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,” not only gave us a relatable portrayal of a teen struggling with their gender identity, but also of a teen who struggles to connect with their Judaism.
In the final episode of the first season of the show, Rock refuses to celebrate their Jewish coming of age, and their mom, Charlotte York Goldenblatt, takes to the bimah instead — both in affirmation of her own faith, and her own way of accepting her child’s choice around their Jewishness.
In real life, Swinton, a gifted and prolific actress who has starred in shows like “Billions” and “Emergence,” is celebrating the return of season two of HBO’s “And Just Like That…,” whose first two episodes premiered this week, and her own bat mitzvah.
In fact, shortly after the premiere of season two of the controversial but popular “Sex and the City” sequel, Swinton and her family will be boarding a plane to Israel, where she and her older sister, Ava, who didn’t get to experience the Jewish rite of passage because of the pandemic, will celebrate in a joint ceremony.
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 mom, “I get to learn about the four sisters,” she recounts, “and it’s a lot about feminism… and how women have been trying to make history and a name for themselves for so long. I get to talk about that in my bat mitzvah, which is very exciting.”
It will be Swinton’s first visit to the Holy Land, where she has many relatives she’s never met before. Swinton is also part of a program that allows her to honor a child who was killed during the Holocaust — “where 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 says.
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 yes, she is distantly related to Tilda Swinton.) After the b’nai mitzvah 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 says.
Swinton is very connected to her Judaism, precisely 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 says, “It’s beyond God.” She celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah (“I’m not going to complain about eight nights of gifts,” she jokes with me) and her favorite food is her grandmother’s chicken soup (she knows it’s basic, she tells me, but it’s really unbeatable). She loves going to temple, where she talks to friends of her mother and grandmother and learns about their Jewish childhood.
In fact, the actress has 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 as a new immigrant in Fair Lawn, NJ, and her first Halloween. They filmed the movie in both Fair Lawn, where Inna’s family landed after immigrating to the U.S., 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, did end up geitting the role of Solly, to Anne Frank in Disney’s “A Small Light.”
That role went to another gifted 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 professes — but she was up for 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 says.
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 script “we were like, oh my god, this is beautiful, this is about Leonard Bernstein. It’s incredible script about a Jewish family,” she tells me.
Unfortunately, the timing was not great — Swinton was on a trip with her mother and sister, and had to film her audition in the hotel closet. She didn’t really think she would get the role. But then she got a direct audition with Bradley Cooper — and the rest is history.
“I don’t really know if I met Bradley,” she jests 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.” Working on the project has made her so excited to bring Bernstein’s story and music to a new generation of viewers.
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 says, ” 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, you can watch Swinton playing the moody and lovable Rock (truly, what a teen!) in the new season of “And Just Like That,” which will be airing a new episode every Thursday until August 3 (and which marks the much awaited return of Kim Cattral to the franchise!)
This season, Rock will be investing a lot more time in their hobbies — “I think they find a lot about themselves,” Swinton says, “and they wear some pretty cool clothes.”
Swinton tells me she didn’t know her character would be non-binary 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.'”
Ultimately, she was happy to see representation of young people like herself who are non-binary or questioning their gender. “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.”
She also loves the kind of parent Charlotte is to Rock. “She was so willing to learn. I think that’s really beautiful because that teaches a lot of people that are watching that it’s okay to try and learn and be there for your kid even if you’re not sure what’s really going on.”