"I am so confused about who I am in my life now, it's not even funny!"
The musicality of his pleasant, lilting English accent drifts through the phone to fall softly on my ears, followed by a smack in the face with the static heat of my un air-conditioned office on a 80 plus degree New York City day.
This joyful lament is that of the tall, dark drink of water that is Alexander Siddig, speaking to me from the comfort of his sprawling 4 acres of gardens he is tending to in Sussex, England, not long after his appearance alongside the stunning Patricia Clarkson at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Rubba Nada's Cairo Time, in which they both starred as Tareq Khalifa and Juliette Grant, a pair of unlikely lovers. Cairo Time won "Best Canadian Film" at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival.
The sound of sirens through the open window wails briefly in the background on my end. "Want to grab a blanket, go to the park, and ring me again?" he asks earnestly.
Perhaps Alexander is best known (to trekkies) as Doctor Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1997) or Hermes in Clash of the Titans (2010). Dare I say more evolved cinephiles (ok, ok, I'm just not a Star Trek geek, but I admire anyone with a fevered, healthy passion kept safely in check) might recognize him better as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai in Syriana (2005).
Audiences will soon see him as Miral's father in Miral, Julian Schnabel's first film since the award-winning The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).Miral, based on the book by Rula Jebreal and starring Willem Dafoe and Freida Pinto, starts as the chronicle of Hind Husseini's effort to establish an orphanage in Jerusalem after the 1948 partition of Palestine and the creation of a state of Israel. The movie follows the journey of Miral, a girl who comes of age within the walls of the orphanage and then sets out to teach at a refugee camp at the age of 17. Miral will debut at the Venice Film Festival in September.
Alexander, in the movie world, is a casting director's dream in this modern age, for he is what the industry calls "ethnically ambiguous." Ethnically ambiguous translates into enormous versatility.
"I wish everybody was just ethnically ambiguous. It would make life a lot easier. I love the term, actually. Last year I played an Englishman, a South American Brazilian, a Palestinian, and an Egyptian," he ticks off the list. "I mean, I played a ton of different guys from around the world."
And not just bad guys, but good ones, too; perhaps it is his lean, swarthy matinee idol good looks which allow him to subvert the negative stereotype of how Arabs are too often portrayed in film. From Fresh Direct (groceries to you front door!) to the magazine your fingers scroll through on the screen of your new iPad, we are a society that thrives on importing our every sensory experience. Whether it is foreign or domestic, we want it right here, right now, with little to no effort.
"In a certain sense, I'm one of those imports," Alexander muses. "They don't actually have to go meet Arab people, because I'm going to come to them. I'm saving them the hassle."
"America's particularly good about this, (even though you beat yourselves up about it), to be honest, you're particularly good about being kind of relaxed about your encounters with people of different races... You don't seem to have a 'set in stone' obsession with authenticity. Especially for actors. I think if you're good and you can persuade people you're going to be able to do that role and ultimately the audience buys it, then it doesn't matter whether you were really a chimpanzee in disguise! You've done it."
"You've done the job of an actor," he elaborates. "Which is to be convincing."
Wait, are we talking about actors, or politicians? Perhaps both in Alexander's case, as his roles often have what he calls, "a political edge to them."
Born to an English woman and Sudanese man in Sudan, the romance that blossomed so bright so quickly died fairly fast, and Alexander's mother returned to England alone. "I was forced to stay in Sudan because even today the father has somehow got rights over the children in a way that the women don't have," he says. One Sudanese revolution later, complete with troops searching his house and a fantastic cannon ball shooting through the front door of the property - "a thrill moment in my childhood, I remember" - he was sent away for safety.
His grandmother packed him and a case of mangos and sent him to London, where as a 4 year old boy he sat with a kind air hostess ("They called it that at the time") at the airport, while they tracked down his mother, who had no advance warning of his arrival, in just 8 hours.
He fell in love with theatre playing Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a young teenager at boarding school, grew up attending theatre at the Royal Court, (where his mother served as the theatre's publicist), watched his maternal uncle Malcolm McDowell rise to success, and trained at the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Art, where he had every intention of being a director, until producers came hunting for an Arab actor for a television show, and he was the only option.
