Gal Gadot Is in a League of Her Own
Nancy Jo Sales
October 13, 2020
Three years ago, Gal Gadot rocked the world as Wonder Woman. In the sequel, she’s back to kick more ass in the name of feminism.
Gal Gadot is relaxing on the back patio of her home in Tel Aviv. This outdoor space, surrounded by a stone wall and overhanging trees, is where she says she likes to go for a little “me time” after her children, Alma, eight, and Maya, three, fall asleep. Last year, when Gadot and her husband, Jaron Varsano, thought Alma was old enough, they showed her the film that made her mother a star: Wonder Woman.
“She was very excited,” Gadot says, “but she also couldn’t detach from seeing Ima”—Mother in Hebrew—“battling the bad guys. She said, I can’t watch it! Just forward! She couldn’t bear it. So we skipped the scary parts. But the rest of it she loved, and she is proud of it.”
Alma isn’t a fan of Sleeping Beauty, however. “She said, ‘I don’t like Sleeping Beauty,’ ” says Gadot, “and I asked her why—because it’s a Disney princess; who doesn’t like a Disney princess? And she said, ‘Because all she does is fall asleep and the prince comes and kisses her and then it’s the end. She didn’t do anything,’ she said. And both Jaron and I were looking at her, and we were like, what a healthy perspective. And it’s so true—she didn’t do anything.”
I remember when I went to see Wonder Woman in the theater in New York City just after it opened in June 2017, all the hooting and cheering erupting from the women and girls in the audience. At one point a woman sitting next to me gripped my hand in some spontaneous show of sisterhood. Reports soon followed of similar reactions occurring all over the country and the world: audiences clapping, crying, donning their Bracelets of Submission and wielding their golden lassos in public and on social media. A viral Tumblr post from a kindergarten teacher (which Gadot retweeted) reported a list of inspiring things that had happened in her classroom since the film’s release: both boys and girls wanting to emulate the strength and goodness of Wonder Woman, and to save the world, like she did.
Wonder Woman was a phenomenon. Coming, as it did, months after the election of an avowed pussy grabber to the U.S. presidency, it felt like balm. And Gadot seemed like the perfect incarnation of a beloved female superhero, arriving in time for a feminist wave (her first name, Gal, actually means wave in Hebrew), kicked off by the historic international Women’s March in January 2017.
Today, with Wonder Woman 1984 set to hit theaters in December, Gadot is excited for audiences to catch up with the next installment of Wonder Woman’s story. “I think the first film was the birth of a hero,” she says, talking to me on Zoom, “and this time around we wanted to go deeper in a way. It’s more about the danger in greed, and I think that it’s very relevant to the era that we’re living in nowadays. It feels like everyone is in a race for more, and when you get what you wanted there’s a new bar—and what’s the price? And do we lose ourselves in this crazy marathon?”
She’s wearing a sleeveless black Helmut Lang tank dress with an asymmetrical collar, diamond studs, no makeup. In a conversation touching on feminist themes, it’s hard to know how, or if, to say just how beautiful she is. She doesn’t seem that interested in it herself. In her teens, she worked at Burger King rather than take the modeling jobs she was being offered. She was shocked when she won the Miss Israel pageant in 2004 (her mother and a friend had entered her on a whim) and decided beauty pageants were not for her. She threw the 2004 Miss Universe pageant, she has said in interviews, by acting uncooperative and wearing terrible clothes.
“Oh, my God,” she says, laughing, when I bring it up. “Paula Abdul was one of the judges, and she asked me something and I was like”—intensifying her smoky Israeli accent—“ ‘Me no speak English, so sorry.’ I did everything to make sure it wasn’t gonna happen.”
In the opening scene of Wonder Woman 1984, the child version of the warrior princess Diana Prince (played by 12-year-old Lilly Aspell, a prize-winning show jumper in real life) engages in a lengthy physical contest, a sort of Amazonian Olympics. It takes place on Themyscira, the magical island and all-woman city-state that is her birthplace. It’s a dazzling sequence from a technical perspective, with many impossible-looking feats executed on a grand scale, but what stays with you is the sheer athleticism on the part of a very determined-looking little girl.
