Sam Sako: Hollywood Starmaker
by Sherif Awad
Iraqi-born, Los Angeles-based Sam Sako is one of few Arab cineastes who made it big in Hollywood to the point that Arab actors now call him Sheikh El Shabab, a nickname that fits his warm welcome, his fatherly figure and his big heart that urges him to give a helping hand to everybody. Actor, casting director, script consultant and dialect coach, Sako was a crew member in major films that involved Arab characters like Michael Mann’s The Insider with Al Pacino, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies with Leonardo Dicaprio, Hidalgo with Omar Sharif, The Man with One Red Shoe and Charlie Wilson's War with Tom Hanks. When I recently met Sako in Los Angeles, he was already working with Kieffer Sutherland in his new TV series Touch and with Robert Downey Jr. in the new Iron Man 3 that is scheduled for release in the summer of 2013. As actor in front of the camera, Sako can be spotted doing guest roles in films like Beverly Hills Cop II with Eddie Murphy and Protocol with Goldie Hawn.
Sam Sako’s journey to Hollywood and its A-list of big stars and famous filmmakers nearly began four decades ago. Born Essam Gabriel Sako in Tal-Asqaf, a small village close to Mosul in north Iraq, he grew up with a talent in fixing things, which first drove him to develop an interest in studying mechanical engineering as a young man. During the 1970s, most members of his family started to emigrate from Iraq; half of them reallocated in Egypt and the rest moved to the United States. In 1979, it was Sako’s turn to join his family in Detroit in order to study engineering in Wayne University, Michigan. “My original admiration of leading men of the 1970s like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood was stronger. So, after two years in Wayne, I dropped off in order to move to California and study filmmaking. “I was like so where is California? West? And I found myself driving four days until I reached Los Angeles. In the beginning, it was very difficult because I did not know anybody there. I was spending the nights in my car until I started to run out of money. Eventually, I got my first break when I accidentally met big time producers who hired me to work in a Warne Bros’ documentary series called Casablanca that was focusing on Arabs. My task was to make researches for the series as well as casting Arabs from the LA community. With the fees I got, I started to study filmmaking in UCLA and to make a living at the same time”, he remembers.
Since day one in Hollywood, Sako was more interested in doing prep works behind the camera. “To appear on celluloid, you should not have only an agent or a Screen Actors Guild membership or a Social Security Number, but you must have also someone who recommends you and he is better to be a family member”, explains Sako who sees things working there in the same way they happen in our Arab country. In other words, Hollywood also needs a little bit Wasta in addition to real talents. “However, since our graduation in 1988, my college mates who became filmmakers kept in touch with me in order to work in their new films because I know my way around”, he explained.
Many young Arabs come to Hollywood with big dreams of breaking into stardom and wealth. Sako always tries to help them although he knows it is too difficult to get under the limelight. “Most roles offered to Arab actors by major studios are stereotypical. They are either terrorists or oil tycoons. I.e. the middle class does not exist in Hollywood”, says Sam who was witnessing the change of the portrayal of Iraq in Hollywood films throughout the years. “During the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein went into war with Iran, Iraq was first-rate and the best Arab country portrayed in Hollywood. Then, everything changed when Bush came onboard because US Politics and Hollywood films walk together on two parallel lines. Yet recently, I notice that a change for the better has started to happen in the ways Hollywood sees the Arab world. Films like Rendition with Jake Gyllenhaal, Green Zone with Matt Damon and Fair Game with Sean Penn were warmly welcomed in the Arab world because they showed both sides of the story. The image is gradually changing and the portrayals are becoming more mature and three dimensional on the screen”, he says. Sako worked recently on an independent short film called Refuge by American filmmaker Michelle Steffes in which she sheds the lights on hostage situations currently taking place in Iraq. Shot in Los Angeles standing for Baghdad, it is the true story of an Iraqi young man called Nabil, played by Mustafa Knight, who moves to a new building only to discover that his neighbor could be the abductor of his deceased wife. Sako helped Steffes in casting, script supervision and many technical aspects during the shooting to make a location in LA looks like Baghdad nowadays. Refuge was recently screened to applause in the 10th edition 168 Film Festival in Los Angeles.
East and West
Through his agency Middle East in Hollywood and its website, Sako receives tons of e-mails and CVs from young men and women who want to act in Hollywood films. “It is not easy to get inside Hollywood. Papers and Union Membership and talents are not enough.
Unfortunately, many Egyptian films that involved American themes and that was partially shot in the US like Lost in America with Khaled El-Nabawy, Hallo Amrika with Adel Imam and Baby Doll Night, competed with Hollywood films and its oriental vision of Arabs by presenting a shallow and stereotypical look of America for our Egyptian viewers. That why’s I asked Sako about bringing his own experience to the Arab world in order to narrow the social and cultural gaps between East and West. “All my life, I was trying to present a realistic image of Arabs in big films. I hope that I can help to build a bridge between Hollywood and the Middle East. This started to happen when I worked on the short film Casualties that was co-financed by Dubai Festival in 2010. I hope that many Arab actors like El-Nabawy and Amr Waked could come and work. Some of them have the potential to breakthrough like Ahmed Al-Sakka and Mona Zaki. Sometimes, big directors go to hire Indian or Persian actors to play Arab roles because we don’t have enough talented Arabs here in Hollywood.