How the breakout of ‘Wonder Woman’ did–and didn’t–play in Gal Gadot’s native Israel

Many countries look enviously to Hollywood. Some look more enviously than most.

Israel has long been obsessed with that Tinsel-y place nearly 8,000 miles away. When the cable drama “Prisoners of War” was adapted to become the Showtime hit “Homeland,” it was cause for national celebration. In the 1990s, a visitor could walk into an Israeli cafe or a restaurant and learn what happened on “Baywatch”; now, on a more elevated note, they can catch up with recent episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Into that environment this weekend arrived “Wonder Woman” and, more important, its Israeli star, Gal Gadot.

Gadot, from the central city of Rosh Haayin, is the first Israeli actor to support a modern Hollywood‎ tentpole, and it was certainly an auspicious induction: “Wonder Woman” grossed $100.5 million in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, the third biggest opening this year, along with an additional $122 million overseas.

Gadot, 32, has been an effusive presence on American late-night television and is not been shy about her Israeli roots. Israel has returned the favor, reacting with the endearing, if persistent, solicitousness of a boy who can’t stop telling you how proud he is to be invited to his big brother’s high-school basketball championship.

When Gadot went on “The Tonight Show” and told the story of the quantum physics professor she was sitting next to on the plane when she learned of the role, the mainstay Haaretz newspaper quickly proclaimed: “Gal Gadot Charms Jimmy‎ Fallon With Her Small-Town Israeli Magic.”

It was one of many such headlines from the country’s media, which has covered each of her many appearances as if it were a breakthrough in Palestinian peace talks.

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For the movie industry, Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” was ‎a box-office savior; for comic book fans, it was a welcome burst of quality in the DC Extended Universe; for feminists and many others, it was a long-awaited female-driven blockbuster.

But in Israel it was proof that the country had arrived.

“We had a lot of actors who looked like they might go far,” Efi Triger, an Israeli blogger who runs the entertainment site Pop Tarts, said by phone from his home in Israel on Sunday, citing Bar Refaeli, Odeya Rush and Ayelet Zurer, who played Superman’s mother in “Man of Steel.” “But no one’s gone as far as Gal Gadot.”

Oddly, Gadot was not very well-known in her home country for a good portion of her career — after winning the Miss Israel pageant 13 years ago she had made little mark on Israeli entertainment, via its own TV industry or Hollywood films, until she was cast in a supporting part in the “Fast & Furious” franchise in 2009, and even then she remained an also-ran of sorts.

Strangely, it is Gadot’s foreignness that helped enable her Hollywood breakout. The list of non-native English speakers who star in Hollywood tentpoles is painfully short, and Israeli actors can be limited by a noticeable accent. Centering on an outsider from a magical Amazonian place, “Wonder Woman” not only accommodated an accent but rewarded it.

Not every one was happy with the choice; Lebanon banned the film as part of its prohibition against consuming Israeli products.

Which is ironic for Israel considering that the country’s love of Hollywood — and its embrace of Gadot in particular — is part of a longstanding attempt to transcend notions of the country as a collectivist or religious ideal.

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“I remember watching ‘Mad Men’ and seeing a picture of [Israeli Gen.] Moshe Dayan on the wall,” Triger said. “I researched it and learned that there was merchandising of the Six Day War, which has its 50th anniversary this week, after it ended, so people in America would have admired him.

“Now,” Triger added, “we finally have someone who is known for more than just the army or fighting terrorism.”

Not that Gadot sits entirely above military themes; as she is proud to point out, she served a mandatory two years in the Israeli army. In today’s international Hollywood, even the princess of Themyscira can get caught up in modern realities.

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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