me, 'Mow the lawn, do some laundry. Just calm down. It's going to be OK.' It's the best thing for me, because he keeps me from getting lost in all of the BS."
In between sips of green tea (she's a "health nut" and prefers it to coffee) at a quiet, Flatiron coffee shop, Alona rationalizes a career that, over the course of nine years, has seen her appear—whether in one-episode roles or frequent co-starring parts—in 20 TV shows. "Family members will ask me, 'So what's your next move?' And I'm like, 'Working, obviously,'" she says, laughing. "That's followed by, 'I'm trying to pay my rent.' The level of glamour that people associate with the business isn't realistic. It's not this leisurely lifestyle that people think it is, at least not in the stage of my career that I'm in. There's a very select group of actors who can just pick and choose what they want to do, and when I say 'select' I mean that you can count them on your hands."
Last month, Alona reached a professional landmark: She co-starred in her first major studio movie. In the Allen Hughes-directed Broken City, she played the feisty Katy Bradshaw, the loyal assistant to Mark Wahlberg's private detective character and key element to his investigation into a corrupt politician (played by Russell Crowe). Filled with the humor, gumption, and presence necessary to hold one's own alongside heavyweights like Wahlberg and Crowe, it's a scene-stealing, memorable performance.
In his three-star review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "I looked up Alona Tal because she's such crackerjack fun in Broken City." That's a flattering compliment, no doubt, but it's a sign that, as she's well aware, Alona is still creeping up on people's radars. "I'm always thinking about the next thing," she says. "It's a fickle business and it can change on a dime. It's all about having the philosophy of 'keep working,' and then hopefully people will see what you're doing. I don't always have that privilege of picking and choosing what I want to be on. It's not like I can say, 'OK, I want to be on Game of Thrones, please,' and then it just happens. It's not that simple. Unfortunately, I have not cracked the formula of success in this business entirely."
One area in which Alona has achieved routine success is TV. She's no stranger to shows with rabid followings, having played fan-favorite characters on Veronica Mars and The CW's Supernatural. That sense of fandemonium, albeit in a much more obsessive and threatening way, is what drives her latest TV project, Cult. In her biggest small-screen role to date, Alona plays Kelly Collins, a detective who's obsessed with uncovering the secrets of a Jamestown-like cult from which she once escaped. Consider it Martha Marcy May Marlene by way of NCIS. Except there's an intriguing quirk: Her character is actually just a character on a show-within-the-show, and fans of the faux series are starting to kill people in ways depicted on the Cult within Cult.
It doesn't get anymore meta than that. And for Alona, TV doesn't get anymore original. "To do a show that I know for a fact hasn't been made on any network recently, especially one that touches on the fan aspect, that's what you want," she says of Cult. "You want something that's never been done before, and it's hard to find that in this business."
Alona adds, "A lot of the stories that you see are essentially the same, but some of the variable changes. Even here, there are elements that are very similar to a lot of other different shows. It's not that it's frustrating. I can appreciate people wanting to see a formula; people rely on what they know, whether it be the viewers of the people at the networks who make the shows. There are formulas they know people will tune into because they want an escape. As an artist, I try to get on the trains that are leading somewhere new."
On the heels of Broken City and now Cult, Alona's career seems to be on the express track. It's been nine long, productive, and tireless years in the making, and the former soldier turned Hollywood climber isn't about to start coasting now. She's currently eyeing the bigger picture. "If I could, I want to take a page from the George Clooney-like actors of the world," she says. "They do things that are relevant, things that don't necessarily have huge box office appeal, but they matter. I hope I get to do that. I'm not in that stage yet, but it's something I can aspire to."
As she takes her final sip of tea before heading off to the audition, Alona says, bluntly, "I just want more, plain and simple. I'm really greedy." Then comes a playful smile: "In the best way possible, of course."
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)