“Whenever I see this part of the movie, I always get teary—like good, excited tears,” says Gadot (pronounced “Ga-dot”), who is 35. “One of the biggest things that I believe is that you can only dream about becoming someone or something after you’ve seen it visually. And for boys—lucky them—they got to experience, since the beginning of the movies, that they were the protagonist, they were the strong ones, they saved the day.
“But we didn’t get this representation,” she says. “And I think it’s so important—and of course it’s ultra-important for me because I’m a mother of two girls—to show them the potential of what they can be. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be athletic or physically strong—that too—but that they can be bigger than life.”
She talks about the need for education; she tells me about “a horrible thing that happened to a 16-year-old girl that got raped by multiple men in Israel,” in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat in August. “How come there were multiple men in the room, and no one was like, Hey guys, this is wrong, stop, somebody call the police?” she asks. “We have to role-model ourselves to our children and we have to educate them for equality. There is still a long way to go because there’s no true equality yet. If we focus our resources on this type of thing, then real change would happen.”
She smiles. She smiles a lot. “I hope it wasn’t too big of a speech,” she adds.
“I’ve never met anyone who is so bestowed with gifts—of beauty and intelligence and strength—and is so good,” says Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman 1984 and 2017’s Wonder Woman, which was the highest-grossing movie by a solo woman director, earning more than $820 million worldwide.
The success of the first Wonder Woman film—for which Gadot was paid only $300,000, a figure that caused outrage in some circles as it paled in comparison to what many male action stars take home—helped catapult her onto the list of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood. For Wonder Woman 1984, she reportedly earned $10 million—a hefty sum that is still less than half of what some leading male action stars get, yet another sign that in Hollywood, as elsewhere, the gender pay gap still has a long way to go to close.
Woman like that in the role,” says Jenkins, who calls Gadot her best friend. “She’s not looking for glory or fame—she’s always asking, What can we do with this that will be good for the world?”
When I emailed Chris Pine, who plays Wonder Woman’s love interest, the intelligence officer Steve Trevor, in both films, asking him why he thought audiences so embraced Gadot in the role, he replies: “My understanding of Wonder Woman is that she is love incarnate: fierce, strong, compassionate, and uncompromising. That is Gal.”
Gadot grew up in Rosh Ha’ayin, a small city in central Israel which an Israeli friend of mine describes as being “like a typical middle-class California suburb.” Her father, Michael, was an engineer, and her mother, Irit, was a gym teacher who taught sports to Gadot and her younger sister, Dana, insisting that they run around outside rather than stay in and watch television.
You can imagine Gadot being very like that active little girl in the opening of Wonder Woman 1984, running, jumping, preparing physically and mentally for her future. Her own athleticism can be seen all over both Wonder Woman films, in which she famously performs many of her own stunts. “We try to avoid as much as possible using CGI in the fights,” she says. One of the more extraordinary moments in Wonder Woman 1984 involves a scene in which she fights off several bad guys with her golden lasso while doing a back-bending high kick, which manages to be both badass and elegant.
After high school, Gadot spent two years doing her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, where she was a fitness and combat readiness instructor, before entering college. (She has often been criticized for her service in the IDF, as well as a Facebook post supporting the troops during the Israeli army’s air strikes on Gaza in 2014.)
“I came from a home where being an actress wasn’t even an option,” she tells me. “I always loved the arts and I was a dancer and I loved the movies, but being an actress was never a discussion. My parents were like, You need to graduate university and get a degree.” She had planned on becoming a lawyer.
But “dadadada,” as she often says whenever glossing over complicated or unnecessary details (such as some stints on Israeli TV shows), she was cast as Gisele Yashar, the sultry weapons expert in 2009’s Fast & Furious, and so her career in Hollywood began.
“Jaron,” her husband, “was the one to say, You can do whatever you want to do,” she says. “He’s the one who really gave me the strength to follow this dream.”
Gadot met Varsano at a yoga retreat and “very strange party” in the Israeli desert in 2006, when she was 20 and he was 30; both had been invited by mutual friends. They hit it off immediately and started dating. “On our second date, he announced, I’m breaking it off with all the other girls that I used to date and I’m gonna ask you to marry me in two years, and he did—a man of his word,” Gadot says, smiling. In 2008, they married in a small ceremony in Tel Aviv.
