Welcome to the post-9/11 minstrel show. The LA Times today dedicates its Column One to the plight of Arab and Arab-American actors looking for work in Hollywood. It’s an interesting chapter in the old tale of typecasting. Sayed Badreya’s saga embodies the issue well:
The burly, bearded Egyptian-born actor has played an array of menacing characters in a 20-year Hollywood career. He’ll appear with Robert Downey Jr. in next year’s “Iron Man” as an Arab arms dealer who kidnaps the hero. In 2003, he and Issawi made a short film called “T for Terrorist” in which an Arab actor, frustrated with endless terrorist roles, takes over a movie set at gunpoint.
Badreya recalls when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1986. “I couldn’t work. I was too handsome,” he laughs. “So I put on some weight and grew a beard, and suddenly I was working every day and playing the angry Arab.”
Some of the younger Arab newcomers to Hollywood look down on Badreya’s career as one spent reinforcing stereotypes. Badreya, however, makes no apologies.
“I never played something that didn’t happen. We hijack airplanes, I play a hijacker,” he said. “I do my work. I’m not going to sit and cry about it.”
I did, however, find a remark in the lede to be odd. See if you can find it:
“What kind of a name is that?” the voice coach asked at the end of the lesson. The name on the check he’d been handed by his student didn’t match the young actor’s European-sounding stage name.
The actor hesitated. He was fairly new in town and leery of any missteps. “Umm, my grandfather was Middle Eastern,” he said.
The actor said the room temperature seemed to drop. The teacher took him aside and spoke urgently. “Look,” the teacher said, “I see big things for you, but if you tell people this, you will not work in this town.” Recently, the actor landed a prominent role in a big-studio film. But he still feels compelled to keep his heritage under wraps. Only his closest friends know his ethnicity; he tells others that his parents are Italian, French, anything but the truth.
“I’m really proud of who I am, but I’m constantly having to lie about it,” said the actor, who didn’t want to reveal his name for fear that he would be relegated to playing terrorists, the new Arab acting ghetto.
Did he really say his grandfather was Middle Eastern? Not that his grandparents were from the Middle East—one from Iraq and the other from Lebanon—but that granddad was from somewhere between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea. Well, if you go back far enough, we’re all from the Middle East; I wonder if the actor said what country his father was from, but asked the reporter to change it as a condition for quoting him. Or maybe he really said “the Middle East,” which would further drive home the point that this actor is really aware of Hollywood’s supposed sensitivities to all-things Arab.
(A year ago, NPR broadcasted a segment titled “Filmmakers Shatter Arab Stereotypes in Hollywood,” focusing on Badreya, who had just finished shooting AmericanEast, a film that has yet to be picked up.)
* Updated: Anti-Jihadist at Pedestrian Infidel emails:
Hollywood can’t type cast Arab Muslims as terrorists enough. Besides, it’s overhyped as a ‘problem’.I think Hollywood’s more insidious type casting is always making the US Government (or some ‘disgruntled’ or ‘rogue’ employee/agent[s]) out to be the real bad guys. Syriana, Diehard 4, Xmen 2, the list of movies that exemplifies this bad guy paradigm goes on and on. Even the recent movie on Daniel Pearl, a story about the horrific true-to-life torture and barbaric beheading murder of an American reporter in Pakistan became just another pathetic cinematic exercise in asking typically pointless questions. Questions like “why do they hate us so much?” If you have to ask or wonder about such things, six years after 9-11, I sincerely suggest that you go and get your head examined. Common sense is in sadly short supply.