"I was either the only black kid in one school or I mean, back in those days, we still hadn't really adjusted to life as multi-cultural...I became English super fast because that was the best way to survive. You made sure you didn't sound like you were from another country, you got down all the idioms and the colloquialisms, wore blue like the rest of them, and you finally became accepted."
I asked him how he met the enigmatic painter/filmmaker/screenwriter Julian Schnabel, who was seen as recently as last Friday evening, April 30th, at a moderated Tribeca Film Festival Q & A in which they screened a trailer of Miral and he described the moviemaking process as follows: "If you can jump into the pit and you can crawl out, you can go home at the end of the day... For me, it's painful to make a movie. It's not my normal rhythm." For this event, Julian donned his usual party attire of matching purple pajama pants and top (complete with white, possibly pink piping), sneakers, and a black blazer.
"I got this bizarre phone call -- I think it was pretty close to being the middle of the night," Alexander smiles through the phone, recalling the story.
"'Hi, this is Julian Schnabel. I just rang your agent yesterday and they didn't know who I was, so I'm not going to talk to them anymore. I'm talking to you. Directly. I've written this movie and I think you'd be really great in it. Do you want to do it?'"
"Sure! Can I see the script?" asked Alexander.
"Yeah, there's a script, I'll send you the script," Julian said before dropping the phone back into the receiver.
Alexander continues to describe his experience working with Julian. "I've never met a director so practically unprepared in my life. He's never seen a storyboard; he's never discussed a shot with his DP until the day he arrives on set. And then it all starts to unfold exactly like painting. He just starts. It goes right on the canvas. There are no preparatory sketches or anything like that. He's really liquid about how the scene's going to go."
"Sometimes we'll improvise the scene to death. Other times we'll be strictly putting one foot in front of the other in the exact spot. He swings around using every kind of style, every kind of technique. He loves mistakes. The cameraman took his eye off the lens piece at one point, just to turn around to talk to Julian, and Julian was sort of sitting, staring at the screen, listening to music."
"He often plays soundtracks in his head while he is directing. The more influences he can get, the more information jamming into his system, the better, and for mere mortals like myself, the music, okay, 'I don't really sort of understand Bob Dylan right now because I'm doing a scene about an Arab, but okay!'" was Alexander's reaction.
"I'd move on," he laughs, relaying the juggling act that is taking direction, processing it, and delivering a performance on film that a director can use if he so chooses.
"Sometimes you have to cut around a performance," Julian said at the Q & A. "And sometimes everything they give you is money." Julian does not compromise on having final cut in all of his movies.
"If he says 'do it again,' what he means is, 'give me something else.' If you do do that again, it's boring," Alexander clarifies Julian's direction.
"Someone moved a camera once, literally we finished the shot, everybody was just moving, and Julian was idly watching the screen while that was happening, but obviously they don't switch the camera off, and he's saying 'What's going on? This is beautiful. Let's roll it!'"
"I have enormous faith in him, in his taste, in his good sense. We fight sometimes, but we fight like lovers, if that makes sense. It's over something that matters to us and it never goes out of control. It's just short and quick and protective. Me of my character, and him of his overall movie. We get the shot and we move on."
"There was a sense of a sort of '60s anarchy on set. Julian is really familiar with it and is one of the early arbiters of that '60s experimental vibe. I think he brought all of his life to the screen."
At the Q & A Julian admitted he doesn't know how to answer questions such as, "How long did that painting take (to make)?"
"58 years and 5 minutes," Julian says, referring to his upcoming 59th birthday later this year and his desire of how he really wants to answer the question. After all, isn't all of the art we create somehow a product of our cumulative life experience up until that very moment?
Alexander has plants that have to get in the ground before he departs for Ireland for several weeks to shoot a recurring role on an Irish television show: "It's called a 'family show,' which I think is a euphemism for 'kids,' but your parents will sit with you and read a paper," he chortles.
"I'm jealous of your green thumb! I kill every green thing I come into contact with," I confess, thinking of my brown-tinged bamboo plant and non-descript intermittently flowering pink...thing on my windowsill.
"The city isn't fair," he protests soothingly. "You can't hope to grow stuff. You can only really grow a nice box of herbs, and if you haven't got the sun, if you're facing west or north, you're screwed, and that's nearly half the city, so I wouldn't say it's easy. It's much easier here. You just stick it in the ground and walk away."