Over the past decade, actor Waleed Zuaiter has made a strong impression in theater, film and TV roles such as an Iraqi translator screwed over by the American military in George Packer’s play Betrayed (filmed and broadcast by PBS) and Saddam Hussein’s friend in the HBO/BBC mini-series House of Saddam. Born in California to Palestinian parents, he grew up in Kuwait and traveled around the U.S., the Middle East, and Europe as a youth. He has recently appeared on American movie screens in Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, in which he plays the crucial role of Israeli Agent Rami. Rami, who seems to work for the Israeli equivalent of our FBI, convinces the title character to snitch on his radical Palestinian friends in order to get out of jail. In other hands, the part could have become that of a caricatured tough guy, but Zuaiter brings out Rami’s complexity and nuances. In addition to acting in Omar, Zuaiter also produced the film. In fact, he played the main role in bringing the film into existence, setting up a production company along with his two brothers to fund it. Zuaiter is also appearing in the NBC series Revolution. He spoke to me recently by phone from his California home.
Steven Erickson: How did you get involved with Omar?
Waleed Zuaiter: Hany Abu-Assad is a friend. We were introduced by a mutual friend in L.A. shortly after he made Paradise Now. We hit it off and always wanted to work together. Then, about three years ago, he sent me the script and said he was interested in having me play the role of Rami. It was one of the fastest scripts I’ve ever read. I read a lot of scripts, but I’m not a quick reader by any means. This one I just ripped through. It was 72 pages, one of the shortest feature-length scripts I’ve ever read, but it felt very full and fleshed-out. I called him up and said “I love the role, but even more than the role, I love the script. Where are you with financing?” He had some feelers out to European financing, but nothing too firm. I said, “I’d love to help you produce this film and raise money.” That’s how I came onboard as a producer.
SE: Given your Palestinian background, did you have any second thoughts about playing an Israeli?
WZ: I did. Very briefly. I just felt a sense of responsibility. I feel that with every role I play, but especially with what the world would consider the enemy of Palestinians. I’ve been in this business for a while and have seen non-Arabs play Arab roles. Sometimes I’ve been extremely impressed and sometimes I’ve thought, “I wish they’d done a little more research or been a little more authentic.” My opinion has changed over the years. Ultimately it comes down to the essence of the character. Hany saw the essence of Rami in me. If this guy was living under different circumstances, he probably wouldn’t have this job. That’s what I saw when I read the script. Then it was up to me to make it authentic, believable, grounded, and personal. I’ve always felt that apprehension at the beginning was because, as a Palestinian playing an Israeli, I wanted even Israelis to feel like the performance was real. I also feel that one of the first steps to peace is stepping into your enemy’s shoes and walking in their life, seeing things from their perspective. Looking at it from the other side was very important to me.
SE: I was surprised by the scene in which you speak in Hebrew. Did you have any knowledge of the language before taking the role?
WZ: Absolutely none. I knew a couple words, like “shalom” and “l’chaim.” My grandmother, who’s from Haifa, spoke Hebrew fluently. I remember hearing her speaking it as a kid and I had no idea what she was saying. That was one of the things I was very nervous about, heading to the shoot. But I had the luxury as a producer of being involved in every single detail of production for two to three years. I was physically there for four months, and everyone spoke Hebrew. We also had a really great dialect coach named Yoni Lucas. He works on all the big Israeli films and even works with politicians. I went to his home two or three times for several hours each time. We broke down every syllable. every sound. That’s just the way I approach it when I’m learning new languages. I needed to know what the stresses are for each word, how the character would say it. I tested it on everybody: people who hadn’t read the script, people who had, Israelis, Palestinians, Russian-speaking Israelis. Everyone has a different opinion on how something is said because of the immigrant community in Israel. Hany didn’t necessarily want people to know where Rami is from. We wanted to keep it ambiguous, but one of the things we did do, just as backstory, was deciding that Rami’s wife is Ashkenazi, and there’s a little tension between them because he’s trying to be Ashkenazi but he’s not. There’s a bit of elitism in Israel. The equivalent here would be a husband who’s more urban and trying to be a yuppie.
