Raya Meddine, one of the few Arab actresses making a name for herself in Hollywood, speaks about her childhood, leading roles and the uphill battles her peers face.
Made for the part
When the Lebanese actress Raya Meddine landed a leading role in the American soap opera The Young and The Restless last year, it marked the first time an Arab actress "got inside the system", as she put it. "I thought of it as one for the people," she says.
Meddine, whose character, an Italian art curator, has since been killed off, remains one of a handful of Arab actresses rising through the ranks in Hollywood. These pioneers of film - who also include the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass and the Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid - are capitalising on a growing number of Arab-themed projects, including Julian Schnabel's upcoming feature Miral about the Palestinian socialite Hind Husseini (played by Abbass), and Florence of Arabia, an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel that will star Charlize Theron.
Meddine says she has taken on the role of showing the West what Arab actresses can do. It was a colourful and sometimes fraught journey for the actress, who is the subject of endless fan musings online, thanks to her role in The Young and The Restless. (She is also a star in the Middle East following her role in the 2005 Lebanese feature Bosta, which broke box-office records in Lebanon. She most recently appeared on The Young and The Restless as a ghost.)
Born in the US to Lebanese parents and raised in places as varied as Canada and Oman (her late father was a diplomat), Meddine has the advantage of speaking five languages: Arabic, English, Italian, Spanish and French. She attended French-speaking schools during an itinerant childhood. "I feel like I belong everywhere and that I am also a foreigner everywhere I go," she says. With her Mediterranean looks, she could pass for any number of nationalities. This, combined with her Italian, helped her swing the leading role of Sabrina Costelana Newman in The Young and the Restless, which made her a household name among soap opera fans.
Meddine often auditions for Hispanic roles, which prompted her to adapt her stage name. (Her birth name is Rana Alamuddin.) "Rana in Spanish means fraud," she says. "After September 11, Meddine was much better than Alamuddin, which would have typecast me as Arab." Meddine was studying communication arts in Lebanon when she decided to become an actress. "All of my childhood experiences fuelled me to become an actress," she says. "I was not one thing or the other, so it made sense of who I am. My parents were very cosmopolitan, but at the same time they were influenced by their strict upbringing as Druze. On the one hand, I lead a very cosmopolitan lifestyle, but on the other, I had restrictions growing up. I couldn't have a boyfriend, I couldn't stay at sleep-overs and I was told that I had to marry a Druze, which I didn't do because I am a rebel. I have Arab morals but at the same time I can't be shocked by anything."
After university, Meddine began presenting a film segment on Lebanon's Orbitz TV, but, "I felt a dissatisfaction", she says. "My husband (then her fiance, the playwright Elie Karam) said: 'I know what's wrong. You want to be an actress in Hollywood.' I had large horizons." It didn't take her long to pack her bags and head to Los Angeles in 2002. She told her father she planned to become a director. "Being an actress in our society is really frowned upon," she says. "He said: 'Why would you go there and put yourself through all of that?'"
She picked up a number of parts including that of Wanda in the 2004 film Recycling Flo. Then, after she went back for what was supposed to be a holiday in Lebanon, she was cast in Bosta and became an overnight sensation. "Women would come in by the busload from the villages to see the film," she says. Directed by Philippe Aractingi, Bosta is the story of a group of young artists who travel the country performing a techno version of the traditional Lebanese dance the dabke. Meddine plays a reporter following the group on the road. The film was chosen to represent Lebanon in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2006 Oscars.
Of her instant success, Meddine says: "It's not a big deal. It is a small country." But Meddine was on a roll. She began moderating Mission Fashion, Lebanon's version of America's Next Top Model or Project Runway. The show was broadcast to 250 million viewers in the Arab world. "Women participated from all over the region," she says. "There was quite a bit of controversy on the show because we had one woman from Oman who dressed from head to toe in a traditional burqa but designed a skimpy red outfit."
Meddine went from television to the stage, co-starring with her husband in the play To Hell With Meryl Streep, directed by Nidal el Achkar. They even took the show to Paris and performed in French. Meddine was having such a good time that she was thinking of staying in Lebanon, but her life took a different direction. "What happened next was the 2006 war in Lebanon and my father died," she says. "It was the end of two great years for me. I couldn't get into the country as my dad was dying because Israel had closed the airport and bombed all the roads. I managed to finally get a bus in with friends and he died that morning. I decided I didn't want to be in Lebanon anymore."
Meddine had last seen her father a few months earlier thanks to some high-level contacts in Jordan, where her father served as the Lebanese ambassador. "He told me to call a friend and see if I could come in on a military plane," she says. "So I flew in with all of these medical supplies. Then Israel began bombing Beirut and my husband said he would never forgive me if I didn't leave. My father told me to go."
Later that year, Meddine headed back to Los Angeles with her husband. Several auditions later, and after months of callbacks, she was given The Young and The Restless job. "The business is a series of tests and rejections," she says. "You have to have inner strength. It was nerve-racking waiting to hear, but once I got on the show, it was one big happy family. I was an Arab girl in an American soap opera and no one cared. Background wasn't important."
Despite her success playing other nationalities, she says it is still an uphill battle for Arab actresses to be cast in Arab roles in Hollywood, and she has watched several Arab parts in major films go to non-Arab actresses. "I think these should go to Arab actresses," she says. "We have been stereotyped since the 1920s but there are some great Arab actors and actresses and they should give them the parts."
The experience hasn't dampened her spirits, however. Meddine says movies and television are focusing more on Arab themes and more opportunities are coming. One story she auditioned for recently was about an Arab-Persian family that comes to the US during the Iranian revolution. (The show didn't come to fruition.) Other upcoming features include an adaptation of the bestselling novel Girls of Riyadh.
"The next five years are going to be huge for Arab actors," Meddine says. "I just know it, which is part of why I didn't go back to Lebanon. I wanted to show the world what it is to be an Arab actress. Latino actors had a breakthrough a while back and Arabs are next."