Gal Gadot on Becoming Wonder Woman, the Biggest Action Hero of the Year

The former Israeli combat instructor and ex-pageant queen had given up on acting when she landed the role of a lifetime

"Every woman, every man, everyone should be a feminist. Because whoever is not a feminist is a sexist," says Gal Gadot, star of 'Wonder Woman.' Credit: Peggy Sirota for Rolling Stone

Wonder Woman herself is about to bless my unborn child. "Can I?" she asks, before spreading her long fingers around my pregnant belly. Her hands feel warm and maternal. She holds my gaze, unwavering. "Girl or boy?" she asks. "Girl," I tell her. Her smile widens. "Being a woman is a strength," she says. "In so many ways."

Oddly, this is not a dream; it's a lunch at the Chateau Marmont. Gal Gadot is ostensibly here to talk about her rise from almost total unknown to an iconic, worldwide symbol of all that is good and powerful as the first-ever feature-film incarnation of Wonder Woman. But it's hard not to see elements of the superheroic in the way she just is. Never mind that she was up at 5 a.m. with a four-month-old ("Dude, it's exhausting, but it's the best"); in person, her aura hovers somewhere between Earth mother and glamazon. Her accent is Bond-worthy and cloaked in the smokiness of her voice. Her Wonder Woman performance so convincingly embodies both the badassness and the overwhelming decency of the character that she may as well be a walking, talking rebuff to the misogyny of the Trump era – so much so that it was reportedly not uncommon to see women weeping openly in theaters as they watched her onscreen. Most of the world may not yet know how to pronounce her name (it's "gadott," not "gadoh"), but Gadot can hardly bother herself with such frivolous concerns. "I like it when it's calm and there's a harmonic type of atmosphere," she tells me. And later: "You should find your neutral place with yourself." In her presence, these things seem possible, even probable.

Or, at least possible, if you're her. Take the way she brushes off the naysayers who took issue with Wonder Woman, a national treasure (lauded by the Smithsonian as one of the "101 Objects That Made America"), being portrayed by an Israeli: "Oh, my God, seriously, you guys?" (The movie was banned in several Arab countries for the same reason.) Or how she dispelled interweb gripes about the size of her bust with the pointed knowledge that, rather than having pinup proportions, Wonder Woman would historically have lopped off one of her breasts anyway: "I told them, 'Listen, if you want to be for real, then the Amazons, they had only one boob. Exactly one boob. So what are you talking about here? Me having small boobs and small ass? That will make all the difference.' " Or the way she braved a London winter, shooting 12 hours a day, six days a week, in not much more than a leotard and metal wristlets. Or, most impressively, the way she filmed Wonder Woman reshoots and the next installment of the DC Comics franchise (Justice League, out this fall) while pregnant with her second child, morning sickness be damned. "We cut open the costume and had this green screen on my stomach," she says. "It was funny as hell – Wonder Woman with a bump."

In fact, Gadot's bump was just one of the complications visited upon the Justice League production team. After a family tragedy, director Zack Snyder stepped down, leaving the movie in the hands of The Avengers' Joss Whedon, and rumors of a vast overhaul were all but confirmed when co-star Ben Affleck described the result as "an interesting product of two directors." But, true to form, Gadot doesn't buy in to the controversy. "Look," she says. "Joss, to my understanding, was Zack's choice to finish the movie. And the tone can't be completely different because the movie was already shot. Joss is just fine-tuning."

It is, in part, Gadot's innate unflappability that helped Wonder Woman not just vastly outperform anyone's wildest expectations, but also almost singlehandedly save the floundering DC Comics universe. To date, the movie has earned more than $400 million domestically and close to $800 million worldwide. It is currently the highest-grossing live-action film ever directed by a woman. In other words, the film has kicked ass, Wonder Woman-style. "It just shows that the world was ready for a female-driven action movie," says Gadot. Or even if it wasn't then, she's made sure that it is now.

Landing a lead in a tent-pole franchise would have been a coup for any young actor, of course. "When you're a beginner, you get excited about having a job," says Gadot. "That's where I was." But Wonder Woman wasn't just any leading role. It was a role that feminists had long been jones-ing for – as every major male superhero got trotted out in big-screen prequels and sequels galore – and one with a history that extended far beyond the mere symbolism of a female superhero. After being cast, Gadot turned to the Warner Bros. archives to read the original comics, and she soon learned that Wonder Woman was the brainchild of William Marston, a psychologist who not only helped invent the lie detector and lived in a polyamorous household with his wife (whom he'd met in middle school), his girlfriend (who'd been his student) and their four children (two per woman), but who also believed that women were not only equal to men, but probably superior. "Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world," he is noted as saying in Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman. And as Lepore points out, "In the first story, Wonder Woman comes to the United States to fight for women's rights, because this is the last bastion of possibility of equal rights for women."

None of this history was lost on Gadot. "People always ask me, 'Are you a feminist?' And I find the question surprising, because I think, 'Yes, of course. Every woman, every man, everyone should be a feminist. Because whoever is not a feminist is a sexist.' " She maintains that she and her younger sister were taught "to believe that we're capable, to value ourselves" as they grew up in Rosh Ha'ayin, a small city in the center of Israel, where their dad worked as an engineer and their mom was a phys-ed teacher. "I had a very sheltered kind of life," Gadot says. "There was no TV-watching. It was always 'Take a ball and go play.' " Which suited her just fine. "In general, I was a good girl, a good student, a pleaser, and I was a tomboy. Always with wounds and scratches on my knees."