SE: There was an interesting documentary called Forget Baghdad about Iraqi Jews living in Israel, and the discrimination they face.
WZ: I had heard a lot about that from actors on House of Saddam. The star of the mini-series, who played Saddam Hussein, is Iraqi-Jewish. I played his best friend on it, and we became friends in real life. There were 4 or 5 other Iraqi-Jewish cast members. They were the ones who told me that there’s some discrimination against them. The actor who played Saddam refused to serve in the Israeli army because he refused to be an occupier, but he’s very proud of being Israeli and being Jewish. I think it’s because of those very qualities that he didn’t want to serve on occupied land. I hope I’m not outing him here, but one of the ways you can get out of the army is if you can prove you have some medical handicap, so he convinced them he was crazy. I really respected that.
SE: The film was made almost entirely with private Palestinian money, right? Would it have been easier to go to Canal + or other European TV channels?
WZ: From the beginning, I had the dream of doing a privately financed, entirely Palestinian film. I even sent out emails to investors calling it “a purely Palestinian film.” There were some bites, but ultimately it was very hard. So I reached out to everybody. Hany had some interest from Germany and France and a company in the Middle East. So we said, “Let’s try to get at least half the financing from Palestine.” My brothers were my anchor investors. They have a very good reputation in the Palestinian business community. I knew with them onboard, it would help raise money in Palestinian and Arab circles. What wound up happening is this MIddle East company that was in for a quarter of the budget dropped out in preproduction. We didn’t have a good meeting of the minds. I had to replace $500,000 in preproduction and delay shooting for a month and a half. There was a very good chance the movie wasn’t going to happen. My brothers insisted that we get the movie bonded, which means that all the money has to be in at the same time, otherwise you can’t start spending. People had been working since June or July, and we were supposed to start shooting in August. I think it was October 21st when we first started shooting. It was a very stressful time. I remember being on the rooftop of Hany’s place. The production offices were in the basement, and his mom lived on the floor above us. I was on the rooftop, with very bad cell phone reception trying to make calls everywhere with sirens and mosques around us. I went back to one investor who doubled their investment and another investor who initially refused us but came back and said yes and brought two more people onboard. Hany and I also loaned out the bulk of our salaries. That’s how we were able to raise the money. It just happened that 95% of the financing ended up being Palestinian. 5% came from Dubai, for post-production funds. I went to everybody, especially when we were fighting the calendar, and it just so happened that we wound up with what I had originally imagined.
SE: This may be a naive question, but does the whole West Bank look as scarred as it does in Omar?
WZ: What do you mean by “scarred”?
SE: Well, it often looks like a construction site. There’s a real irony to the way all these billboards with positive messages are next to the separation wall, which looks ugly and is often covered in graffiti. Did Hany search out ugly locations or just depict them?
WZ: Some of the locations are actually much more beautiful than a lot of the places in the film. It’s a combination of both. There are some beautiful places in the West Bank, like Nablus. That’s where my father’s from. Everything with the separation wall was actually filmed in East Jerusalem. The graffiti you see on the wall is real. The billboard was a very artistic choice for Hany. He didn’t want to use title cards or spoon-fed people about the passage of time. I was actually surprised when I went to Ramallah with my father, and it seemed like a very progressive, very commercially active place. We wanted to show that too. Because we were doing this almost entirely Palestinian funded and made film, we wanted to show a vibrant Palestinian culture. But there’s the irony of companies like Paltel giving messages of hope and family and “living a normal life” juxtaposed with the actual circumstance of Omar, which is anything but that. We did it in green-screen. We shot those scenes in the first week, with a blue screen, and then added the billboards. The last one is this nice bright blue, which is a contrast with what Omar’s wearing. It felt very new.
SE: Do you plan to produce any more films, either in the U.S. or Middle East?
