Like any unknown actor looking for his big break, Khalid Abdalla was eager to be cast in a movie, especially a studio production. Yet when the 25-year-old performer heard about a possible lead part in an upcoming Universal Studios film, Abdalla considered turning it down.
The hesitation was understandable: The acting job was playing Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker at the controls of the Sept. 11 jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field, killing all 40 passengers and crew on board, in “United 93.”
As filmmakers tell a number of stories about Sept. 11 and other attacks both real and fictionalized -- a rapidly growing list that includes “Munich,” “Syriana,” “Paradise Now” and Friday’s “United 93" -- there’s increased demand for young Middle Eastern actors. But directors and their casting agents must convince those actors that their cinematic cause is more noble than that of directors a generation ago, who routinely depicted Arabs as cartoonish, fanatical madmen.
The actors who play terrorists, suicide bombers and hijackers in this new crop of films are caught in a delicate predicament: The very things they find attractive in playing these parts -- three-dimensional characters, understandable motivations, the occasional love interest -- also open up their films to criticism for humanizing individuals that some consider monsters.
“My first reaction on even hearing about the part was that I have no interest in doing anything like that at all for a number of reasons,” Abdalla said about acting in “United 93.”
Abdalla wasn’t the only actor who had reservations about playing that particular terrorist.
When 28-year-old French actor Karim Saleh learned of auditions for “The Hamburg Cell,” a 2004 British television movie about the formation of the Sept. 11 hijacking team, he held similar misgivings about playing Jarrah. Only with his dad accompanying him for moral support on the trip to the London audition did Saleh drum up the resolve to read for the starring role.
“My father gave me the strength to believe that I would not be stuck playing terrorists,” Saleh said. “He said, ‘There’s a lot more to you.’ ”
When writer-director Stephen Gaghan was casting “Syriana,” his ensemble drama about the political and personal costs of America’s dependence on foreign oil, he struggled to find a young actor of Pakistani descent to play a suicide bomber. He held casting sessions in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Damascus, Bahrain, Dubai and Karachi without success before he finally found Mazhar Munir in London.
“I had found a couple of terrific young actors who simply weren’t allowed by their families to take the part,” Gaghan said. “One young man’s family said he would be cut out of the family” if he accepted the role.
When actors of Middle Eastern descent are cast in lead roles, something as seemingly benign as a movie premiere can turn into a diplomatic dilemma. Iraq-born actor Lewis Alsamari, who plays hijacker Saeed Al Ghamdi in “United 93,” left Baghdad for the United Kingdom a decade ago, but the United States denied the actor’s visa request to attend Tuesday’s premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The producers of these films also risk bringing real-world politics onto their movie sets. An actor who starred as a Palestinian suicide bomber in “Paradise Now” described the emotional complexity of playing a bomber inside a bus full of Israeli actors, while his costar told of filming an equally troubling scene in front of the residents of a West Bank city.
The atmosphere between Arabs and Jews during the filming of the Olympic hostage drama “Munich” was emotionally charged. And one American performer who played a passenger on “United 93" said that for a period of time during production he could not treat the four terrorist actors “as human beings.”
All the same, the actors say they are thankful to be rid of the cliched Middle Eastern villains of the late 1980s and early 1990s (in films such as “Delta Force,” “Navy Seals,” “Iron Eagle”), who were far more likely to be bearded, wear kaffiyehs and shout Arabic insults than resemble a real person.
It was precisely those cliched depictions that made Abdalla so nervous about trying out for “United 93.”
“The reputation of representing Arabs by Hollywood is a stereotype, and it’s an incredibly hurtful stereotype,” says Abdalla, who was born in Scotland to Egyptian parents.
His mind was changed after meeting Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday,” “The Bourne Supremacy”), who wrote and directed the film. Abdalla came away from the encounter convinced Greengrass wasn’t interested in perpetuating caricatures or fomenting hatred.
“The idea was to put all of those people on the plane and try as best as we can to tell that story,” Abdalla said of his meeting with the filmmaker. “It wasn’t to be a film about stereotypes.”
