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In Green Zone, Actor Said Faraj Connects His Role to His Life

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While director Paul Greengrass used a shaky cam to lend grit and authenticity to Green Zone -- his take on what really happened in the search for weapons of mass destruction at onset of the Iraq War -- actor Matt Damon gives it a human face. Damon makes his character, Roy Miller, the chief warrant officer in charge of the search, fret and sweat as he goes off into the wilds of Baghdad.

Yet it's 43-year-old actor Said Faraj who give the film a verisimilitude. With a life story right out of any war-torn Middle Eastern land, Faraj invests his character, the military adjunct to a top Ba'ath Party general, with his own perspective, having survived the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s.

Born in Choueifat, Lebanon, Faraj was 13 when his Beruit-based family -- members of the Druze reformatory Islamic sect -- saw death and mayhem firsthand as warring militias vied for control of his homeland.

Faraj humanizes his character, Seyyed Hamza, by allowing us to see pro-Ba'athist combatants as more than brutal oppressors but as family men as well. Hamza is one degree of separation from the general who can explain where the WMDs are. He's also the one who unlocks Miller's anger about their questionable existence. As a result, the exchanges between Hamza and Miller pack an urgency that adds to Green Zone's narrative punch.

Miller's improvised aide, a Shia Iraqi nicknamed Freddy (played by Khalid Abdalla of The Kite Runner) plays out the notion of, "This is my Iraq, it's my country. You Americans don't have a connection to it."

Through Hamza we see the conflict through a Sunni perspective. He's a military guy -- sharp, ambitious and on the rise before the invasion, one who can invite powerful people into his home. So it is all the more poignant when he gets brutalized and tortured in an American military prison and begs for them to protect his family if he give the information demanded.

[Portrait by William Coupon]

Like so many of the Iraq War films, Green Zone presents itself from a Western point of view. Yet thanks in part to Faraj's authentic performance, the film also invites Western audiences to understand the unfolding ordeal from Iraqi eyes.

Though the film was greeted by mixed reviews and lukewarm audiences, it raises many crucial questions and deserves a viewing. In this exclusive interview, Said Faraj provides some equally compelling explanations.

Q: Your character shows the Iraqi side has a human face.

SF: One thing I wanted to [convey], was that regardless of the position I had -- that I am a high-ranking officer -- or of what we're trying to do, the most important thing in my character's mind was that "I have a family [to protect]."

I separated the two things in my head; it's like, "Okay, he does this, but at the same time, he has a family, he's caring, and he loves them so much.

This was one thing that, no matter if somebody wants information, you need to protect [your] family because [your] family comes first, especially [your] kids. So it was very important, because over there, especially in that type of war, family comes first.

It was very important for this character to have the love so that he could do what he had to do and go as far as possible. I think when people watch the film, [they] forget what he does, [but have] sympathy [for] the fact that this guy has a family and his job is to get them to a safe place.

Q: Were there debates among the cast and crew off-screen? You were trying to understand the conflict yourself.

SF: My character is from the Ba'ath regime and a Sunni. Khalid [Abdalla]'s character is a Shia. That was a conflict to the characters which made it great. I have to admit it was very hard, because every time we finished shooting we would go out, have fun, go smoke hookah and drink some Moroccan tea.

In the morning... I'd focus so much on the job that needs to be done, and then it's done and I go and sit down on my chair. Matt would sit down and we'd chat a little bit and then I'd go to my room and go, "Okay, what is this guy's point of view and what does he care about and what does he want to do?" Again, it's family, family, family.

This is one of the first films that I really feel shows Middle Eastern characters who have families and how much they care. My character is really pressed so hard because it's very important for people to know that we are really people who have families, and have kids, and care about them.

Q: How did you get connected to this film?

SF: My agent found out that they were casting for this film but that the role required a 65-year-old man. So he called me and said, "Amanda Mackey and Cathy Sandrich are casting this film called Green Zone. The role is for an older person but it's a very important person. Go audition for them so at least you'll get a chance to meet a new casting director."

This is how everything starts: I went over there, there were lots, and lots, and lots of people who auditioned for the film, and lots of offers went out for it. But I went to just go, [I] did the job, and I just want to give a big thanks for Sandra for her giving me the chance to work. And I thank Paul [Greengrass] for fighting for me so hard to get this role.

Q: So he changed the part?

SF: Yes, he thought a lot and was like, "This is who I want."

Q: Your character has to both fight for his family and be committed to Iraq he knows; so what made it work?

SF: They needed a high-ranking officer and I was blessed with having this part of me that's charismatic so I tried to portray him in a very manly, Middle Eastern way; that came out nicely. At the same time I went to an acting coach,Candace Kaniecki, because I wanted that image but I needed to give it an American touch so it would blend in.

