by Sherif Awad
Hani Al Naimi (Michael Desante) is not your typical Arab American actor/producer. Between Europe and the States, he was highly educated in business and classically trained as actor. When he landed in Hollywood twenty years ago, he was very selective in accepting the roles he was offered. The result, more remembered appearance in popular TV series and action films until he reached the first peak of his career as the Iraqi translator in the Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker.
Here are his answers:
-Both of my parents are Palestinians. My mother was from Al-Khalil (Hebron) and my father was from Bethlehem where I was born. I remember that my father use to travel most of the time because of his work in the Oil industry across the Arab world. As I was growing up, my family moved to Beirut where my younger brother and sister were both born. I have very fond memories living their throughout my childhood.
At six, I was in a school play. It was my turn to sing in front of an audience of at least a hundred parents, but I froze for seconds that seemed like ages then. I snapped out of it and I started to perform. The instant I got the cheering and the clapping it was magical, and it inspired me so much, it was then that I decided to do this for my entire life.
When I turned nine, the Civil War ignited in Lebanon, which drove my parents to consider a safer and better future for us. So my father decided to put me in a special boarding school for youngsters with special talents. I became the first Arab to join the prestigious Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland that was founded in 1870, and where ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, Oscar winner Tilda Swinton and James Bond’s author Ian Fleming were among its many famous alumni. I remember that I was a very active child with a wild imagination. The dream of becoming an actor was starting to take shape in my mind and I started to invent stories similar to the ones I used to watch in the movies. After seven years at Fettes, I went to England to continue on pursuing that dream and I was accepted into the renowned Hurtwood House Drama School. The next step was flying over the Atlantic when I turned eighteen; destination Hollywood and Los Angeles. I continued my education, at UCLA and earned a Master of Business Administration. Meanwhile, I had night courses in acting and drama.
-First step was to get an agent because if you don’t have one, nobody in the industry will speak to you. So I agreed to work as an extra in the background of scenes in order to get a Screen Actors Guild voucher. Once someone has five of these vouchers, he can join the actors union and can then seek an agent who can get him into auditions for acting jobs. When I started, I was using my birth name, Hani Al-Naimi but my agent advised me to change it because filmmakers were having difficulty learning it. They also thought that I didn’t speak good English. Choosing my professional name was an invention. It was a small alteration to the name of a character actor I respect tremendously; Armand Assante, who played the brother of Sylvester Stallone twice in the movies, first in Paradise Alley (1978) then Judge Dredd (1995). As for the first name Michael, it was the closest one to my heart.
-It was very difficult to land the right roles. They were very rare compared to many others I rejected because they were Arab stereotypes; either a taxi driver or someone working at the supermarket or even a terrorist. One of my best experiences was on the set of the series called SeaQuest alongside late actor Roy Scheider (star of the original Jaws) who was nice, easygoing and “old school”. Also I worked for a couple of weeks in the action film Cradle to the Grave with martial art star Jet Li. On set, I found out that Li has a team of four lookalikes with the same height and shape, who are with him whenever he is working and do all the dangerous stunts instead of him. During the shoot, the director had to tell him to slow down his martial arts moves because he was too fast for the camera to capture them. It was amazing to see him in action.
– Being cast in the Hurt Locker: I actually heard about the project a few months before they began production. I asked my agent to call them, but they didn’t call him back. So I wrote to the casting director and asked if I could be seen for one of the roles. They didn’t reply. I happen to be in Amman visiting my mother a couple of months later and a friend told me that they were holding auditions for the translator in Amman. I contacted the casting director in Amman and I went to audition for Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the writer and one of the producers of the film. Time went by and I didn’t hear back from them. I had booked my ticket to go back to Los Angeles a couple of weeks later and so I went back. 3 days after I arrived back in LA I got a call around midnight. It was the casting director in Jordan telling me that I got the role and to get back on the next plane to Amman. I guess it was destiny!
-I have been acting for twenty years but shooting The Hurt Locker was the most difficult experience. It was a very low budget film shot in very tough conditions. No real toilets or catering services as most of the shooting was across the Jordanian desert in temperature exceeding 45 °C. Director Kathryn Bigelow was rolling five 16mm cameras at the same time to catch all the action with a shaky camera, documentary style. But nobody including Bigelow would have predicted that it would be an Oscar winner. Right before we were suppose to begin shooting, the financing fell apart and Bigelow had to find other backers to continue the film. Actors like Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse all came for free cameos as a favor for her and also to insure a lifetime for the film on DVD and cable. As for myself, I played the role of the Iraqi translator used by the American forces to communicate with the local Iraqis. Most of my screen time I sported a mask like the real translators who hide their faces in fear of revenge from their own people because they help the Americans. Near the end of my scenes, there was an interrogation scene where my character got desperate which was an excuse to convince Bigelow to pull down my mask for a moment in front of the camera.
-Years ago, I decided to make use of my twenty year working experience in Hollywood to become a producer because I felt that Arab voices needed to be broadly heard. Statistically speaking, the populations in North America and the Arab Speaking World are roughly the same, around 350 million. But here in the States there is one film screen for every 5000 persons, while in the Arab world there is one screen for every 500,000 persons. However, the market in the Arab World has great potential because 60% are under the age of 30, which represents the demographic of filmgoers. The problem is Arab films get revenue from inside their own local countries only and are usually not distributed or not marketed well and therefore not successful abroad. That’s why I intend to adapt the American business model to my films that would bring about a much higher probability to their worldwide success.
-The first film I completed, as a producer was a horror flick called The Portal starring cult actors Stacy Keach and Michael Madsen. It will be released later this year. But right now, I am seeking funds to adapt the first of a series of suspenseful novels by writer Matt Rees entitled The Collaborator of Bethlehem which takes place in my homeland. The main character is an intriguing 56-year-old Palestinian schoolteacher called Omar Yussef who becomes an unlikely detective à la Sherlock Holmes while trying to clear the name of one of his students who is accused of collaborating with Israel. Until now, Rees who is a British journalist and the Bureau Chief of Time in Jerusalem for six years wrote four novels starring Yussef who has elements of a real friend he used to know. The books have a huge fan base and have been translated into 18 languages. I acquired their rights in order to create a film franchise in the years to come. I intend to play a supporting role in the film because I am younger than the character of Yussef. As a producer, I am still seeking a suitable actor to play him. My preference will be an Arab actor because I hope to shoot the film in the Arabic language. But the problem is Arab actors don’t have box bankability outside their own home countries, which makes the funding and the presales more difficult. Because The Collaborator of Bethlehem took place ten years ago during the second Intifada, we will be updating it to the current events in the Arab World.
– I have been told this before like I look like Omar Sharif who has had a major influence on my career. When I was growing up in Beirut, I used to ask my mother to take me to the movies. Back then, most of the films I saw were his. He was the first Arab and International Movie Star. One day, I remember my mother and I were walking out of the movie theater after seeing Dr. Zhivago, people were staring and pointing at me. I asked my mother why, she said because they were saying I looked like the little boy at the beginning of the movie. The little boy in the scene was Omar Sharif’s character when he was ten. In a film I did called Road to Empire the director asked that I play the part as if I was Omar Sharif. So I grew the moustache and out came my idol.
More on this live interview: