The Omar producer-star reaps the rewards of a family affair
By Doug Strassler
As many of us East Coasters deal with a February full of shoveling cars out from underneath snow and drying out soggy boots, actor-producer Waleed F. Zuwaiter has the distinctly first-world problem of finding the perfect-fitting tuxedo. For Zuaiter, a working actor who has had roles on Broadway in Sixteen Wounded and in such television shows as The Good Wife and Homeland and films like The Men Who Stare at Goats, has been able to do this year what such luminaries as Tom Hanks and Robert Redford were unable to – land himself an invite to this year’s Academy Awards.
Not that this honor isn’t the culmination of plenty of years of hard work in substantive roles. What brings Zuaiter to the Oscars is the Palestinian film Omar, in which he both plays a supporting role and serves as co-producer. Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is only the second film from Palestine to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film (following 2005’s Paradise Now, also directed by Abu-Assad). The title character, played by an intense Adam Bakri, is a young Palestinian in love with an Israeli woman named Nadja (Leem Lubany). Though separated by little geographic terrain (aside from a wall that we repeatedly see Omar have to scale to be with the woman he loves), the two might as well be worlds apart.
When at one point captured, Omar must face the decision of betraying his friends in order to save himself and work as a double agent, reporting to an Israeli collaborator named Agent Rami (Zuaiter). The film, also written by Abu-Assad, courses with socioeconomic and political commentary, but Zuaiter is quick to point out that the film’s main character is realistically rooted in emotion as well.
“Omar’s choices are consistent with his personality,” he explains. “He has strong attention to detail, he is hard-working, and his choices are driven by his love for Nadja nad the insecurity that comes with that, which is a very beautiful thing in any love relationship, particularly when you’re younger. He has loyalty to his friends and country, but his love for Nadja is stronger.”
Zuaiter is himself a product of an international upbringing – his father’s family lives in the Palestinian city of Nablus, while his mother’s family lives in the Israeli city of Haifa, and he grew up in Kuwait before leaving to attend college in the United States at George Washington University before heading up to New York City to act. Omar marks Zuaiter’s first at-bat as a producer, but the film comes with as many personal rewards as it does professional ones.
“This experience has changed me,” says Zuaiter, who identifies himself as Palestinian, “as an artist and human being and a Palestinian. It actually made me more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. Most Palestinians who live all over the world, their identity has a lot to do with being displaced, so you want to hold on to your Palestinian identity as closely as possible. When you’re outside your homeland, you hold on to your identity; I’ve seen that in New York. I grew up in America, but when someone asks me where I am from, I say I am Palestinian. There aren’t many vibrant Palestinian stories being told at such a level of cinematic excellence.”
Zuaiter met Abu-Assad shortly after the release of Paradise Now and had looked for a project to work on together over the next few years. After sending the actor the Omar script (“he sent me the script and said ‘I’d love for you to play the role of Rami, tell me what you think’),” I was madly in love with the it, it was the fastest script I’ve ever read, 72 pages. I’d never read a feature length script that was that short.” While compact, it was rich and nuanced, and Zuaiter decided to help him raise money for the film and produce it together – having wanted to serve as a producer and have more influence on the material he does. “The only rule in the entertainment business is that there are no rules, and that has been a very fast learning curve,” Zuaiter adds.
This decision also made it a family affair, as Zuaiter enlisted brothers Abbas, Ahmad and Farouq to join him behind the scenes. “My brothers are in the investment banking world and wanted to support me in my career and this spoke to them, because mainly it was an opportunity to create jobs for Palestinians on the ground.” In addition to the many accolades being thrown Omar’s way, some of the most significant feedback is homegrown: “Our parents are proud of the fact that we’ve been able to pull this off and that we’re working together as partners on this. And they’re also proud of me because it’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”
Zuaiter can also be seen and in the upcoming feature Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero and in a current role on NBC’s Revolution (in an example of non-ethnic casting: “I play a non-Middle Eastern character – his name is Martin Shaw! I could be Irish!”). But a global audience might also have a chance to see him at the Dolby Theatre on next Sunday night’s Oscars.
“It’s a dream come true,” the modest Zuaiter states of getting to go to the big show. “I thought if I would go to the Oscars, it would be as an actor instead of a producer. But I’m so proud to be going with this movie.”
In sticking to his roots, Zuaiter has made it all the way to the top.
Further information about Omar can be found at www.adoptfilms.com.
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