Connecting with him proved to be a turning point in her personal life and, in a way, her nascent career. She had encountered a unicorn: a truly feminist man. “We are really, equally partners,” she says. “We have a group of friends here and all of the wives have careers, and we always joke that the husbands are the ‘new man’—very involved in the household and in taking care of the kids and everything. Jaron is literally the wind beneath my wings.”
You can forgive her, perhaps, for being gushy; after all, he’s the type of guy who honored International Women’s Day in 2018 by posting on Instagram: “I’m so lucky to be married to a strong independent woman. I learn from her on a daily basis, she empowers me and helps me become a better version of myself. Our relationship is based on equality and mutual respect. Her goals are as important as mine. Her dreams are as important as mine.”
But more importantly, according to Gadot, Varsano walks the talk. He supported her in pursuing her career as it grew bigger and increasingly demanding, she says, encouraging her to keep working through the raising of two daughters, even when she herself became unsure about how she would juggle being a mother and all her professional opportunities. When she grew anxious about traveling to movie sets with her firstborn, Alma, it was Varsano who reassured her they could make it work.
“We travel together,” says Gadot. “We’re the circus family. I love what I do, but first and foremost is my family and I won’t travel for long periods of time without them.”
She calls being a mother “the best thing I’ve ever done, the project of my life.” When I ask her what kind of mom she is, she smiles and says: “I’m all types of moms. It depends what days you’re asking. I’m very connected to them and I’m very warm, and I make sure to keep the channels of communication open and we always talk about feelings and stuff like that. And then sometimes I let go and don’t interrupt them because I’ve learned when you’re too involved you can actually create problems.
“I can be hysterical at times,” she says. “I can be goofy. We laugh a lot. I can have a lot of patience, but then when I lose it, it’s not great.” She laughs. “I think that every mom can relate to this, that once you have a baby, you get a huge sack of guilt, which is something that I’m dealing with all the time. But I realized I can only try and be the best version of a mom that I can be. So I just try to do my best and give them everything that I can.”
Her daughters know that she plays Wonder Woman, of course, but “it’s not like an issue in our house,” she says. “I’m the mom who bugs them and asks them to do things and wakes them up in the morning. Whenever I get a [Wonder Woman] Barbie, they get excited about that and they play with it a little bit, but they’re not obsessed with the idea that I’m Wonder Woman.”
In Wonder Woman 1984, which was shot in London, Washington, D.C., and parts of Spain, Wonder Woman does much, including battling her nemesis, Cheetah, played by Kristen Wiig. The characters start out as colleagues and friends, when Cheetah is still just the awkward geologist Barbara Minerva, having not yet transformed into her evil alter ego. The scene where they first meet, at the Smithsonian Institution, is notable for Diana Prince’s welcoming attitude toward her fellow female scientist; it feels like another girl power moment, showcasing Gadot’s openness and vulnerability onscreen.
“Gal was a tremendous talent from the start, but I have to say, her acting skills have exploded,” says Jenkins. “She’s just one of the best actresses working now. I remember when she rounded the corner [in that scene] and walked in, there was such a complexity of warmth and generosity on her face. I was looking at her and thinking, Wow, she’s so stunning—it’s like she came out of a comic book, right off the page, like you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful—and yet she exudes this complex wisdom.”
Annette Bening, who costars with Gadot in the Kenneth Branagh-directed Death on the Nile, agrees that Gadot has acting talent that is both untapped and underdiscussed. “She’s become a star because of Wonder Woman but she is a very fine actress,” Bening says. “Of course Wonder Woman is so delightful, and she has all the strength, but Gal also has a lot of other things in her, and she’s capable of doing a lot of different roles, which I’m sure she will do. When someone is that good-looking, people often underestimate them, especially when it’s a woman; people can’t conceive that they could be as intelligent as all that and people get jealous and are competitive.”
