The Next Omar Sharif: Why Finding the Next Middle Eastern Hollywood Star is Easier Than We Think

Omar Sharif in "Doctor Zhivago." (Screengrab)
Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago.” (Screengrab)

This article has been a long time in the making, mostly because it’s hard for one person who has several jobs out outside of maintaining a site to keep with and write articles about prominent news stories. But I do my best, and this particular issue has been on my radar for a while thanks to my constant reading of The Hollywood Reporter.A couple of weeks ago, The Hollywood Reporter put out an article after Omar Sharif died, titled, “Will Hollywood Ever Produce Another Arab Star Like Omar Sharif?” The jist of the article points out how American-Middle Eastern relations, coupled with Hollywood shortsightedness (to put it mildly) has created a vacuum for the Arab star or, to be even broader, the “brown” star (including South Asian, Americans of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, etc.) All of these stars have the collective issue of only being given “terrorist” roles or other villainous roles, instead of roles that engage in general human experiences.

The challenge brown actors face is explored even more in GQ’s “You May Know Me From Such Roles as Terrorist #4,” in which several prominent brown actors bond and lament over playing terrorist after terrorist after terrorist, while their acting co-stars get to play heroes. Both articles are indictments of Hollywood’s backwards casting system, but GQ’s article is even more damning, since the damnation is coming out of the mouths of the actors who are directly affected.

From where I’m sitting, Hollywood won’t directly change until there are many more people of diverse backgrounds actually in positions to greenlight and cast. Things are changing, but because of the existing hierarchy, Hollywood is still very much run by white cis-gendered men who want to create content that keeps reinforcing the images of themselves—white cis-gendered men—as the stars.

But there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Like I said, there are starting to be changes in terms of who gets to greenlight projects and cast them, thanks in large part to the Kickstarter world we live in now. Independent support can create content like Aasif Mandvi’s Halal in the Family, which aims to critique mainstream America’s (erroneous) ideas about Middle Easterners and Islam.

There’s also the complicated show Tyrant, which I review for Entertainment Weekly and write about constantly on COLOR. I call the show “complicated” because in its first season, it did a lot to create a further rift between the Middle Eastern and/or Muslim viewing public and Hollywood, specifically since the show’s first episode was highly controversial for its whitewashing of Bassam (played by white British actor Adam Rayner), casting decisions that seemed to reflect a very old Hollywood xenophobic trope of having the non-white hero be played by a white person and the surrounding non-white characters (some of whom are villains, like Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom’s character Jamal) played by non-white actors, simulated rape (committed by Jamal, reinforcing the “ethnic vilain” stereotype), and general violence towards and exoticism of women. Tyrant seemed like it was created from an outsider’s perspective of a stereotypical Middle East, which made it even more difficult to swallow at first.

Thankfully though, later in the first season and dramatically in its second, Tyrant has evened out into an often-compelling hour of television, with the Middle Eastern characters, now having been properly fleshed out, making up most of the show’s dramatic tension. And with the show finally finding its footing (strong enough to possibly come back for a third season, I’d say), Tyrant has become one of the few places on television, if not the only place right now, where people can view Middle Eastern characters on a primetime show each week. The show could also act as a platform for many of its actors who are still looking for mainstream success. Regardless of how many people Tyrant angered during its first season, the show’s stellar second season could be the true jumping off-point for the show’s stars and for other shows who want to follow in Tyrant‘s path.

While Tyrant is overtly about the Middle East, TV viewers are watching a show about a man of Middle Eastern descent and probably don’t even realize it—that show being Mr. Robot.

Rami Malek, who is Egyptian (and might be one of the only, if not the only, major Hollywood actor of Egyptian heritage to actually play a pharaoh—the Night at the Museum analog for Tutankhamun, Ahkmenrah ), plays Elliot in Mr. Robot. Elliot’s haunted by his past and wants to make a difference in the world, even if that difference includes criminal activity, and nowhere does the show make mention of his ethnicity, or the ethnic backgrounds of anyone on the show. On Mr. Robot, ethnic backgrounds thankfully come second to the drama of the show, so no one is really pigeon-holed into acting a certain way. But it’s worth mentioning that Malek is Middle Eastern, and one of the few brown actors in Hollywood who isn’t playing a terrorist.

Alongside the actors from Tyrant, and Rami Malek, Hollywood might also want to consider Andy Serkis as the person who might fill Omar Sharif’s shoes. Again, many people are watching an actor of Middle Eastern descent play someone other than a terrorist and don’t even realize it. As Serkis’ IMDB bio states, “Clement Serkis, an ethnic Armenian whose original family surname was “Serkissian”, was a Medical Doctor working abroad, in Iraq; the Serkis family spent a lot of time traveling around the Middle East. For the first ten years of his life, Andy Serkis used to go backwards and forwards between Baghdad and London.” Serkis’ international appeal could easily turn him into an Omar Sharif, even playing similar windswept roles like Doctor Zhivago. Serkis has used his immense talent for CG roles like Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes and before that, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings series, but if Hollywood gives him a chance and decides not to typecast him as “That CG guy,” then Serkis could give tons of traditional actors a run for their money. If he can act that exceptional without us even seeing his true face, imagine how well he can act when he’s just playing a standard human!

There are many other actors Hollywood should give a chance (some of whom were mentioned in the two aforementioned articles): Amr Waked, Sammy Sheik (who was also in an episode of Tyrant), Khaled Nabawy, Shaun Toub, and many, many more.

The common denominator with everyone mentioned in this article is that Hollywood’s system is working against them. To quote Sharif himself, he said it was “not logical” for an Arab actor to become a star in Hollywood. “I was the only one that made it; there will not be another.” However, Hollywood could decide to prove Sharif wrong and give more than just one brown actor a chance to achieve Sharif’s level of success, a success that shouldn’t have anything to do with your skin tone or where you come from, but on the merit of your acting talent. If Hollywood was fair and let more brown actors make it, I think Sharif would be glad to see from his perch in the afterlife that he’d be proven wrong.

 Screencap of Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago