Michael Desante is not your typical Arab-American actor struggling to make it in Hollywood and settling for mediocre terrorist roles with bad accents. His name has made it to Oscar-winning movies, and has even ventured into the world of movie production.
The 49-year-old actor, producer and writer of Palestinian origin was educated in the most renowned schools and universities in the United States and Europe, studying business administration as well as pursuing classical training in acting, writing and producing. When he started his acting career in Hollywood over 20 years ago, he was very selective when accepting the roles he was offered. The result?
Unforgettable appearances in popular TV series and action films, including The Road to Empire (2007), and his first production The Portal (2010). But his career reached a whole new level when he played the role of an Iraqi translator in the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker (2008).
Egypt Today talked to Desante on making it in Hollywood, The Hurt Locker, the Arab film industry and his exciting new project. Working this time as a producer, he brings Matt Rees’ acclaimed historical crime novel series, Omar Yussef, to the silver screen. Rees is a Welsh novelist and former Bureau Chief of Time Jerusalem. The series is about a 56-year-old Palestinian teacher called Omar Yussef who becomes an unlikely detective while trying to clear the name of a student who is accused of collaborating with Israel. The Collector of Bethlehem, the first in the series, became an instant success and was translated into 18 languages, which certainly bodes well for Desante’s movie adaptation.
et: Can you tell us about your early background? What made you become an actor?
Both of my parents are Palestinian. My mother is from Al-Khalil (Hebron) and my father is from Bethlehem, where I was born. As I was growing up, my family moved to Beirut; I have very fond memories of living there during 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 a few seconds that seemed like ages then. I snapped out of it and 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 the rest of my life.
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.
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 boarding school for youngsters with special talents. I became the first Arab to join the prestigious Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland. Fettes College was founded in 1870 and ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, Oscar winner Tilda Swinton and James Bond’s author Ian Fleming are among its many famous alumni.
After seven years at Fettes, I went to England to continue 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 18, destination Hollywood and Los Angeles. I continued my education at UCLA and earned a Master of Business Administration from there. Meanwhile, I also took night courses in acting and drama.
How did you become a professional actor in Hollywood?
The 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 to get a Screen Actors Guild (the largest labor union representing working actors in the US) voucher. Once someone has five 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 I didn’t speak English well. Choosing my professional name was an invention. It was a small alteration to the name of an actor I respect tremendously; Armand Assante, who played the role of Sylvester Stallone’s brother in Paradise Alley (1978) and was also in Judge Dredd (1995). And as for the first name, Michael, it was the closest one to my heart.
Now that you had yourself an agent, what were the roles you started to land?
It was very difficult to land the right roles. They were 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 SeaQuest alongside the late actor Roy Scheider [star of the original Jaws]. Scheider was nice, easygoing and ‘old school’.
I also worked for a couple of weeks in the action film Cradle to the Grave (2003) 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 works 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.
The Hurt Locker became a milestone for everybody involved in it. How did you get your role? Was it through an agent or by accident while you were visiting Jordan?
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, but they didn’t reply.
A couple of months later, I happened to be in Amman visiting my mother when a friend told me that they were holding auditions for the translator’s role there. I contacted the casting director in Amman and I went to audition for the director Kathryn Bigelow and one of the producers, Mark Boal. A couple of weeks later, I fly back to LA, and three days later, I get a call around midnight. It was the casting director in Jordan telling me that I got the part and to get back on the next plane to Amman. I guess it was destiny.
What was it like during the shooting of The Hurt Locker?
I have been acting for 20 years, but shooting The Hurt Locker was the most difficult experience I’ve had. 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 temperatures exceeding 45 degrees Celsius. Director 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 supposed 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 did free cameos as a favor to her and also to ensure a lifetime for the film on DVD and cable. As for myself, I play 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.
Towards the end of my scenes, there was an interrogation scene where my character gets desperate, which was an excuse to convince Bigelow to pull down my mask for a moment in front of the camera.
How do you see the Arab market as part of the international film scene?
Four years ago, I decided to make use of my 20 years of experience in Hollywood to become a producer. I felt that Arab voices needed to be 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 cinema screen for every 5,000 people; while in the Arab world there is one screen for every 500,000 people.
However, the market in the Arab World has great potential because 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, which represents the demographic of filmgoers.
The problem is Arab films get revenue from their own countries only and are usually not distributed or marketed well and therefore not successful abroad. That’s why I intend to adapt the American business model to my films, to bring about a much higher probability to their worldwide success.
What about your current and future projects as a producer?
The first film I completed as a producer was a horror flick called The Portal (2010) starring cult actors Stacy Keach and Michael Madsen. But right now, I am seeking funds to adapt The Collaborator of Bethlehem, which takes place in my homeland. I acquired the rights to create a film franchise in the future. I intend to play a supporting role in the film because I am younger than Yussef’s character.
I am still seeking a suitable actor to play Yussef. My preference is to hire an Arab actor because I hope to shoot the film in Arabic. But the problem is Arab actors don’t have box office bankability outside their own home countries, which makes the funding and pre-sales more difficult.
How has this novel reflected life in Bethlehem and how keen are you to make it true to life on screen?
Because The Collaborator of Bethlehem took place ten years ago during the second Intifada, we will be updating it to current events in the Arab World.
I intend to stay as close to the book as I can. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Rees’ writing and his experience in Palestine. This is why I asked him to write the script of the film as well. He still lives [in Palestine] and I can’t think of anyone better. I will definitely make this movie as realistic as possible and as faithful as possible to its true message. Sometimes life imitates art. I hope in this case that Omar Yussef is an example for others to follow. He is a hero of the people.
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