Jeff Wilbusch’s life has been far from conventional. Born in Israel into a Hasidic Jewish community, Wilbusch left at the age of thirteen to pursue an education in The Netherlands before becoming a full-time actor in various locations around Europe. Even as Schön! speaks to him today, he confesses he’s living out of a suitcase, ready at any moment to set off to wherever his diverse and already fairly storied career takes him next.
“It’s something I really like,” he says of his newly mobile life. “It’s something that is really freeing to me right now. Maybe one day will come where I will want to have a place where my base is, but now, I have a kind of flow. It’s really nice.”
A seasoned actor of both stage and screen, Wilbusch’s popularity recently exploded with the release of Netflix’s Unorthodox. Wilbusch portrays Moishe, a troubled man who accompanies another character, Yanky, to Berlin, Germany in pursuit of Yanky’s wife who has fled their Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based ultra-orthodox community. The series was groundbreaking in a number of respects; its “inspired by true events” story received considerable praise, and its heavy use of Yiddish was a major first in the world of television.
While not really a native Yiddish speaker anymore, as is often reported, Wilbusch took the unique opportunity using the language allowed him to further explore the character. “I’m interested in people who talk differently than me, behave differently than me, walk differently than me,” he details. “Yiddish isn’t my native language anymore, and I didn’t speak it for twenty years… But [Unorthodox] gave me the belief in the power of storytelling and the power of film and TV. You can still touch somebody with a story in a language that not very many people speak.”
In making Unorthodox, Wilbusch worked with the writers to build Moishe, providing his personal historical insight and research to add a needed complexity to the character. Wilbusch admits he’s a serial over-researcher, possibly owing to his history as an academic studying economics. “As an actor, I don’t think you can read enough.” he shares. “It’s crazy — every time you read another biography or do more research you say, wow, if I had read that, I would have played it totally differently.”
It would not be surprising if reading that Wilbusch studied economics brought a moment of pause. When asked, Wilbusch takes a deep breath before stringing together the diverse history of his lifetime, detailing his experience in academia before going on to acting school, where he says he was one of the oldest in the class. “The thing is, I didn’t know you could become an actor. I really didn’t know there were acting schools,” he remembers of his youth. “I thought, there are some pretty people who become stars, but I never considered myself — I never considered that as something that I could have done. Not in my wildest dreams.”
Still, looking back on his past, this period of his life is just one piece in a larger puzzle. “I have the feeling that everything I do, and I did, all makes sense. It was all in the direction of what I am now,” he explains. “As a kid, I think this is also one of the reasons I left. I was very, very curious. I wanted to know everything. And if I could, I sometimes think I want to have more lives, because I still want to study medicine, and I want to study psychology… I think that’s a part of me. I love to learn.”
Before his work on Unorthodox, one of Wilbusch’s first major series roles was in Bad Banks, a German-Luxembourgian production that was later picked up by Hulu. Bad Banks was instructive for Wilbusch — sometimes in ways he could have never expected. “Playing a nice guy is difficult,” he chuckles. “I met a colleague, and she was like, ‘Wow, you did it so well! It’s so different from you!’ I said, What? And she’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s so nice!’ And I’m like, Am I not nice?” He laughs again. “But I understood what she meant. [Bad Banks] was just a different part of me. And it was challenging, I think, to make him less crazy than I am. I don’t know how to explain it — you know, more normal… It was a challenge, but I was so thankful. The people [on Bad Banks] are like Bundesliga.”
Apart from Bad Banks and Unorthodox, Wilbusch cites another series as being particularly influential in the course of his career: his run on The Little Drummer Girl, a series starring Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgård. Wilbusch played the role of a terrorist. “The first time I met Israeli actors, I was playing against them as a German guy who is working against the Mossad,” he reveals. “It was an amazing experience.”
Embodying such a complex character was riveting, he details. “That’s the biggest gift as an actor… You ask yourself, what if I was this psychopath?” he posits. “I’m not saying you have to love this psychopath, but you have to get it… You experience all of these people on the edges, and you see they have these big conflicts, and you say, okay. You’re full with empathy. I really feel we need more empathy in the world.”
Today, Wilbusch is working on an as-of-yet unannounced project alongside a German production entitled Three and a Half Hours. The latter tells the story of a train ride from Munich to East Berlin on the day of the Berlin Wall’s construction, exploring the story of the various train riders as the reality of the Wall and its implications slowly dawn on them. Working on the film during the COVID-19 pandemic was “crazy,” he says, but in the end, the team still constructed a story that Wilbusch describes as “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
“It was also very challenging,” he says, “and my character has to fight a lot of demons… I’m so looking forward to it coming out.” While the full details of the project and his character are still under wraps, until the project’s release, Wilbusch is both content with his present jet-setting lifestyle and excited about the future.
“I hope for the world that we can be dynamic and see how vulnerable we are and how together we are,” he says. “A guy in Iran and a girl in Australia — we are all connected. We are in the same boat. The same fucking boat, everywhere.”
This Schön! online exclusive has been produced by