You studied civil engineering in Romania. What made you choose to become an actor? What was behind this shift towards art in general?
How it happened is that while I was a student in Romania the university used to organize an annual arts event that reflected the cultures of those who took part, people who came from all over the world. It was held at the Students House theatre and included a whole range of activities such as music, dance, sketches, musical theatre and folk songs – it was a way of introducing traditional arts from different countries around the world. I took part as a musician since I played the violin and sometimes I did act.
Though to be fair, it never even occurred to me to start acting professionally until the Dean of the civil engineering department invited me over for dinner after graduation and literally told me: “go back to your country and study acting!”.
I didn’t take what he said seriously. Then he went on to tell me what a talented actor I was and that he could recognise my expertise. And actually, once I went back to Damascus, I took the Professor’s advice. I enrolled at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus and graduated in 1992. After that, I started to act professionally and two years later I was one of the leading actors in Syria.
Based on your long dramatic and cinematic career, which movie, person or director do you remember as an inspiration, as marking a milestone in your career or bringing something special to your experience as an actor?
I’ve always thought that it was Sir Anthony Hopkins and his charming and inspirational performance in The Silence of the Lambs that moved me to become a better actor. It was his insightful approach to a performance which combined a still quiet and an unfathomable deepness.
It made me reconsider my own performances, to try and polish my acting skills and to immerse myself in the thought processes and philosophy of the role I’m playing.
I’m not afraid to say that I’ve studied The Silence of the Lambs with Sir Anthony Hopkins so much that I’ve watched it more than ten times. I believe that Sir Anthony Hopkins’ style revived my creativity.
How did you start working as a Hollywood actor, especially as it’s so competitive?
My start came with a bunch of students through their graduation projects at UCLA; I acted in four student movies.
At the time I was applying for some other acting opportunities posted online. And let me tell you, as I was a box office star in my country, it was difficult at the beginning for me to accept a minor or secondary acting role. The level of competition was a factor too.
Then came the day when Werner Herzog, the German director, was looking for an actor with Arabic features and a Middle Eastern accent to star with Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert. I was selected from many Arabic-speaking actors after the director had watched some of my work. He admired my performances and that was my start in Hollywood.
What projects do you have coming up?
Recently, I finished filming my role in 1st Born, where I play alongside Val Kilmer, Tom Berenger and Oscar-winner Robert Knepper. In the next ten days I’ll take a trip to Paris to film my scenes for the series The Patriot.
What I’m going to work on in the long term is writing a screenplay about my life as an actor – as a successful actor who had to leave his country just because of his political views and who had to deal with a lot of pressure. This movie, in a nutshell, will be a true story based on the real events I lived through as a human being. It will sum up my life and focus on some of the things I suffered because of my opinions and how I felt about my country.