In some ways, “United 93’s” four hijackers come across as fully developed as some of their doomed hostages; Jarrah, in particular, is depicted as hesitant but ultimately faithfully determined to do his job, at whatever cost.
After playing Jarrah in “The Hamburg Cell,” Saleh starred as Issa, the Black September ringleader of “Munich’s” Olympic attack (he also auditioned for, but was not cast in, “United 93"). In playing these characters, Kaleh believes he’s helping rewrite Hollywood’s spotty record in depicting people from the Middle East.
“What I didn’t want to do is to play a terrorist. I figured no terrorist was ever interesting enough to be portrayed,” said Saleh, who grew up in Beirut and describes himself as French and Lebanese.
But Saleh was swayed to star in “Hamburg Cell” because director Antonia Bird’s film focused on how people become zealots; the Sept. 11 attacks are the film’s prologue and epilogue, not its center. Similarly, “Munich” presented a chance to travel more than 30 years into the past, when terrorism and its causes were unfamiliar to most. “It was an exploration,” Saleh said. “It was an age where terrorism wasn’t known -- they were doing something for the first time, and it wasn’t about Islam. There was a sense of discovery on the set.”
There was a sense of tension, as well.
Because these movies are based on either actual events or, in the case of “Syriana” and “Paradise Now,” loosely fictionalized incidents, historical and ethnic divisions inevitably affected the mood on a film’s set.
During rehearsals and preproduction, Greengrass segregated the four actors playing the hijackers from the film’s passengers and crew, so that the captors and hostages would not grow friendly. “In the end, it’s acting, it’s not real,” Greengrass said. “But every director will tell you that you have to create conditions that create tension, because tension is what makes drama feel real.”
When “United 93’s” hijacking begins, the four men must exert psychological and physical mastery over a plane full of smart and strong people, pretending that they have a bomb. In other words, Greengrass said, the actors were playing terrorists who were, in a way, acting.
In part, it was those scenes of domination that Abdalla, a University of Cambridge-educated literature student, found personally challenging. For his performance to work, he had to convince the passengers and, by extension, movie audiences, that he was capable of savagery. The lines between actor and character were blurry enough that visitors to the set felt uncomfortable shaking his hand.
Two scenes of art uneasily imitating life unfolded in “Paradise Now,” the Oscar-nominated foreign language film from Palestine. The first involved actor Kais Nashef, 27, who plays a bomber who travels to Tel Aviv to complete his suicide mission. Director Hany Abu-Assad cast local Israelis as the doomed passengers on a bus. “That was the toughest for me,” said Nashef, a Palestinian, who makes his home in Tel Aviv.
The other involved Nashef’s costar, Ali Suliman, 28, who plays a fellow bomber. At one point, Suliman’s character must videotape his last statement before a planned attack. When the scene was filmed, the set was filled with spectators from West Bank city encircled by Israeli checkpoints. “When I finished my speech,” said Suliman, a Palestinian who lives in Nazareth, “it was so still, so quiet. And then all the people were crying. They saw themselves in the speech.”
Although Suliman said he agonized over taking part in “Paradise Now,” his costar Nashef said he was not hesitant to play such a politically provocative role: “I saw a good script that was not provincial or small-minded. People want more than caricatures.”
“Syriana’s” Gaghan agreed: “All of the people who made the film believed that if we can show people as they are -- maybe you will relate to them, and maybe you will not -- we would have done our job.”
No matter the difficulty in playing the role, the actors cast as terrorists and bombers said the work changed them as performers for the better.
“There is something in doing this role that I would like in every role -- something that is very challenging for an actor, and very challenging for an audience. I like to do tough stuff,” “Paradise Now’s” Nashef said.
Said Saleh: “I always think of ‘Munich’ as the film that made me an actor.... But now I want to play things where I am not killing people, but showing off qualities that are more normal and banal. I want to play Woody Allen characters, writers and musicians.”