Waleed Zuaiter's star on the rise in Hollywood
A Muslim security guard named Mohammed enters an elevator with a group of other passengers and minutes later it grinds to a halt, stranding them 50 floors above the ground.
One of the passengers, it turns out, has a bomb. And naturally suspicion falls on Mohammed.
That is the basis of the plot of Elevator, a new thriller that stars the up-and-coming Arab-American actor Waleed Zuaiter as Mohammed.
A bomb, a Muslim, suspicion ... it sounds like a typical stereotyped plot with the Arab as the bad guy.
But if it were, Zuaiter would not have anything to do with it. In Hollywood, where scores of actors compete for the same parts and where a successful audition can mean a lucrative film or television role or the possibility of stardom, it is rare that anyone turns down an offer.
Zuaiter and other Arab-American actors who, naturally enough, find themselves offered mainly roles as Arabs, have done so, however, and continue to do so if they feel the role is demeaning to Arabs or portrays them in a bad light.
"There's a small but solid Arab-American acting community in Hollywood and we are often up for the same parts but we are very supportive of each other," Zuaiter says. "There's more camaraderie than rivalry. We in the Middle Eastern community have a common goal of not perpetuating negative stereotypes of us."
We're talking on the patio of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills as Zuaiter, 39, sips coffee. Quietly spoken and intense, wearing a leather jacket and dark glasses, he has temporarily put aside a notable Broadway stage career to move to Los Angeles to concentrate on television and film. He has already made his mark in several major productions, appearing with George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats, with Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City 2 and co-starring in the highly acclaimed television mini-series House of Saddam. Consequently he is on the verge of becoming one of Hollywood's first A-list Arab-American actors.
His new film, Elevator, will soon do the rounds on the international film festival circuit and should further heighten his rapidly rising profile.
"The role of Mohammed is definitely against stereotype and the script was so good I couldn't stop reading it once I had started," Zuaiter says. "My character isn't what you'd expect. He's from the Middle East and kind of quiet with a sense of mystery and darkness about him. You don't really know what to expect from him.
"The movie asks the question, 'What do people do in situations where their lives are in danger?' You see how different people react in a crisis situation."
Zuaiter has a background in the best of both worlds. Born in Sacramento, California, and raised in Kuwait, where he attended an American school, he speaks fluent Arabic, unlike many Arab-American actors, and his English has no trace of an accent.
He is not boasting when he says matter-of-factly: "I've developed a reputation as a really good Middle Eastern actor so people are very receptive to my work. I don't feel like I've been pigeon-holed in Arab roles. Casting directors and people I've worked with tell me I can pretty much play anything. I've had casting directors tell me that they expect me to soon turn down Middle Eastern roles that aren't very interesting."
Zuaiter sees the number of roles for Middle Eastern actors increasing. "There's now a demand for authenticity and for those roles to be played by people from that heritage," he says. "It used to be that all Arab-American roles in Hollywood were played by Latinos or Indians or Pakistanis but all that has changed."
Somewhat surprisingly, he sees the September 11 terrorist attacks as the catalyst for change in both the number and quality of Arab roles being available.
"Before September 11 the writing wasn't very good and the roles weren't researched and were very stereotypical," he says. "After the attacks, I think people felt a responsibility to be more accurate so there has been a lot more effort put into the writing and research."
Zuaiter's parents were in Sacramento studying for their degrees when he was born, and he remembers their struggles to earn enough money to buy food and pay the rent. When he was five his parents moved to Kuwait with him and his two older brothers. Their studies paid off because both parents became successful investment bankers. His brothers, too, flourished in the financial world and now work for the financier and philanthropist George Soros.
Zuaiter was expected to follow in their footsteps, so when he announced his intentions of becoming an actor his parents were surprised, anxious and, he says, "not too happy".
He recalls: "They kept asking me if I was sure it was what I wanted to do and told me how risky a career it was. But they are very loving and supportive and when they see me on television or in a movie and people talk about me they're very proud, and then when they don't see me for a while they tell me to give up this hobby of mine and get into the real world." He laughs fondly. "They're very loving parents and really value what I do, but they worry."
They have little need to worry now, although the going was tough for Zuaiter in the early days of his career.
He moved back to the US when he was 19 to attend George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he earned degrees in philosophy and theatre. He learned his trade the classical way, performing with the Washington Shakespeare Company and at theatres in the DC area.
