One of the most intense performances in the latest major Iraq War film, “The Green Zone” starring Matt Damon, comes from Arab American actor Said Faraj.
|Actor Said Faraj in “The Green Zone”|
He brings an anxiety, anger, pride and vulnerability to the film that lends deep authenticity to director Paul Greengrass’s thriller.
Faraj, 43, was born in Lebanon and came to the U.S. escaping civil war at 16 years old with $235 in his pocket.
He said his personal experiences with war have helped him play many multi-layered, traumatized characters.
“My background — it does help,” he said. “I was fighting since I was 13 years old. My younger brother died in front of me. I saw a lot of things. I lost friends, cousins. This is not fiction. It’s real. No matter how many years passed, it stays in your mind. In most of the roles I play, it just comes out natural.”
Faraj also said being a father helped him dig into the desperation of the character.
“Hamza is a father. Coming from a Middle Eastern background, family comes first… He has to protect his family at all costs. Even if he has to give information (to Damon’s soldier character).”
In addition to the emotional element of his performance, Faraj had to put in the work to learn his character’s dialect — twice.
A Chaldean Iraqi dialect coach put him through intensive training for two weeks before Faraj left for Morocco to shoot the film.
When he got there, an authenticity supervisor on set told him he had it all wrong.
“He said ‘this guy is Baathi, from Tikrit,’ which is a very hard accent to perfect,” Faraj said. “Imagine you learn Chinese, then you find out you have to go back and learn Japanese.”
But he expects his work to pay off. The strong performance could open up new doors for the actor, who got his first break in a 1989 David Hasselhoff film.
Faraj spent his first week in the U.S. as a teenager sleeping on a Los Angeles-area park bench, eating a hamburger a day, before coming across a Syrian man who spoke Arabic and helped him find family members.
A high school art teacher who took him under her wing later guided him in pursuing an acting career. Early on, Faraj took on a less ethnic name.
“Hey man, you have to do what you have to do,” he said, “For a while, they didn’t have any Middle Eastern roles.”
He’s credited as Anthony Ferar on a number of films, but he eventually was able to take on his own name when interest in Arab characters starting piquing.
Though well-received by critics, “The Green Zone” — like the Academy Award winning, Iraq War-set film “The Hurt Locker” — hasn’t seen huge audiences. But Faraj said word of mouth is spreading and the film is opening to larger audiences worldwide.
He left on Wednesday to his native Lebanon, which he hadn’t visited in 21 years, to promote the film there.
He said the film provides fresh human perspectives on the war rarely seen in mainstream cinema, in addition to some great action and suspense.
“The war in Iraq is probably the most important foreign policy decision of our generation,” It’s good that a film like this encourages decisions and discussion and debate about it.”