WZ: That was probably the hardest, most stressful thing I’ve had to do in my life. Because I made so many mistakes along the way, I learned a lot. I ultimately came to the conclusion that I would like to produce again. I just have to be extremely selective with what I produce. I’m interested in the Middle East, but ultimately I’m just interested in very good stories.
SE: Looking over your resume, your ethnicity seems central to the bulk of the film and TV roles you’ve played. Do you struggle with that, feeling typecast, or have you made your peace with it?
WZ: I do feel fortunate because you have to make peace with it in order to move beyond it. I have made peace it but a lot of people in the industry have told me, “You can play anything, and you should be playing anything. You’re very versatile.” When you have casting directors telling you that, it gives you confidence. I kind of compare myself to Tony Shalhoub, who’s a friend. I wanted him to direct a play I was interested in here in L.A. We met up, and I said, “I’d like to try to utilize you as a mentor of sorts, because I love how your career has gone.” He’s less Arab than me, because he doesn’t speak the language and he’s originally from Kansas or Kentucky. But both of his parents are Lebanese. And I’d love to have a career like his, where he’s played MIddle Eastern, Italian and Jewish characters. I was a little nervous accepting the role of a terrorist on Homeland. What attracted me to the role was that he was an unapologetically powerful presence. I liked that. I hadn’t played a character like that before, where they’re so powerful and not a victim. In another context, he could be Bernie Madoff. It just so happens that he’s from Syria and he’s a terrorist torturing Nicholas Brody. Acting and good storytelling is about power shifts and struggles. One of the first acting classes I took said that the three most popular themes are violence, sex or love, and power. As I saw it, this guy had all three qualities in him. Rami’s role is similar to that. I’ve come to peace with it, but it comes down to who I’m working with and whether I’m going to be challenged. Also, when I did Homeland, I was broke. That’s also the practical reason of why actors take certain roles. Who knows? That may change in five years, but it’s how I feel now.
SE: Do you think American TV and movies are heading towards a greater comfort level with Arabs, rather than just using you as the go-to guys for “Terrorist #1”?
WZ: That’s a good question. I don’t know where TV’s heading in terms of what types of roles are available for Middle Eastern people. My wife noticed a couple of years ago that all these new shows had a token Indian person. She wondered if it would be the same for Arabs. If anything, it would show how Arabs are assimilating. It’s hard to tell where that’s going. The Tv world is really exciting now. I’m an optimist. You kind of have to be if you’re an actor to survive. I’m looking for interesting, complex roles. They don’t have to be good guys. Look at Shakespeare. He wrote some of the greatest villains. Giancarlo Esposito on Breaking Bad is such a great, versatile actor played such a good bad guy. I see Rami like that. I watched four seasons of Breaking Bad in the span of two weeks when I was in Nazareth when we were filming. Hany didn’t have TV, just a monitor and an amazing collection of films. I went through a lot of the films I wanted to see. I was looking for more material. David Gerson, the producer we hired, had his iPad with him, with Netflix on it. I had watched maybe the first season of Breaking Bad with my wife before I left. I said “We’re hooked on the show. Let’s wait and pick up where we left off.” Of course, I couldn’t keep my promise. I was almost missing my wake-up calls because I was up till 2 AM watching it and I had to get up at 6 AM. Unintentionally, it was part of my preparation for my role because I learned so much about acting from that show.
SE: Has Omar played Israel yet, and if so, what kind of reaction did it get?
WZ: We had a premiere, January 7th of this year, in Tel Aviv. It was very well-received. Hany was just over last night, and he was talking about how all the Israeli papers had mostly good things to say about it. The box office doesn’t reflect that. I heard this from an Israeli paper that interviewed me: films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict don’t do well there. Although Bethlehem, which is somewhat similar, did well. There’s been some mixed reactions here and there,but we found some mixed reactions from Palestinian papers. Most Palestinians loved the movie and felt that it told their story, but some felt that it perpetuated the image of Palestinians as violent. I can see where that perspective is coming from, but I think that’s a surface reading.
Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.