ASHRAF BARHOM auditioned for "The Kingdom" from the top of his apartment building in Galilee, the ancient village where he lives in northern Israel. His sister held the camera as the 30-year-old Christian Arab-Israeli transformed himself into a tightly wound Saudi police colonel, Al-Ghazi, at the precise moment when Al-Ghazi finally peels off his officious, official persona.
"In the movie, the scene is played with Oscar winner Jamie Foxx. On the rooftop, I made it a monologue, looking to my sister," says the actor, with a laugh. "She's 13 now."
Barhom didn't know who Jamie Foxx was before he was cast in the geopolitical action-thriller that opens Friday, and he'd never been to the United States, let alone Saudi Arabia, which he's barred from ever visiting because of his Israeli passport. Yet the actor's work has been traveling, courtesy of his turn as a ruthless Palestinian guerrilla leader in the Oscar-winning foreign-language picture "Paradise Now."
Barhom is one of a wave of talented actors from the Middle East and South Asia getting a break from Hollywood's newfound interest in geopolitics. With movies such as "Syriana," "Munich," "United 93" and "A Mighty Heart" as well as the upcoming "Rendition," actors such as Ifran Khan, Omar Metwally and Igal Naor have landed some of the most complicated, fraught male roles of the year.
Producer Scott Stuber recalls seeing Barhom's audition tape. "Over his shoulder, you could see all of Israel off his balcony. You could feel his intensity." Director Pete Berg arranged to meet Barhom in Hong Kong, where he happened to be scouting. Berg called Stuber afterward and gushed, "This guy is Robert De Niro from 'Taxi Driver.' He has the same intensity. You couldn't take your eyes off him."
Barhom certainly pops out of the starry ensemble (Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Chris Cooper) that makes up "The Kingdom," Berg's tale of an FBI team investigating a bombing at an American compound in Saudi Arabia.
Effectively demoted for not being able to thwart the attack beforehand, Barhom's Al-Ghazi is nonetheless designated as the Americans' police monitor; he is a patriot and a cop operating in the Saudi Arabian justice system whose flaws he understands intimately but whose social code he adheres to rigidly. His character bears the real cost of this American jaunt, emotionally and politically.
When Barhom appeared recently in the bar of the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, he was almost unrecognizable. Gone was the perma-stress etched in his character's face. The character had been a human coil in a khaki police uniform, but now sporting a black T-shirt embossed with the tree of life, Barhom seemed many notches more relaxed, his fierce eyes and chiseled features somehow softened. He was accompanied by his manager, Ihab Shasheen, spiffy in a big white shirt and cross, who turns out to be a childhood friend from Galilee.
Until recently, Shasheen was working in Tulsa, Okla., "wholesaling cars overseas to countries we can't go to," Shasheen cracks. It's a little "Entourage," Palestinian style, though their vibe is more grateful than entitled. They've just been to Social Security to get Barhom a card so he can join the Screen Actors Guild and have been making the rounds of casting directors and producers courtesy of Barhom's Endeavor agents.
"He's older by five years," explains Barhom when Shasheen is off arranging their day. "We work together but we're brothers more than manager and client. We love each other." Their relationship dates to the days when Barhom would chase Shasheen through the streets, holding a mouse to terrify his rodent-phobic friend.
A case of culture shock
It's easy to understand why one would want a familiar face around when dropped into Hollywood and English is only your third language after Arabic and Hebrew. "The Kingdom" was mostly shot in Arizona, which was subbing for Saudi Arabia, with exterior driving shots done in Dubai, and the myriad Arab faces were culled from all over America, Europe and the Middle East. The terrorist mastermind is played by a Jewish Israeli, whom Barhom knew from home.
Raised in a working-class home, Barhom says he didn't choose acting. "I lived it. I was born, and I felt I like this game. It started as a game. It doesn't start from a decision." He appeared in a white suit in a Christmastime pageant, singing a song called "Tami" to a girl in his class. He later studied theater at Haifa University and performed Shakespeare's classics in Hebrew. He spent the last two years translating "Romeo and Juliet" into Arabic for a theatrical production he plans to direct in his hometown and hopes to bring to America.
He auditioned for American movies for six years but explains, "I didn't have the chance to be in one of them, and I wasn't convinced that I wanted to do the movies. Some of them were stereotypes."
Even today, while Americans will probably see "The Kingdom" as a popcorn thriller niftily set in the world of terrorism, Barhom is taken with the film's political message, returning repeatedly to its underlying themes of cooperation amid palpable mistrust, of not prejudging what you don't know. The whole time he was in Arizona making the film, he was worried about his family in Israel. The recent Lebanon-Israeli conflict was raging, and Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah were raining down all over Galilee.
"I'm a mammal at the end," says Barhom. "I breathe out and breathe in and eat. At the end when we go to sleep, nobody lives this political definition. It's something we connect by and we try to understand each other by, but at the end, we know that this is not who we are. We are more simple. I don't see much differences. We talk different languages, eat different foods, but all humanity has one ancestor, which started from one person, which started from one god. I don't think politics can bring a better situation. They try, but you see how much corruption there is. I believe change should come from the real leader, who can make a real peace, and his name is God."