x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Waleed Zuaiter talks about Omar, the Oscars and everything after

As the delegation for Hany Abu Assad's Academy Award-nominated Palestinian thriller Omar gets ready for Sunday's show, Waleed Zuaiter, star and producer, remembers just how hard it was to get the film made.

From left to right, director Hany Abu-Assad and actors Adam Bakri, Waleed Zuaiter and Iyad Hoorani of Omar pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Larry Busacca / Getty Images
From left to right, director Hany Abu-Assad and actors Adam Bakri, Waleed Zuaiter and Iyad Hoorani of Omar pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Larry Busacca / Getty Images

It’s been almost three years since Waleed Zuaiter first received an email from Hany Abu-Assad – the Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated director of Paradise Now – about a new Palestinian feature film he was planning. While the words “emotional roller coaster” are perhaps cliched, Zuaiter experienced deep lows and unbelievable highs since he came aboard as the film’s producer and one of its main cast members.

The film is, of course, Omar, the West Bank thriller that has captivated audiences in Cannes and Toronto and, in December, opened the Dubai International Film Festival (which helped finance the picture). Having only opened across the US commercially earlier this month, its journey will peak tonight, when Abu-Assad, Zuaiter, the lead star Adam Bakri and several other cast and crew members stroll down the red carpet for the Academy Awards, where it’s up for Best Foreign Language Film. Adding to the sparkle of the occasion, both Zuaiter and Bakri are being kitted out in free Prada suits for the ­occasion.

“My manager’s sister does hair and make-up for celebrities and reached out to various companies,” says Zuaiter, laughing. “A lot of them said no, but Prada said yes, and I was, like: ‘That’s who I wanted anyway!’”

Bakri, who plays a militant in the film and calls the growing noise surrounding it “amazing and terrifying at the same time”, was also pleased with the deal.

“I was going to buy myself something cool anyway, but now that Prada has stepped in I have to accept the offer,” he says.

The timing of Omar’s US release, just days before the Oscars voting stopped, could well boost its chances of winning. “It gives us that exposure compared to the other films. A lot of people didn’t know about us for a very long time, we kind of snuck under the radar,” says Zuaiter.

The Arab-American actor, who has also had roles in The Men Who Stare At Goats and Sex and the City 2, and plays an Israeli military officer in the film, has had very little sleep recently having flown around the US promoting the film.

As he is based in Los Angeles and much of the film’s delegation are not, Zuaiter’s house has turned into a temporary hotel. “I have a whole Omar family staying with me. Leem [Lubany], who plays Nadia, and her sister, who is a designer, are staying here. Our editor and director of photography are coming, too, and they’re going to be staying with us. The excitement is definitely ­bubbling.”

But it wasn’t always Prada suits and red carpets. As the producer, Zuaiter had to help find the film’s financing. Most Palestinian productions get their money from European government funds or contributions from foundations, but Omar became the first to source 95 per cent from private Palestinian equity. And when one chunk of money pulled out just days before shooting, he had to frantically jump into action.

“I remember being on Hany’s rooftop in Nazareth,” he says. “His production offices are in the basement and his mother lives upstairs. But I had a very bad cellphone reception so had to go up to the rooftop so I wouldn’t drop a call. I was there fighting street noise, traffic, fire alarms, mosques, it was a cacophony. And I had to stand in the same place so not to drop the call while trying to raise a quarter of the funds for the movie.”

But even once made, the struggle didn’t stop and last summer saw the film push Zuaiter – who along with Hany and another producer had loaned out some of their wages to raise money – into a deep ­depression.

“It really derailed me emotionally. I just remember everything crashing at the same time,” he says. “As it’s a full-equity production, there’s a big responsibility on me to make all of our investors whole because part of the dream is that we want them to continue doing this and to help create a Palestinian film fund.”

Thankfully, with a US distributor and Oscars nod, Zuaiter’s efforts have paid off, although he admits that there’s still work ahead of him to help keep the film’s financiers happy. And for him and Bakri, Omar’s young star, there are more projects in the pipeline.

For Bakri, the success of Omar – his first feature – means he now has to measure every step.

“There’s interesting stuff coming up,” says Bakri. “I’ve been offered a couple of features now that I would definitely have taken if I was just starting out with a less big deal of a ­movie.” Zauiter has a role in the NBC sci-fi television series ­Revolution.

“It’s great. Most of the characters I’ve played are Middle Eastern, but this guy is called Martin Shaw, he could be Irish for all I know!” he laughs.

He also has a part in his friend and Axis of Evil star Maz Jobrani’s forthcoming comedy Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero.

“It’s kind of like Mr Bean meets Ace Ventura meets Peter Sellers.”

And even after the drama that has been (and still is) Omar, Zuaiter does not think he will be able to resist taking on another producing role.

“I swore a million times that I’d never produce again. And my wife has sworn that I’ll never produce again. But I’ve made so many mistakes along the way and learnt so much, that I think it would be a waste not to. I have a love/hate relationship with producing and now I’m back on the love side. I’m going to start actively looking once I can devote my attention to it.”