Interview: Actor/Producer Waleed F. Zuaiter Talks ‘Omar’, Winner of the Jury Prize Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival
Waleed F. Zuaiter is one of those actors who’ve you’ve seen someplace…but can’t quite remember where. That’s what makes him such a good actor; he blends into the film and serves it’s story. From The Men Who Stared at Goats, to TV’s Revolution, Homeland, The Good Wife, Blue Bloods and tons more, Waleed has done some fantastic work and even more so with his new film, Omar.
Omar, the Winner of the Jury Prize Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is about a guy young Palestinian baker, Omar (Adam Bakri). He’s who is in love with his friends sister, Nadja (Leem Lubany) and secretly climbs over the separation wall to meet with her. He’s also… a terrorist. Or freedom fighter depending how you look at it. After he’s arrested for killing an Israeli soldier, he coerced by Agent Rami (Zuaiter) to work as an informant. Reluctantly.
The film, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), is quite good and I’d totally recommend it. It’s tense and gripping and has a whopper of an ending. And all of the actors – except for Waleed – had never appeared in a film before. And they’re fantastic.
Waleed was born in Sacramento, California and moved to Kuwait when he was young. He moved back to the staes to attend George Washington University and that’s where he started acting professionally. After college, he moved to New York and had a ton of success. He appeared in the Public Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage (starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline), Sixteen Wounded on Broadway, David Hare’s Stuff Happens (Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance) and the premiere of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul.
Check out the interview below!
You act in the film, you’re also a producer. How did you come to the film? Were you an actor first or a producer first?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Actor first. Hany sent me the script and he thought I would be really good for the role that I played and he said, “Tell me what you think.” I loved it, but then I just loved the full script even more so than the role individually. And so I told him, I said, “I’d love to produce this with you. Where are you at with raising money?” and he had some bites from some European government funds and there was this one investor. And I said, “Listen, let me help.” What winded up happening was that myself and my brothers wound up raising the entire budget. 95% came from private Palestinian investments. Individuals that we know through our family network and business networks of my brothers and my father and myself. And then 5% came from Dubai.
I read in the press notes that I think all of the actors except for you had never been on camera before.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: That’s true.
Did you help them out? The performances were really, really, really good.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Yeah.
Did you help them out at all with their performances? What did you guys do to make them look that great?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: I have to give full credit to Hany on that. He’s really good… one, he’s a really great human being, which makes him a really great director, in my opinion, because he’s a great listener and he’s a great observer and he lets actors, whether they’re experienced or not, come up with the choice on their own, which is, I think, is a really good attribute for a director because then the actor has more ownership in the choice, in the role. And so he has a lot of experience working with non-actors and he can get the best performances out of them because he’s just a really good… he understands human psychology really well. I actually learned a lot from the other actors.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Yeah. Just because there’s a certain freshness and a certain rawness that comes from people that are not as experienced. Sometimes when you’re working with experienced actors they’re set in their ways or they’re not open to playing around or whatever.
And then there are experienced actors that are very into that. I’m one of those people that I love to experiment, explore, play around. But I found myself asking people with far less experience questions and stealing things here and there from people that I think is a sign of somebody who’s a good observer. Because you wanna… you wanna kind of be a sponge and take in everything around you, and that was very helpful for me.
They, you know, they’d come to me on several occasions and most of my scenes, actually, all my scenes were with Adam. And Adam and I just naturally developed a very strong friendship, kind of a bond. And so we talked a lot about our scenes. We had a real comfort with each other and that, I think, was very important for me to translate that onto screen because when you see that on screen it makes the relationship and the story more powerful, in my opinion.
I didn’t read the press notes until after I watched the film and I was just completely shocked that they were non-actors.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Well, Adam was trained at Lee Strasberg’s School of Acting, so he had some really great formal training and then he also had training in Israel. Iyad, I think this is his first full length feature film. He plays Tarek. He has a lot of theatre experience in Ramallah and he tours in the Middle East. Leem is studying to be an actor. She plays Nadia. And… but, again, this is her first job. And Samer, who plays Amjad, he’s done a short film but this is, again, his first job. Real, real job.
Now that you’ve produced this, are you looking to maybe do more of that and take control of your career sort of creatively?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: It’s funny. I keep going back and forth swearing that I’ll never reproduce again and then the next day I’m like, “God, I really wanna produce again.” And it’s been a trial by fire on every single step of the process for me, so it’s been painful. But you learn more when you go through the pain, so that’s what’s made me want to produce more just because I’ve learned so much from all the mistakes that I’ve done. So I would like to because I’d like to produce a completely different way and just be better set up for it and better prepared.