Despite these blemishes, Gadot had gotten offers to model, but opted instead to work for Burger King. "I was like, 'Posing for money? Ugh, it's not for me.' " But in the few months she had off between graduating from high school and serving her two mandatory years in the Israel Defense Forces, her mom and a friend applied on her behalf for the Miss Israel pageant. When she found out she'd gotten in, "I told myself, 'I'm just gonna do this. They're gonna fly us to Europe, and I'm gonna get to tell my grandchildren that Grandmom did the Miss Israel thing.' Little did I know that I would win." Or that winning would land her in the Miss Universe pageant ("It's funny now that I say it. It sounds so bizarre, like a different life"), which totally freaked her out. "I knew that I did not want to win Miss Universe. It wasn't my thing. For an 18-year-old, it looked like too much responsibility." So she decided to deliberately tank in the competition, pretending she didn't speak English, wearing the wrong things. She didn't make the top 20. "I lost majorly," she happily declares. "I victoriously lost."

When her unexpected reign as Miss Israel ended, she was assigned to be a combat trainer in the IDF, reporting daily at 5 a.m. to put soldiers through a sort of boot camp. While still serving, she met real-estate developer Yaron Versano at "this party in the desert that was all about chakras, blah, blah, blah," then married him, went to law school ("Because I'm so deep, and I loved Ally McBeal"), and thought she was done with a career path that relied on her looks, when a casting director asked her to audition to be a Bond girl. "I told my agent, 'What are you talking about? I'm in school. I'm not an actress. I'm not gonna go.' And he was like, 'Just show respect and go.' " That audition eventually led to her role in The Fast and the Furious, which led to Wonder Woman, though in her first audition for the film, she wasn't even told what part she was trying to get. "Zack [Snyder] called me and was like, 'So do you know what you're testing for?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, I'm not sure if you have her in Israel, but did you hear about Wonder Woman?' "

Turns out they did have her in Israel, and Gadot immediately realized the opportunity she was being handed, both as an actor and as a feminist. "I've had my moments where I've felt like men were misbehaving – nothing sexual, but inappropriate in a sexist way. Dismissive. Life wasn't always rosy and peachy for me as a woman in the world." Even after she landed the role, she was worried about being thought weak, so she waited to tell her Justice League co-stars that she was pregnant. "I didn't want attention," she says. "The default should be that women get the job done, but there's a long way to go and a lot of reprogramming that needs to be done to both genders."

Nor was it immaterial that Wonder Woman – who, Gadot says, "stands for love and hope and acceptance and fighting evil" – debuted in 1941, the year America entered World War II. While Gadot's father is a sixth-generation Israeli, her mother's mother escaped Europe just before the war. Her mother's father, who was 13 when the Nazis came to his native Czechoslovakia, was not so lucky. His father died in the army. The rest of his family was sent to Auschwitz, where his mother and brother died in the gas chambers. After the war, he made his way to Israel alone. "His entire family was murdered – it's unthinkable," says Gadot. "He affected me a lot. After all the horrors he'd seen, he was like this damaged bird, but he was always hopeful and positive and full of love. If I was raised in a place where these values were not so strong, things would be different. But it was very easy for me to relate to everything that Wonder Woman stands for."

Now, Wonder Woman was Gadot's story to tell, and she and director Patty Jenkins were obsessive about getting it right. "It was almost emotional, because we were so united in our desire to make something so delightful that people didn't mind also talking about this deeper issue," says Jenkins. Gadot had trained for eight months to put on muscle – "Strength is not something you can fake" – but she also felt that the most feminist approach would be for Wonder Woman to remain feminine, to be strong because of, rather in spite of, being a woman. "I didn't want to play the cold-hearted warrior. We didn't want to fall into the clichés." Instead, she and Jenkins thought long and hard about how a woman raised only by women would respond when plunked into a world dominated by men.

The result is a kind of guileless feminism that feels accidental exactly because it's anything but. "We didn't want to treat the misogyny in a preaching way," says Gadot. "We wanted to surprise the audience." So when Wonder Woman isn't allowed in a war-council meeting that's essentially the Edwardian version of a sausagefest, she doesn't bristle; she's merely baffled. Likewise, when she sees a baby on the street, she doesn't hesitate to fawn ("A baby!"). "We wanted to bring some naiveté," Gadot says. "Being the mother of two girls, I'm like, 'We need more naiveté. Everyone is too in their head.' " The result is the portrayal of a woman onscreen without a shred of insecurity, a woman who never questions her own impulses, "gendered" or not.

What neither Gadot nor Jenkins could have foreseen is how their careful deliberations would resonate. "Even at some early test screenings, women were coming to me afterward and saying, 'I feel like you made a movie for me!' " says Jenkins. "But it wasn't until the second week that the movement started, people going multiple times and taking girlfriends and grandmothers, and pictures sent to me from 90-year-old women who were wheeled in. All of that was absolutely stunning to see." Gadot agrees. "I definitely think that 75 years is a long time for this character to not have a movie, but it's craaaaaaaazy," she says of the film's reception, of the all-female viewings held around the country, of the grade-school boys coming to class with Wonder Woman swag, and of her role in all that.

And now, as the crazy snowballs around her and Wonder Woman 2 no doubt looms on the horizon, Gadot uses her formidable powers to keep things Zen. She and her family recently moved to L.A., where her five-year-old is starting school. "I'm gonna go pick her up," Gadot says of her afternoon plans. "Then I'm gonna go back home to the baby, have a relaxing day." Maybe she'll make a little dinner ("I love cooking Italian. It's easy"), put on a little music ("Zero 7 because it's superchill"), revel in the "really simple moments" she says are her thing. In pursuit of all that, she gathers her five-foot-10 frame and stands to leave. Then she pauses. "It's gonna be great," she says, gazing at my stomach. And in that moment, yes, it all seems like it wondrously will.

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