”The lie would be for me to say there are no bad Arabs. That would be blatant propaganda, spin, rubbish,” says half-British, half-Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig. Despite the salt-and-pepper whiskers betraying his 40 years, Siddig is wide-eyed and youthful, right down to the way he sits Indian-style in his chair while sipping a latte in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, as well as his tendency to talk in absolutes. ”I want to play bad Arabs. I want to make sure that they are exposed. But on the other side of the coin, I need to play the good Arabs to make a balance.” Prince Nasir, the progressive Middle Eastern royal he portrays in Stephen Gaghan’s complex, oil- biz-based thriller Syriana, is morally nuanced and just the type of role Siddig seeks out in the hopes of tempering Americans’ ever-worsening attitudes toward Arabs.
”The most important thing was to expose the guy’s heart to the audience, to show that he had a beating heart as fragile as anybody else’s,” says Siddig, who, in addition to having portrayed another sympathetic Arab named Nasir in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, has also played 9/11 mastermind and ”monster” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the recent British TV movie The Hamburg Cell. ”The Arab world is not simple. There is a wide array of people, some incredible, some very dodgy. But there’s nothing different between that and the Western world.”
Siddig, who is best known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s resident doctor, Julian Bashir, says the Syriana role was hard-won, and his director was quite picky about both casting and performance. ”I just didn’t want any stereotypes,” explains Gaghan, who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2001 for Traffic. ”Not one of those jokey Arab playboys or some villainous terrorist.”
But although the actor and director agreed on what needed to be done with the character, they didn’t immediately connect on how to do it. ”We fought a lot,” Siddig admits. ”I had a very strong idea about how a man like this behaves, how he relates to other people, based on members of my own family who have been rulers.” Siddig (who changed his name from Siddig El Fadil in 1995 primarily to get more work) is the nephew of an embattled Sudanese former prime minister who, not unlike Nasir, dreamed of reform for his homeland. Siddig left the country with his British mother as a boy because of political upheaval. ”He comes from the most powerful family in the Sudan,” says Gaghan. ”I think he has an innate leadership quality.”
Nevertheless, Gaghan wanted the prince, who strikes up a tense friendship with Matt Damon’s optimistic energy analyst, to be less formal in order to fit the gritty documentary style of the movie. ”He wanted me to be more chatty,” Siddig says. ”I wanted to be more aloof. Somewhere in the middle of all that we got a character that we both believed in.”
As such juicy, three-dimensional roles become more available to him, Siddig — who attended the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art with the original aim of becoming a director — feels acting is just now becoming truly rewarding. That said, he’s got nothing but love for the nearly seven years he spent brain-scanning Klingons — and nothing but gratitude for the Star Trek fans who still hound him for it. ”I am always happy to go meet them and talk to them,” says Siddig, exhibiting the kind of open-mindedness he wishes more Americans would use when looking at people from other cultures . ”Sure, there are complete nutcases knocking around, but there are complete nutcases who love The West Wing as well. In any group of people, you’re going to find two percent of them are a bit unstable. That’s just a facet of humanity.”