Last we saw of Shane Botwin, the middle son of pot-selling Nancy Botwin was a dirty cop with a drinking problem and a bad temper who shot up his younger brother’s bar mitzvah cake on the final episode of “Weeds,” a quirky drama about a woman who sells marijuana to support her family.
Just a year later, Alexander Gould, the actor who played Shane from the age of 10 through 18, was sitting in a bare bones kiosk in Yeruham, sipping a bottle of peach-flavored Fuze, his favored soft drink during the 10 months he spent living in Israel while on the Nativ College Leadership program. He was at the tail end of his stay, having spent the last four months living in the Negev desert town teaching English to local elementary school kids.
“Yeruham’s small,” chuckled Gould, looking up and down the town’s main drag. “You walk five minutes and you’re in the desert. It’s as different as I could find.”
Those long sandy stretches of terrain provided Gould, a lanky, somewhat laconic 19-year-old, with ample room for his frequent runs and more than enough space to roam unnoticed, especially since the simple factory town, located near the “Large Makhtesh” — actually, Israel’s second-largest crater, after the Ramon Crater — tends not to attract many visitors. During Gould’s time in Yeruham, only one resident recognized him; while he was shopping at the local supermarket, a local pointed a finger and asked, “Weeds?”
Still, while Gould was picked out more frequently during the months he spent in Jerusalem, where the logjam of local Anglos, visiting students and tourists brought more than a few fans to his side, the attention was never overwhelming, and for the most part, Gould’s friends, his fellow Nativ participants, “just didn’t care” about his star status.
“At one point, I had a serious conversation about it with one of my counselors, who said ‘I think this is the first time I’ve heard you talk about this,’” said Gould. “I’m just happy to have friends and hang out, happy to talk about it, but it’s just like someone talking about playing sports in high school. The freedom to do what I want and not be under a microscope has been a really nice change and made me happier in the long run.”
The 10 months of a Hollywood-free existence were a kind of blessing for Gould, who’d been waiting for this very opportunity for much of his high school career. As a homeschooled child actor whose mother, Valerie, accompanied him to the “Weeds” set every day until he was 16, when he could drive himself, Gould found that the average teenage life had eluded him, though he comes from a close-knit family.
“I didn’t have many friends until I started USY,” said Gould, referring to United Synagogue Youth, the youth organization of the Conservative movement, which he joined in his teens. “The fact that I was able to go to USY and fit in completely proved that I was normal. When you’re in the entertainment industry, you have to be more mature, be able to hang with the adults.”
Gould’s acting career began when he was just a year and a half old, after people commented to his parents on his unusual attentiveness — a sure sign of acting ability for anyone living in the vicinity of Los Angeles and “the industry.” He nailed his first audition and has been working ever since, with his big break coming at age seven when he snagged the role of Nemo’s voice in the Academy Award-winning Pixar animation feature, “Finding Nemo.”
Three years later, Gould played the role of Shane Botwin for the pilot of “Weeds,” which starred the sexy, somewhat spacey Mary-Louise Parker as a recently widowed mother of two (she later has a third child) who starts selling pot to pay the bills and ends up as a kind of alternative drug lord. Gould said he didn’t “know too much about the subject of the show at that point,” and was kept in the dark about certain aspects of its content. That clearly became more difficult when he was a teenager in real life and on the show, where, among other things, he lost his virginity to two Goth chicks and whacked another character with a croquet mallet. Still, notwithstanding the gap between Gould’s preternaturally suburban life and Shane Botwin’s bizarre existence, Gould has found that his own character has some fundamentally similarities to Shane’s.
“We’re a lot alike, definitely in the beginning when Shane was a younger kid,” he said. “He went a lot darker than I ever would, but that made it easier. You’re kind of pulling it out and figuring it out, but a lot of it came naturally to me. I couldn’t say why; maybe just because I’ve been doing it for so long.”