You don't want him to be off the board, but at the same time you want a charm to come through. A very important part of the audition deals with my kid, and when I was auditioning, I was picturing one of my own kids [in that situation] so that really brought a realism into it.

Q: You're Lebanese right? Though you speak Arabic, how good was your Iraqi accent? It's a different accent from a Lebanese one or is it a dialect?

SF: I had a fantastic technical advisor in LA, Sam Sako, and I went to him and told him I needed to have an Iraqi accent. I really needed his help and that I didn't have too much time because I just found out about it. I had two weeks and needed him to give me enough to where I can speak it so people at least know I'm Iraqi.

We were working on it and another technical adviser said, "No, no. This guy is a Ba'ath militia from Tikrit." I's like going from, say if you are Chinese, speaking Mandarin, now you have to speak Japanese. And that's what happened; I only had a few hours to learn it and it was really, really brutal. I have to say that I worked really, really, really, really hard on my accent to represent the Iraqi people and the Iraqi language the best that I could.

Q: In that crucial scene with the Iraqi generals, you give a sense of who the general is, how everybody treats him and how those in authority express the right posture. He's not just a general, he's this Ba'athist leader. How did you get into it and look at the issues? Was there a discussion about how you play your interaction with Matt?

SF: Just being in that room [for that scene of Ba'ath officials with the general] was enough. Of course, they hired some Moroccan guys over there. Except [for the actor who played] his bookkeeper; he was 100% Iraqi and spoke as Iraqi as possible.

So the issue of it wasn't [discussed] because they didn't say much [to us] since they were speaking Moroccan among themselves. We had lots of dialog that we had to remember with that accent, so that accent as very important and each person was trying to really concentrate on it along with everything else. And it's amazing, what Paul enjoyed was every time we did a scene he'd want more and more. So I'm trying to add to what I needed to say.

Q: You came from Lebanon during its civil war. You have an understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East from your own life -- your own story could be made into a movie.

SF: Of course. I grew up in Lebanon and started fighting in the civil war at 13 with the Druze; I used all kinds of weapons and have fired more guns than you can imagine.

Q: Does that get you Israeli citizenship?

SF: Actually we're very well respected in Syria and in Israel. We go up there and they salute us, and in Lebanon we are all respected.

One thing that's very important about my religion, is that we love the ground we live on and respect it so much and protect it with our heart, mind and soul. It doesn't matter what the point of view of other people is but it matters what we believe and we believe that if this is the place we're staying at we need family, of course, god comes first, family and the land.

We put everything political on the side and this is what we do. I was fighting in the wars when I was 13 years old, and around 16 years old, it's mandatory in Lebanon to go into the war. I was 16 years old and supposed to join the army, but I didn't want to do that at all. My dad tried to get us down to Beirut, and at the time there was an American embassy in Lebanon, in 1983, and they were giving five-year visas to come to the United States.

We went over there at three in the morning because there were long lines; it was crazy. We stayed over there from three in the morning until three in the afternoon and what happened is that I went and I got my visa, and I was so proud to get it so that I could leave Lebanon with the mess that there is. I was the last person who got the American visa stamped, and walked out like 100 feet; then they came and blew the embassy up.

I saw everything in front of me; it was a horrifying scene. I went to the hotel and because I'm supposed to join the army, we needed to get an excuse to get me the ticket so I can leave. There was also a person who was Druze giving all the Druze at least 10 days to leave the country; they could do whatever they had to do. I went with my friends and cousin and we get this for 10 days, and that night they came and assassinated the guy.

I went back to the hotel and we found out that they assassinated him, so I got my ticket to come to the United States. My flight was supposed to be at seven o'clock in the morning and that night [factions were] bombing Lebanon; it was a really big mess over there. October 17, 1983.

We woke up at 12 o'clock in the morning and went to the airport. There were very few cars going to the airport since there were snipers; they shot at the front part of the car but my dad was zooming through the streets.

We get to the airport, and while we there we find out that the hotel we were staying at there were a few Druze guys who are my same age. They came and knocked at the room that I was in while we were at the airport. I was the only guy, by the way, who was 16 years old going to the United States on this airplane.

The most important thing was just to get on the plane. I hopped on the plane and we went from Lebanon to Jordan, which is 45 minutes away. We landed there, and let me tell you, my friend, that was the last airplane that left this airport. After that they bombarded the airport and it was closed until it was opened up a few years later. So I reached Jordan, called my parents and they're crying on the phone telling me what happened, and I went from there and flew to New York.