He successfully auditioned for the West Coast premiere of Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul and after a run of the show in Berkeley, California, he moved to New York and his stage career took off. He appeared on Broadway in Sixteen Wounded and in the hit off-Broadway play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom and won a Drama Desk Award as part of the ensemble cast in David Hare's play Stuff Happens.
Now a recognised and respected New York stage actor, he was cast opposite Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in the Public Theatre's production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and starred in the US premiere production of David Greig's The American Pilot.
Television beckoned and he was whisked off to Tunisia to co-star in the Emmy-award winning BBC and HBO co-production of the mini-series House of Saddam, playing Saddam Hussein's best friend, a performance that was singled out for positive reviews around the world.
Returning to the stage, he gave a heart-rending portrayal of an Iraqi translator in the acclaimed play Betrayed, which was filmed by public television. The director was Pippin Parker, whose sister, Sarah Jessica Parker, saw the play at least four times and chose Zuaiter for the role of a shifty watch salesman in a souq in Sex and the City 2. The film was set in Abu Dhabi but filmed in Morocco.
He went on to co-star in The Men Who Stare at Goats, alongside George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. He played an Iraqi captured by insurgents and rescued by Clooney and McGregor.
"It was such a fun thing to work on," he recalls. "Everybody involved in it was wonderful to work with and very giving. Working with George Clooney was a great experience and the director, George's producing partner Grant Heslov, was a delight to work with."
Zuaiter has remained friends with McGregor and when the film was released they went together with their families to see it in Los Angeles.
From 2004 until 2008, Zuaiter co-produced the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which brings together Arab-Americans to showcase a unique and edgy brand of humour.
But the lure of film and television roles remains strong and a year ago he forced himself to give up his life in New York and move to Los Angeles with his wife, Joana - "she's Lebanese, Fijian and Scottish," he says - and their son, Laith, 13, and daughter Nour, 10.
"I was doing play after play in New York and I was very grateful for the work, but I have a family and it didn't really pay the bills. I came to Los Angeles because there's more space and more television and film work and because I'd make more money. But I didn't realise I'd miss the theatre this much. I love stage work and I miss it tremendously."
Still, the move has worked out well so far as he has landed another film role and two television guest-starring roles, but, he says, "I'm still in the transitional stage. The entertainment industry in Los Angeles is 25 times bigger than it is in New York. It's really huge and it takes a while for people to get to know me, but I think it's a good move. Things were slow when I first got here but now it's picking up."
With his darkly handsome looks Zuaiter could pass for European, and it is easy to imagine him, Gauloise hanging from his lip, on a Parisian street corner in a French film noir, or zipping through the streets of Rome on a scooter with a beautiful woman on the pillion.
Such thoughts have occurred to him.
"The world is getting smaller and the film industry is a global one and I want to be a part of it," he says. "I don't mind what nationality I play. I just want good roles I can sink my teeth into."
The Zuaiter file
BORN 1971, Sacramento, California
SCHOOLING American School, Kuwait; George Washington University, Washington, DC
FAMILY Wife, Joana; son, Laith, 13; daughter, Nour, 10; Palestinian parents now living in Jordan; two older brothers
FIRST JOB Can't remember
WORST JOB Waiter at TGI Friday's in New York
LAST BOOK READ The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma
FAVOURITE MOVIE In the Name of the Father
CAN'T STAND Bad customer service
FAVOURITE ACTOR Robert De Niro
ON HIS IPOD The soundtrack to The Mission
FAVOURITE QUOTE "Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is destiny; the way you play it is free will" - Jawaharlal Nehru
A tried-and-tested film device
Screenwriters and directors have always had a love affair with elevators. Lifts have been featured in thousands of films, given that their careening counterweights, snapping cables and vise-like sliding doors provide the perfect vehicle for murder, mayhem and fights to the death. Thrillers such as Mission: Impossible, Speed, Die Hard, True Lies, Aliens and Terminator 2 have all deployed the dramatic device. An entire plot of people trapped in a lift, as in the new Elevator, also has been done before. Namely:
ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004) A man and a woman trapped in the lift are forced to live there for several months.
BLACKOUT (2008) One of three trapped people turns out to be a psycho killer as inconvenience becomes nightmare.
DEVIL (2010) One of five trapped people turns out to be, yes, the devil, in this M Night Shyamalan supernatural thriller.
Updated: February 2, 2011 04:00 AM