x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Former Dubai banker gains Hollywood roles

Faisal Al Saja may be the first Saudi actor to get a speaking part in a Hollywood movie.

Faisal Al Saja worked as a banker in Dubai before setting his sights on Hollywood. Sammy Dallal / The National
Faisal Al Saja worked as a banker in Dubai before setting his sights on Hollywood. Sammy Dallal / The National

Two years ago Faisal Al Saja was working as a banker in Dubai. Now, he's a Hollywood movie actor. The 35-year-old Saudi national left the banking world in late 2011 to pursue his dream and has not looked back since.

"I just wasn't feeling in my own skin," he says about his previous career.

After graduating with a degree in international relations from a university in the US state of Connecticut, Al Saja went home to Riyadh, where he started working in the world of finance. After four years, in 2006, he moved to Dubai and worked for a bank for almost six years.

But he was not the typical banker. "I was always searching for opportunities to express my artistic side," he says.

While his colleagues went to the after-work bars in the Dubai International Finance Centre to discuss money and deals, Al Saja was perusing local galleries, photography exhibitions and theatre shows.

"I started to expand my social circles outside of the banking world to try and engage the artist in me," he says.

His first taste of an audition was for a locally produced theatre show, Their Lives at a Glance, which he says felt, quite simply, "unbelievable".

"I didn't know what to expect. I was excited, nervous."

During the audition Al Saja discovered that he had the ability to switch from dark characters to light-hearted ones.

He was told to pretend he was in a supermarket, pushing a trolley, and then receive a phone call that made him extremely happy.

"And I had to do it without saying a single word."

The casting director was impressed, Al Saja says. "He saw something. That was the spark that ignited it all."

With his new-found skills, Al Saja auditioned for the short film A Genie Called Gin, directed by Jac Mulder and funded by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission in 2012.

The locally produced comedy, which starred Al Saja opposite the up-and-coming American actor Russ Russo, was his "first break".

"It was incredibly successful and got a lot of buzz," Al Saja says.

By sheer chance, an American acting coach who was giving workshops in Dubai at the time of the film's release saw the movie and was impressed by Al Saja's on-screen charisma.

He connected Al Saja with a team of producers in Hollywood who were casting for their new thriller, Freshwater.

One thing led to another and within months, Al Saja was in Los Angeles signing contracts to appear in three different Hollywood films.

The actor also believes he is about to make history, calling himself the "first Saudi ever to have a speaking role in a Hollywood feature film in a main character", he says.

In Freshwater, starring Zoe Bell (Django Unchained and a stuntwoman in most of Quentin Tarantino's films) and Joe Lando (Dr Quinn Medicine Woman), Al Saja plays the role of Travis Beecher.

Shooting for the movie, directed by Brandy Berry, has already begun, and Al Saja will fly to the US next month to film his parts.

He will also start shooting for the horror movie Before the Dawn, also by Berry and featuring Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction).

The third movie is the dark comedy Heat Wave, which features an eclectic cast, including Russo, the Twilight Saga actors Bronson Pelletier and Kiowa Gordon and Natasha Alam (True Blood).

"I am so excited," says Al Saja, who added he feels "obligated" to stay in the Middle East to "help encourage Saudis and Arabs to explore moviemaking".

"I want to show people that it's possible to take that leap of faith that I did," he says.

He also wants to prove that Arab actors do not have to always play the bad guys.

"I made a decision not to be typecast, even if it would help my career. I am going to fight that and do as many versatile movies as possible."

In all three of his forthcoming Hollywood films, he will be playing an American character.

According to Faisal, the ultimate achievement is not fame.

"I hope I can win the blessing of the Saudi people to show them that I am competing with the Americans for roles we never thought we could do."


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