Q: You didn't speak English?

SF: Very little; I spoke French and Arabic. As you know, the embassy had just been attacked, so they were like, "Said Faraj. Please go over there to interrogation."

Q: You're probably one of the few actors in this movie who had a real experience with this kind of conflict and from an Arabic point of view.

SF: My brother died in front of me; so did some of my relatives and my best friends. I almost died three times. To top things off, when I reached New York and they interrogated me, thank God, after four or five hours I [was able] to fly to LA.

In my country people live according to their family's last name. I knew that I had an uncle that lived in North Hollywood, so I go over there. I asked the security guard at the airport to direct me to North Hollywood and he told me which bus to take.

I got over here with exactly in my pocket, $235. So the bus dropped me at the corner of Colfax and Riverside, and this is the best part. My dream is to really eat the real, hardcore American hamburger. The first minute I step my feet on the soil of American land I want to have a hamburger.

I'm looking around and my uncle is not there and I don't know what to do. There is a stand on the corner; that was the best hamburger. I was sitting on this bench eating a hamburger a day, sleeping on this bench for two-and-a-half weeks waiting for my uncle, who did not show up. I'm almost running out of money and I'm looking around -- what should I do?

One street down there was an ESL [English as a second language] school that taught adults, and I start walking, thinking maybe I'll meet somebody that has dark features, maybe they'll speak Arabic. Fortunately, I found a Syrian guy and explained to him my story and asked if he could help me. Guess what? My uncle lived in one of the apartments that his relative owned, and he lived two blocks away. And now, 28 years later, I'm sitting here talking to you, my friend.

Q: So what did your father do?

SF: My father actually lived in Africa, in Monrovia, [the capital of] Liberia, and fixed typewriters and adding machines. He was kind of the right hand of Wlliam Tolbert, the old Liberian president that was assassinated. It's so funny because we grew up in Lebanon but they were over there in Africa because the education over there and the school system was really very poor.

Q: In Monrovia they had English-language schools; did you spend time in that area?

SF: I did actually for seven years, but separated. I was born in Lebanon, went to Africa, lived there until age four, then went back to Lebanon to live with my aunts. During the first Lebanese civil war in the mid-'70s we went to Africa for a couple of years, and then we went back to Lebanon.

Q: Where was the guy who played the general from?

SF: He's an Israeli [actor, Igal Naor who was also in Rendition and Munich].

Q: I guess he had military experience too. But he's an Israeli. Of anybody in the movie, besides the American soldiers who went to Iraq, your experience is closest to that of the Iraqi people. Did you tell that to the book's author?

SF: When we went to Morocco I met Rajiv Chandrasekaran [the former Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, whose book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone inspired the film]. What a beautiful book.

Q: He's South Asian and works for one of the big newspapers. Because he spent time in Iraq as a journalist, he knows all this bullshit about the parties and factions.

SF: I met him but didn't have a chance to sit down and explain to him, "Okay, this is your story, but this is my story."

Q: But you never spent any time in Iraq?

SF: No. I'll tell you one thing; one of my dreams is to go see the Garden of Eden in Iraq, one of the wonders of the world. I really wanted to go.

Q: The irony is that the only ones who have actually been to Iraq are the American soldiers. How many in the movie were actually in Iraq?

SF: All of them.

Q: Basically this military group infiltrated Hollywood.

SF: Paul really wanted reality in this. He cares a lot about balance and real authenticity and respect to cultures, and really wanted genuine, hard core, to the max from the military. If you notice, he picked an area in the film that was really beaten up earlier.

By the way, my first name means "happy" and my last name means "hope." To tell you a good thing about Paul Greengrass, his last name means "spring."

Q: Did you tell him that?

SF: I didn't have the chance. At the premiere party I really wanted to talk to him and he just gave me a hug but we only had a very light chat because he was busy; I understand that.

Q: So where does the actor come in?

SF: In my country, we loved theater, and to this day, theater is our passion. After I found my uncle, I went to North Hollywood High School and graduated from there. I started looking for jobs and didn't have my papers with me so I had 22 jobs in two years. Every time they stared asking [about my papers, so] after a couple of weeks I was gone, and I went from one to another, one to another, but always the acting and entertainment was a passion that never stopped.

I went back to Miss Haber, my art teacher in school -- that was in 1985 -- and I asked her in 1988 what could I do and she told me this is exactly what I needed to do.

And believe it or not, my first job was a film produced, directed, and starring David Hasselhoff, The Hoff. I just want to say thank you so much. It was called W.B., Blue and the Bean, and they changed the name to Bail Out, and out of this film I got my Screen Actors Guild [card], and here I am after 21 years in the business.