Waleed Zuaiter Discusses Producing and Starring In OMAR

Waleed Zuaiter Discusses Producing and Starring In OMAR

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.

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