In terms of having more control of my career, yeah. I mean, yes and no. Like, I’ll only produce something that I’m extremely passionate about and that’s what makes me successful, I think, as an actor is I put my heart and soul into it and if I can find the same success as a producer, that would be great. And I think it’s just more important these days that you write, produce, direct, and do all of the above. You’re just… you’re more equipped because more and more people are doing that sort of competition is on a different level.
Have you learned anything acting wise from your new career as a producer?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Oh, totally. I think the thing that is most obvious is that acting is all about the details. As you know, you’re an actor. It’s all about the choices and the details. And producing is all about the details, but it’s, from my experience, you’re accessing a different side of your brain. The left side of my brain, which, for me as an actor is screaming to get out of that side of the brain and focus on the creative. So what’s helped me is that whenever I’ve come to any of my scenes in the film, it’s this complete surrender and this complete almost desperation to be on the creative side of my brain and just surrender to being present and in the moment.
And I think being a producer has made me a better actor because I know every single detail of the film. We did a technical read through. I’ve never done that before. It was like a two day process where we went through every single line in the script and dissected it and I never knew that level of detail went into making a film.
Yeah, I never knew they even did that.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Yeah. I mean, I was like all nervous. I was like, “Oh, we’re gonna read the… we’re gonna do a read through.” They were like, “No, no, no, no. This is a technical read through. It’s for all the heads of the departments.” And we wanted to know exactly the age of the cat that we were using and, you know, at one point there was the kitten and then the medium sized cat and then the fully grown cat. And we spent like, you know, 45 minutes just talking about the cat. I’m like, “Ok guys. Come on. Let’s move on.” But it’s all about the details.
And so I think, you know, they both complemented each other. The passion and the sheer will that goes into being an actor helped with me getting this film off the ground and producing it and making it happen. But then the producing has opened up this other world for me as just this freedom of creativity that I can just really sink myself into.
You went to George Washington University. Is that where you kind of started acting professionally?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Professionally, yeah. I mean, I did my first… my first experience as an actor is my senior year of high school in Kuwait. I went to an American school there and I was the president of my student government and I just kinda had this big ego and I’m like, “Hey, I can do this.” And that’s when the bug bit and that’s when I was like, “Wow, this is… this is really cool. This is kinda what I love.”
And then in college I just pursued theatre as a minor and I did plays every semester. And then so after college is when I started to get really serious about it. I did my training in DC at the studio theatre, and then I did most of my professional work came when I moved to New York. I booked a… the west coast premiere of Tony Kushner’s Homebody Kabul, so that was a good credit to then move to New York and then I did a, you know, I booked a Broadway show there pretty soon after I got there, and that really helped. So I just did a lot of really great theatre and then I started to do more TV and film.
Do you think you’re gonna try to get back to theatre?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Oh, I’d love to. I’d love to. I’m always looking for great theatre to do. In LA I just haven’t had enough time to kind of break into the community, the theatre community in LA. But I’d love to…
That’s hard… I think almost harder than New York.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Yeah, because it’s interesting because a lot of the theatre actors in LA, in order to really be loyal to that, you kind of can’t do as much TV and film.
And it makes… totally makes sense. Or if you’re gonna do it you’re gonna be like, “Ok, I’m not gonna do any TV or film for, you know, a year or for 6 months or whatever.” And so… but I’d love to because I, you know, I’ve seen shoes at the Kirk Douglas actors gang, the Taper. I was involved in a show at the Taper. I was an understudy. And some really great theatres. And I’m also looking for stuff to do in New York. You know? There’s something with the Public Theatre that I’m supposed to do a workshop in April and then hopefully that’ll go into an actual production which I’ll do as well.
And the final question, what was your worst audition?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: I know I have some but they’re not coming to my mind right.
You’ve blacked them out of your memory.
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Probably. Probably. I don’t know. I mean, I think the most recent one is it was audition that I had in LA and it was a great casting director that does a lot of stuff and I just… I just kept on tripping up on my lines and I just was so focused on memorizing and being off book and I learned from that because I was just like, you know, why put myself under that pressure unless they’re paying me?
And so in that audition I just kept on asking to do it over and over and over and then finally she’s like, “No, I don’t have any more time. See ya later.” And so I felt really, really crappy and I called my manager and she’s like, “Don’t worry about it.” So, but, you know, since then I’ve been called back to the office.
So are you trying to memorize your sides for auditions now?
Waleed F. Zuaiter: Yeah, I’m trying to get really familiar with them, but not telling myself that I have to have this memorized because when you take that pressure off you’re immediately less nervous.
And then you just kinda go in there and if you’re not line for line or word for word, so what? You know? It does kinda come down to that. Its pay me. You know? And then I’d better be off book. And then if I’m not, fire me.
Omar opens in theaters today