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I’m a Muslim American and I Play the Hero in a TV Show. Here’s What My Experience Has Taught Me About How We Can Change Hollywood

6 minute read
Zaki plays Special Agent Omar Adom Zidan on the CBS series FBI.

Like most people, I remember where I was when the second plane smashed into the World Trade Center. I was in a sixth-grade Social Studies class in Unionville, Penn., surrounded by my classmates. Seventeen years later, I can vividly recall the images of the World Trade Center falling, just as vividly as I can recall another set of images aired shortly after: a group of villagers somewhere in the Middle East, rejoicing in the streets after the towers had collapsed.

In the ensuing hours, news outlets juxtaposed these two moments, and my 11-year-old brain wrestled with how to process them. The finer points of that day are lost to memory, but the brushstrokes of confusion, fear and sadness remain — as well as the sound of my name over the school’s intercom; my cousins and I being whisked from campus, without knowing why or where we were going or how this would end; the distrusting looks from people who wondered if they needed to fear my family, or me.

Especially since 9/11, we have been bombarded with countless images of Muslim terrorists in film and television. To the point where a head-wrapped, so-called “radical” terrorist may be the only type of “Muslim” the majority of Middle America thinks of when they consider someone who practices Islam.

My 11-year-old self didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor — that I wanted to be on TV — so I couldn’t have conceived how the events of 9/11 would affect my career, altering and constraining the types of roles that I would be expected to play, if I were fortunate enough to be able to play anything at all. As a kid, I was just focused on playing a different role — that of the relatable, jocular, kind-hearted “model Muslim” to demonstrate to my primarily white community that not all Muslims were bad. I entered my teenage years with “Osama” jokes tossed around at my expense, but I brushed them aside. I was preoccupied with fitting in, being liked and making other people feel comfortable with my existence, rather than fearful of it.

I started to love acting my freshman year of high school, during our production of Seussical. Laugh if you want, but watching the cast take their bows and seeing the warm standing ovation they received propelled me to try out for future musicals, including Beauty and the Beast. Those musicals liberated me. Because we started with a story in which anyone could find their role — be it a villain or, yes, a hero.

I was never forced to perpetuate a stereotype as a child actor. But as I grew up and became a professional actor, I auditioned to play more terrorists than I can even recall. Actors simply want to work because “work begets work,” or so the saying goes. And so you chase jobs that might be unfulfilling at best or harmful at worst — harmful to the children who are like you once were — in order to open the door to your next job that will be, hopefully, more rewarding. It is through this process that society churns your pursuit of joy into widespread pain.

You want to work. But if you do that particular kind of job well, you embolden the stereotypes and propel a negative narrative about your people. A narrative that you deeply resent, leaving you conflicted and sometimes angry at yourself, even though you have to do your job. You put yourself into a box and other actors who look like you into a box and, in the end, may further demonize and vilify the group of people who you hope to portray.

I’ve found there is a better way, though, if enough people working in this industry are willing. To date, protagonists have been written as primarily white, straight, cisgender men, and so as a six-foot-five Arab American, the range of roles explicitly written for someone who fits my description is limited. This broken practice would of course be improved by having more diverse writers bringing more of these characters to life on the actual page, and from greater imagination and risk from talent reps, casting agents, directors, producers and studio and network executives to change their conception of what lead actors look like.

But it will also benefit from a form of openness too often only afforded to that white male archetype — where a narrative exists but the protagonist’s profile is not finalized, where we simply start with a story. So often in TV, as series progress, writers adapt to their actors. But this should, and can, start from the beginning — because people of every background can be a hero.

They say, “Luck is preparation meets opportunity” and so we often think that all we can do is prepare as best we can and wait for an opportunity to come to us — which I don’t disagree with. But we often forget that opportunities are not always something that will boldly present themselves to you; rather, they are often hidden in the blank spaces, in the loop holes.

My manager was sent a script for a pilot where the character, referred to only as “OA” was not written as Arab American or Muslim, and its description did not include race or ethnicity. He knew they were looking for a Latino actor to play the role simply from the list of clients they expressed interest in. However, they did not specify that they only wanted to see Latino actors for the part — and that’s where he found an opportunity. He sent me the script; I put myself on tape and sent it in. It wasn’t until later — when I got a call back — that I found out my audition tape was completely unsolicited.

Dick Wolf and the show’s entire creative team was in the room for my follow-up audition. We workshopped the material for almost an hour. They learned aspects of my personal background — that I was an Egyptian-born immigrant, that I spoke my home country’s dialect and that I spent my summers abroad in the Middle East during my childhood, as my extended family remained there.

By the time I screen-tested for FBI, the character was no longer Latino and the initials OA had come to stand for Omar Adom. There were lines of Egyptian Arabic woven into the dialogue. There were references to pearls of wisdom imparted by a grandfather back in Egypt. Special Agent Omar Adom Zidan had come into being, born of what my personal existence had demonstrated was possible.

And now he is real. Now he is on TV, fighting not just crime but, in effect, the stereotypes we too often see. And now all those 11-year-old kids across the world today who look like me can watch someone who looks like them, too.

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