For the next eight years, Gould spent just over three months a year — 13 weeks, mostly during the summer — with his TV family: brother Silas (Hunter Parrish), mother Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker), Uncle Andy (Justin Kirk) and the rest of the revolving crew of characters from the fictional California town of Agrestic. The 12-hour days of taping were fine until he reached high school and was itching for a life away from the set.
“Filming in the summer helped because I would have the school year, but it was a weird dichotomy to juggle,” said Gould.
Most of the other actors on “Weeds” were older than him; some were “divas,” he said, making a face but not naming names.
Even Parrish, the actor who played Silas, his TV brother, was seven years older, a sizable difference for a 10-year-old. At some point, Gould began seeking outlets outside the show, after trying to make friends on the red carpet and finding that his fellow actors weren’t his speed.
“It’s weird,” he said, “everyone’s just fake and those who I do know who have been doing it, they don’t always seem the happiest.”
Having been raised in a nominally observant family that always belonged to a Conservative synagogue, Alex had kept up with Hebrew school into his high school years, which was how he was introduced to USY.
He went on the California version of the group’s USY on Wheels bus trip three times and wanted desperately to go on USY Pilgrimage, a six-week summer trip to Israel geared for tenth- and eleventh-graders. But it was too logistically difficult to reorganize the “Weeds” shooting schedule, and his contract didn’t allow for much leeway.
“I wanted to go on Pilgrimage, and my best friend was going, and I couldn’t go because of filming,” he said. “It was always kind of a thing that if you went on Pilgrimage you knew more people on the international level and that was a big part of my life and much more important to me than acting was at the time. I kind of said okay, got over it, and said we’ll make it work next year.”
Gould never did end up going to Israel with that USY program, and he didn’t win the international or regional board positions that he ran for, although he did become president of his local synagogue chapter during his senior year. Yet he spent nearly all of his free time during those years building friendships within USY, experiencing a certain sense of relief when new friends either had never heard of “Weeds” or didn’t care.
“It’s a relief because they’re being your friend because they want to,” recalled Gould. There were moments when he would walk into a room at a USY International Convention — held each December, and with thousands of teens in attendance — and notice people doing double takes.
He could almost hear that whisper, “Is that Shane Botwin?”
“It’s a little bit weird” to be that recognized person, “but kind of fun, and it’s a good talking point,” he added. “It was part of my life, and I wasn’t going to change it, so I decided I might as well embrace it. I let people know that I wanted to be there [at USY], and I tried to be as humble as possible. My friends were always great about it, and I think it was a great place to find friends because it was a community that was different than everything else.”
When the elusive trip to Israel with USY didn’t work out three summers in a row, Gould began thinking about going on Nativ, the organization’s gap year leadership program in Israel, which would have fit with the “Weeds” schedule of summer filming, although the show ultimately ended after his senior year.
His fellow “Weeds” actors thought it was “really cool” that he was going to Israel, he said. “They were happy that I was finally able to make it.”
Being in Israel and experiencing the particular community that is Nativ was all that Gould imagined, but what stood out for him was the “freedom to do what you want,” he said. “It’s been incredible, just so different from anything I had done before. I’ve loved it here.”
Gould has plans to spend the summer around LA before heading off to college at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He chose the small, liberal arts college for its small size and “neat feel,” and plans on studying psychology and international relations.
As for acting, he’s not sure what the future holds.
“I enjoy it, I really enjoy it when I’m in the process, but I don’t like the crap that comes with it,” he said, looking off into the distance. “It’s been tough, I’ve been trying to figure it all out. Part of me says continue with it, but I don’t think I’m completely happy when I’m doing it, just being part of the whole industry.”
For now, however, he was happy to heading home, reuniting with his family, whom he’s missed during his 10 months in Israel. He’s not exactly sure what role Israel will play in his future. But he said he’ll be back, in a country where he’s happy, as he put it, not to be “under the microscope.”