(Kveller) – Last year, Alexa Swinton brought us arguably one of the most high-profile TV b’nai mitzvah ceremonies of all time — or rather, the “they mitzvah” that wasn’t.
Swinton, who plays Rock Goldenblatt in And Just Like That…, gave viewers a relatable portrayal of a teen struggling with their gender identity and their connection to Judaism. In the final episode of the first season of the show, Rock refuses to celebrate their Jewish coming of age, and their mum, Charlotte York Goldenblatt — one of the main Sex and the City characters — takes to the bimah instead, both in affirmation of her own faith and as her own way of accepting her child’s choice.
In real life, Swinton, a prolific actress who has starred in shows like Billions and Emergence, is celebrating her own bat mitzvah in Israel, where she and her older sister, Ava, who didn’t get to experience the Jewish rite of passage because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will celebrate together in a joint ceremony.
It’s Swinton’s first visit to Israel, where she has many relatives she has never met before. Swinton is also part of a program that allows her to honour a child who was killed during the Holocaust.
“You get to learn about their history and kind of give them a chance to also have their own bat mitzvah while you have yours. I think it’s really beautiful,” she said.
Just like Rock and her upcoming character in the Netflix movie Maestro, Swinton comes from a mixed background. Swinton’s Jewish mother, Inna, immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. Her father’s family is Scottish and she is distantly related to Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton. After the ceremonies in Israel, the family will travel to Scotland on a heritage trip of sorts.
“I get to celebrate both parts of my culture and who I am as a person,” Swinton said.
While Rock may have flubbed their bat mitzvah readings, Swinton is highly invested in hers.
“My portion is from Pinchas,” an ebullient Swinton tells me over Zoom, sitting side by side with her Jewish mum. “It’s a lot about feminism… and how women have been trying to make history and a name for themselves for so long.”
Swinton is very connected to her Judaism in part because her grandmother could not practice her faith in the Soviet Union. “Being Jewish to me is more about who I am as a person than the religion,” she said. “It’s beyond God.”
She celebrates both Christmas and Chanukah (“I’m not going to complain about eight nights of gifts,” she joked) and her favourite food is her grandmother’s chicken soup (she knows it’s a basic choice, she said it’s really unbeatable). She loves going to temple where she lives in New Jersey, where she talks to friends of her mother and grandmother and learns about their Jewish childhoods.
Swinton has also played her mother onstage and onscreen, in the off-Broadway play and the upcoming short film Kooky Spook, which tells the story of Inna’s young adulthood and first Halloween as a new immigrant in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. They filmed the movie in both Fair Lawn, where Inna’s family landed after immigrating to the United States, and in Riga, Latvia.
Swinton has been up for a lot of Jewish roles — from Hannah in Fleishman Is In Trouble, where her younger brother, Maxim, got the role of Solly, to Anne Frank in Disney’s A Small Light. That role went to another Jewish actress, Billie Boullet, and losing it left Swinton a little heartbroken.
“Being a young Jewish girl, like an actor, your dream role is going to be Anne Frank,” she said. But she was up for roles in both Maestro and A Small Light at the same time, and at the end of the day “we were super happy” to get that role, she said.
Maestro is a biopic about Jewish music legend Leonard Bernstein, and Swinton will be playing Bernstein’s youngest daughter, Nina in the upcoming Netflix movie. She did know of the Jewish composer beforehand — “we’re a very musical family” — but she’s done a lot more research to prepare for the role, including spending time at the Bernstein family home.
When she and her mother got the Maestro, script “we were like, oh my god, this is beautiful, this is about Leonard Bernstein. It’s incredible script about a Jewish family,” she said.
Unfortunately, the timing was not great — Swinton had to film her audition in a hotel closet during a trip with her mother and sister and did not think she would get the role. But she soon earned a direct audition with Bradley Cooper.
“I don’t really know if I met Bradley,” she jested to me about working with Cooper on Maestro, “I think I might have just met a modern rendition of Leonard, because he was always on.”
Swinton is also proud of the Jewish representation she’s been able to bring to her projects.
“I think it’s wonderful that I’ve gotten to play so many Jewish people,” she said. “It’s nice just to have something in common with the character you’re playing, and it makes you feel much more connected.”
For now, viewers can watch Swinton playing the moody and lovable Rock in the new season of And Just Like That, currently streaming on Binge in Australia.
This season, Rock will be investing a lot more time in their hobbies. “I think they find a lot about themselves,” Swinton said, “and they wear some pretty cool clothes.”
Swinton added that she didn’t know her character would be gender nonconforming at first. “One of the audition scenes was the scene where Rock was like, oh, I don’t really feel like a girl. So, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m interested to see where this will go.’”
She was happy to see representation of young people questioning their gender make it into the plot.
“A lot of times, kids that are exploring their identity don’t really have a lot to back off of,” she says. “Like, maybe there’ll be one random TikToker who is 25 years old. It’s great, because finally, there’s someone who’s 13 years old on television, who is trying to figure out who they are as a person.”