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Terrorist One Moves On Up

Aramica, Interview, Antoine Faisal Posted: Mar 25, 2010

Arab-American actor Said Faraj, who stars alongside Matt Damon in the recently released Blockbuster The Green Zone came to California as a teen, fleeing his native Lebanon at the time of the Civil War. In his 20-year career, Faraj has appeared in numerous movie and TV hits, including The Siege, ER, 24 and True Romance' He spoke with Aramica publisher Antoine Faisal about his acting career and being Arab-American in Hollywood.

What led you to a career in the movies?

Back home in Lebanon we enjoy watching theater, and Les Miserables was my first love. When I first came to America, life was very hard. I jumped from one job to another because I didnt have my papers. I changed jobs about 20 times in two years. But my passion was always for acting. I was lucky to attend North Hollywood High School, where my art teacher introduced me to Atmosphere Agency, which casts for background roles. I was cast in "W.B., Blue and the Bean", starring David Hasselhoff. After that I got my Screen Actors Guild card, and I started auditioning and landing roles. Ive done close to sixty films now, as well as television shows.

Tell us about the Green Zone

The film is about a U.S. army officer named Roy Miller, played by Matt Damon, who is dispatched to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. My character is a high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army who has key information that Damons character wants. Youll have to see the film to find out the rest!

What are the challenges for an actor of Arabic descent in Hollywood, especially given the stereotypical rolesterrorists, criminals etc.typically reserved for Arabs in Hollywood movies?

Ill be honest with youthese roles arent going to end today or tomorrow. But I think its important to take advantage of any role to show off your abilities as an actor.

Do you think that by accepting roles like these, you are helping to perpetuate the stereotypes?

Its a tough question. It is hard for me, as a human being and a Middle Easterner, to portray these kinds of roles. But I dont view it as showing the Arabs one way or another; I just look at it as part of the story of the film.
I know that one day there will be better roles for us. At least the names are becoming more creative. First it was terrorist one and terrorist two, then Mohammed the Hijacker and Sam the Suicide Bomber [laughing]. I always make a joke out of it; Im dying to find out what they will come up with next. In The Green Zone, I am Said Hamza... I have a last name!

Does your accent help or hinder you to land roles?

Its always been positive for me to have an accent. I find that even major Middle Eastern actors who dont have an accent naturally will be asked to put one on. But I am toning down my accentit used to be much heavier than this.

Do you agree that theres often something comic about portrayals of Arabs in American movieslike when a character is meant to be Palestinian or Libyan, but he is speaking either Moroccan or Egyptian Arabic?

Its a great point. But thats partly why I am so proud and honored to be working on a film directed by Paul Greengrass, because he loves culture and cares a lot about detail. He hired a consultant, Sam Sako, to help us with the Iraqi dialect and accent. My character is a high-ranking officer from Tikrit, so his accent needed to very authentic. It was extremely difficult and I worked so hard to get it right. I hope that all Arabs and Iraqis know that I tried my best to get as close to the language as possible!

Can you name three top Middle Eastern actors, besides you, who have the chance to become Hollywood A-list actors?

Yes. Theres Michael Desante, (a.k.a Hani Naime, who was born in Palestine), from The Hurt Locker movie and the TV series Sleeper Cell. Theres also Khaled Abdalla (Egyptian-British), who starred in the movie The Kite Runner. And Haaz Sleiman, who starred in The Visitor movie. Sleiman was nominated for a Spirit Award. He did a brilliant job. Hes Lebanese, too, so I always call him and say Lebanese Power!

Do you see a new era coming in which Middle Easterners will be seen in a more positive light in the movies, and films set in the Middle East will start to attract bigger audiences?

Absolutely. The Green Zone, for one, is such a balanced film and I am so proud to be a part of it. And there are others. The Hurt Locker, for example (also set around the U.S. invasion of Iraq, winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture) There are also Arab actors in nuanced roles on television. The character Said, for example, in the show Lost, is of Iraqi descent. Its important that when we [actors] get the chance to do a good part, we give it all weve got and show that people can see us in another light.

Where do you see your career going after this breakthrough movie?

Im lucky that my character in the Green Zone is multi-dimensional, allowing me to show off a greater range of acting skill. My dream is to play a lawyer who is wrongly accused, or an undercover cop. I always liked The Fugitive [the 1993 movie in which Harrison Fords character is unjustly accused of killing his wife]. Id like to play more good characters.

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