In this piece for Elle, activist and journalist Amani Al-Khatahtbeh (creator of the influential blog MuslimGirl) interviewed four working actresses (of Middle East and Muslim backgrounds) on their shared goal in bringing to life television and film characters filled with nuance and dimensions.
Subjects in the interview are: Sarah Shahi, known for “The L Word,” “Person of Interest,” and NBC’s “Reverie”; Dina Shihabi, getting attention for her breakout role on Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” which led to a development deal at the studio; Nikohl Boosheri, fan favorite for her role of a LGBTQ Muslim woman on the Freeform hit “The Bold Type”; and Sheila Vand, whose resume includes the Persian-language horror movie “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” indie “We The Animals,” TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” and the upcoming “Viper Club” starring Susan Sarandon.
The actresses discuss typecasting, how they’re speaking up on set and behind the scenes, and their thoughts on “representation” and what that means to them. Here are some snippets from the interview:
“My parents are Persian and I was raised in Texas where all I wanted to be was white. I spoke Farsi and English but people always think I’m Mexican, so I got Spanish spoken to me more than other Mexican people that lived in Texas. And all I wanted was to assimilate…”
“I’ve been rejected for white roles for not looking white enough, and by the Middle Eastern roles for not looking Middle Eastern enough.”
“A lot of the characters I’ve played often presented as the ‘All-American Girl.’ But then what happens is that they’ll eventually want to show the diversity of who they hired. The gimmick is like, ‘Oh, you speak Farsi, right?’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’ And they’re say ‘We can get a dialect coach for you.’ And I say, ‘No, no, I’m fluent. What would you want?’ And they’ll add a scene where I speak in Farsi. Now, I was never playing a ‘Middle Eastern character,’ the character was just another person, there was no mention of religion or ethnicity, and then all of a sudden, halfway through season four, I’m speaking Farsi, and then it’s never really mentioned again. And there are pros and cons to that. What I really liked when that happens… is that they brought me into the conversation. They didn’t just write it for me. Knock on wood, I’ve worked with showrunners and writers that are open to hearing my feedback. It all comes down to whether you’re able to speak up in those moments where you feel like your truth needs to be captured a little bit more. At the end of the day, what becomes most important is showing the truth of who you are.”
“I was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Dubai. I moved to New York 10 years ago when I was 18, then I went to drama school and I graduated four years ago. But I grew up watching American TV shows, and when I moved to America, I thought, ‘I have to sound American, I have to look American in order to like be an actress.’ Back then, if you told me that I’d be in a headscarf speaking in Arabic on a TV show, I would have laughed at you. I would have said, ‘No one wants to see that. Why would that ever happen?'”
“In so many ways, I grew up Muslim and quite religious, and through these roles, I can connect back to that as an actor while also being the person I am now, living in America and feeling like the Western person that I am.”
“I grew up in Canada, my mother was also a single mom, and I was one of three people of color in my entire primary school. And I always just wanted so hard to blend in. You see what the white kids are eating for lunch and you’re like, ‘Why can’t I have that? Why do I have to bring ghormeh sabzi for lunch?'”
“… I started working in this industry and realized that I started getting cast in Iranian roles. I’m Persian, but I was born in Pakistan because my mom was pregnant with me when she was fleeing the war, and my uncle in the Iranian embassy in Pakistan her that if she came there, he could get her into Canada. So the first film that I did, Circumstance, I had to speak Farsi through the whole thing. I had to do 10 months of dialect coaching because I had such a thick Canadian accent when I spoke Farsi. But I’ve ended up playing so many of these characters—I can’t remember the last time I spoke without and accent or without a hijab. And there’s something really beautiful because I discovered parts of myself through this work, through meeting people, through shooting in places like Beirut, and reconnecting to my roots in a way. But it’s strange too because for a lot of things that you go out for—not always, but sometimes—a white dude in a room is telling you what your identity is.”
“Like Sarah, my parents are both Iranian. I was born and raised in California, so I guess I’m a first generation immigrant, and didn’t really think of my Iranian-ness much until I came into the business and other people in the industry saw me that way.”
“I’m in the Snowpiercer TV series [on TNT], which we’re shooting and will come out early next year. And the race of that character actually changed after the pilot. It was originally a role named Cleo that didn’t have any religion or race. And now her name is Zarah. So far all that’s changed is the name, and so it could go in a super cool direction. But it can be scary too, because I’ve seen that happen in the past, and sometimes you get stuck with these roles that are obviously reductive because when they want to get diversity points, they’ll cast “representation” onscreen. But for me, it’s not just about representation onscreen, but also representation offscreen, in the people writing and editing and creating these shows.”