In Death on the Nile, which comes out in December, Gadot plays Agatha Christie’s most glamorous femme fatale, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. The film is a sumptuous escape, shot in England and Egypt. “They did such a good job of the sets and the costumes that you literally felt like you were a woman from the 1940s,” says Gadot, who appears in a succession of killer gowns, bedecked with jewelry.
“I’m a people person,” says Gadot. “I can talk to a wall. I wanna learn; I wanna hear stories. So for me, working with so many people”—the large ensemble cast includes Armie Hammer, Sophie Okonedo, and Russell Brand—“was delightful, and probably even more delightful because the people I got to work with are lovely and sweet and charming. And I had Annette [Bening] there with me, who I already knew. She was kind of the one to push me and Jaron to start our production company,” which is called Pilot Wave.
The company’s first project, a series for Apple about Hedy Lamarr, will star Gadot as the gorgeous Hollywood actress and a scientific genius who pioneered the technology that laid the foundation for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. “Ooh, Hedy Lamarr,” says Bening when I mention it to her. “Gal is perfect for that.”
Beautiful, talented, blessed with two children and a supportive husband—who partners with her on successful projects, like the development of Tel Aviv’s Varsano Hotel, which in 2015 Gadot and Varsano sold to Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich for $25 million—flying all over the world, making big films with other beautiful and talented people.… Gadot’s life looks beyond privileged. And so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the internet turned on her after she posted the now infamous video of herself and other celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” in March, at a time when many people, including herself, had just started quarantining due to COVID.
It’s certainly hard to make it through the awful, off-key two-minute video, which features an array of head-scratching performances from the likes of Wiig, Sarah Silverman, Natalie Portman, and Will Ferrell, as well as a few real singers such as Sia and Norah Jones. And the timing was certainly off—people were feeling desperate, scared, and in need of resources, not celebrities cooing at them from their luxurious environs.
But was it really cause for the type of hate it received? Or was that just the internet doing what the internet does? Was it really deserving of the screed it got in the New York Times, in which music writer Jon Caramanica wrote: “It begins after a brief, platitudinous monologue from Gadot, who may be on lockdown, but whose mind has been freed, bro.”
When I bring it up with Gadot, she doesn’t apologize. “Sometimes, you know, you try and do a good deed and it’s just not the right good deed,” she says with a smile and a shrug. “I had nothing but good intentions and it came from the best place, and I just wanted to send light and love to the world.
“I started with a few friends, and then I spoke to Kristen [Wiig],” she says. “Kristen is like the mayor of Hollywood.” She laughs. “Everyone loves her, and she brought a bunch of people to the game. But yeah, I started it, and I can only say that I meant to do something good and pure, and it didn’t transcend.”
Her take-me-as-I-am attitude is refreshing, but I wonder how this goes over in Hollywood, which is notorious for being a place where people rarely say what they really think. “Sometimes it can get me in trouble,” she says. “There is something that I’ve learned to say, which is, ‘I don’t disagree with you, but’—so basically I’m disagreeing with you.” She smiles again. “So I adapted. I just came to the conclusion: I do me, you do you. I’d rather have you not liking me at this moment than not saying my truth.”
I take a picture of her on my screen so I can make sure I remember how she looked during our conversation. In this picture, she’s smiling the happiest smile I think I’ve seen on anyone since the start of the pandemic. I wonder about that smile, and how Gadot manages to stay so happy. I wonder if it’s because she seems so aware of how lucky she is.
The word lucky comes up again and again as we talk. Gadot feels lucky, she says, to be healthy and safe and with her children during COVID. She feels lucky to have been cast as Wonder Woman and to be part of that world, which she says feels “like you’re one big happy family living in a commune; it’s been an amazing, amazing ride.” She feels lucky to have Varsano as her partner.
“I am lucky,” she tells me. “I say thank you every morning. In the Jewish culture there’s a prayer that you’re supposed to say every time you wake up in the morning to thank God for, you know, keeping you alive and dadadada.
“You say ‘modeh ani,’ which means ‘I give thanks,’ ” she says. “So every morning I wake up and step out of bed and I say, ‘Thank you for everything, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ” She closes her eyes a moment, as if saying the prayer all over again. “Nothing is to be taken for granted.”