Caught in the Middle

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A character actor's job is never entirely free from disorientation, but Tony Shalhoub underwent more than his fair share while filming two of this year's aspiring blockbusters. On the Los Angeles set of the December release "A Civil Action," he assumed the mantle of Kevin Conway, a Boston Irish lawyer fighting beside John Travolta on behalf of parents whose children had died as a result of toxic waste dumped by corporations.

No sooner had he wrapped that role than he caught a redeye for New York. By the next afternoon, the 45-year-old Shalhoub was plunging in to his first scene as Lebanese-born FBI agent Frank Haddad in "The Siege," Edward Zwick's controversial 20th Century Fox thriller about the declaration of martial law against an Arab American neighborhood in Brooklyn in reaction to terrorist bombings.

Filmed completely out of sequence, this scene was to be Shalhoub's emotional crescendo. As the distraught agent Haddad, he was sent wandering through a sports arena that Bruce Willis had turned into an Arab American internment camp, calling out for his imprisoned son, Frank Jr. The search was made all the more difficult because Shalhoub had not yet met the actor playing Frank Jr., let alone the actress playing his beloved wife.

Nevertheless, the brutal spectacle shocked the Lebanese American actor into the role.

"It was a bitter cold night," Shalhoub remembers. "There were hundreds of extras wrapped in these plastic tarps, and all this military equipment. Looking into the faces of those extras, they all looked like my family--my cousins, my brothers and my uncle. It seemed to bring me into the state of mind I needed."

For some prominent Arab Americans, "The Siege" is no warning against U.S. government excess--as the filmmakers say--but another chapter in the vilification of Muslims in movies. After seeing the preview, Hala Maksoud, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, wrote an open letter to Zwick, advising him that "we can only hold you responsible for any actions of hate directed against our community as a result of this extremely damaging and dangerous film."

The controversy has placed Shalhoub in a difficult position. The actor delivered a keynote speech at the Anti-Discrimination Committee's convention before he began filming "The Siege," and both he and Maksoud profess admiration for each other. Still Shalhoub is puzzled how "The Siege" could be construed as anti-Arab.

"I don't think the point of this movie was to instill fear and this sense of foreboding against Middle East terrorism, unless you walk out in the middle," Shalhoub says. "The image of the U.S. military policing its own people, of Arab American victims being rounded up and herded into camps: That's the most stirring and the most interesting." The actor supposes there are those viewers who will show up just to watch the explosions. "But if people are really listening and following the story. . .," he says. "Terrorism is something to be reckoned with, but our response is equally frightening."

Shalhoub went into "The Siege" aware that certain adjustments had to be made in the script and that a few things had to be toned down--some of them by the actors themselves. He now sees the character of Frank Haddad as "completely sympathetic," and the film itself as a "balanced portrait."

"You know, political correctness can only go so far," Shalhoub says. "You still have to be able to tell a story and allow the story to take a life of its own. I wouldn't have done the film if I had thought it was offensive."

Shalhoub's Career Proves Versatility

In the past, Shalhoub has steered clear from playing someone of his own ethnicity, given the dim Hollywood climate for Arab American actors. "I've avoided terrorist roles," he explains, "and frankly any Arab roles, because they're often portrayed in such a negative light."

Still, Shalhoub's other ethnic characters have been numerous enough to repopulate a sizable portion of Disneyland's "It's a Small World." In 1997's "Paulie," he was a Russian expatriate janitor male-bonding with an imprisoned talking parrot. In "Big Night," his turn as an Italian emigre chef besieged by meatball-loving American philistines won him the National Society of Film Critics best supporting actor award. He let loose in the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink" as a manic Jewish studio executive, while "Men in Black" saw him as a space alien pawnshop owner.

Shalhoub's apprenticeship for his ethnic roles was a regular stint as a Russian cabdriver on the TV show "Wings." To portray these outsiders, Shalhoub has assumed so many dialects and perfected so many meek slouches and pumped-up gaits that the actor's underlying personality has become anybody's guess.

On a calm afternoon recently in a Hancock Park estate resplendent with Oriental rugs and tasteful antiques, Shalhoub appears in a collarless, unbleached burlap tunic, his brown hair severely clipped and brushed forward. He has just flown back from New York, where he is in rehearsals for an off-Broadway production of "Waiting for Godot," alongside William H. Macy and John Turturro.

Perhaps jet lag and the frenetic demands of that play have contributed to the almost ecclesiastical weariness with which Shalhoub begins talking about his career. He trained at the Yale Drama School, where, he explains, "the emphasis, at least the idea, is to train actors for the theaters and the stage. Even though I knew television and movies were probably in the cards, I had envisioned, or hoped anyway, that it would be possible to work in all three."

After Yale, Shalhoub played the vagabond stage actor, traveling to regional theaters across the country. Moving to Broadway, he earned a Tony nomination for his role in "Conversations With My Father"; while working on Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," he met his future wife, actress Brooke Adams. The couple have two young daughters.

When the conversation segues to Shalhoub's youth as one of 10 children growing up in a Lebanese American family in Green Bay, Wis., the visitor gathers some hope: Perhaps Shalhoub will fall prey to that kind of passion we witnessed during his bravura "Big Night" orations on bad cuisine, or his exile's recollections in "Paulie." But that's not Shalhoub's style, which tends more toward patrician reserve than over-the-top emotion.

Giving Interviews Not a Favorite Role

His first role came at 6, when he portrayed a Thai child in a high school production of "The King and I." Even in this first performance, he played an ethnic role.

"It was my first," he agrees forlornly. "Very good. I hadn't thought of that." He sighs with the weight of the ages. "It's hard to do these interviews without repeating that I came from here, went to here," he confesses. "As far as background, it's hard to imagine that it would interest anyone at this point. How does it work?" Perhaps when Shalhoub becomes the film star he seems destined to be, he will get used to telling his life story a few days each week; to make his past charmingly anecdotal and easily digestible for a mass audience. But as today's ordeal nears its conclusion, Shalhoub relaxes.

His return to the New York stage in "Waiting for Godot" kindles a kind of nostalgia familiar to many actors. "It harkens back to the old days of being a gypsy actor," Shalhoub says. "Living on people's couches, living out of suitcases." In those years, he would bounce around from New Haven to Seattle to Chicago, taking whatever roles he could get, never having enough possessions to put into storage.

But not today. The ponderous front door of Shalhoub's estate swings open. Brooke Adams appears in the front parlor, toned and winded in her workout clothes, smiling at her husband amid the fine antiques. Perhaps she could offer some additional insights into Shalhoub that the actor wouldn't reveal for all the world.

"Anything great about Tony he doesn't talk about," Adams says. "He's humble and brilliant and generous--and the greatest!"

"Just in time, dear," Shalhoub grins, applauding his wife. "Great timing!"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°