For actors of Middle Eastern descent, the past 10 years haven't been easy. Some have changed their names to land roles; many more have gotten used to auditioning for ''Terrorist No. 4''

By Christian Blauvelt
Updated October 07, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

Tarek Bishara grew up Catholic in Brooklyn, and if he had to pigeonhole himself, it’d be as an ”artsy-fartsy, plays-tennis-on-the-weekend type.” Hollywood, however, has always had different ideas.

After graduating from New York University in 2000, Bishara moved to L.A. The good news about being an actor of Middle Eastern descent at that particular moment in history — Bishara is the son of Palestinian immigrants from Galilee — was that the entertainment industry was in need of people to play Arabs. The bad news was why. ”I was reading for a part in a big TV show once,” says the actor, 32. ”The scene was basically some Arab dude screaming for death before blowing himself up. I read it over and over and started sweating.” And then he walked out.

Bishara struggled for years. And he encountered a lot of post-9/11 hostility, including at a dinner where a producer told him that no Middle Eastern person had contributed anything to society since the 15th century. Bishara ultimately changed his name to Thom Bishops and in 2004 landed his first major film role, in the Robin Williams thriller The Final Cut. ”Changing my name was just something I felt I had to do for self-preservation,” says Bishops. ”It was in order to get around the ‘He’s not right for this because he’s Middle Eastern’ thing.” One acting coach went so far as to tell him, ”Don’t ever tell anyone in this town your real name or you’ll never work again.” The coach probably should have added: except as a terrorist.

Despite Hollywood’s liberal bent, there’s no shortage of minority groups insulted (or ignored) in movies and on TV. But for the past 10 years, actors of Middle Eastern descent have had a unique challenge. ”Prior to 9/11, Arab-Americans had no media identity — with the exception of Danny Thomas and Jamie Farr, who played the lovable character running around in a dress on M*A*S*H,” says Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. After 2001, Hollywood’s desire to portray the war on terror led to a dramatic increase in roles — but those parts tended to equate Muslims with oppression and terrorism.

It’s no wonder actors with Middle Eastern backgrounds have become increasingly uneasy about playing stereotypes: Hate crimes against Arabs jumped more than 1,600 percent after 9/11, according to the FBI, while the Arab American Institute reported that 45 percent of school-age Muslims experienced incidents of bullying. Where Hollywood is concerned, the pigeonholing of such actors reflects not just ignorance but also the perpetual need for villains. ”It may have less to do with our culture of fear than the nature of Hollywood storytelling,” says Edward Zwick, whose 1998 film The Siege was, in part, an early critique of Islamophobia. ”Hollywood has always been desperate for villains for the sake of dramaturgy. More recently than World War II, Japanese, for example, became villains once again in movies [like Rising Sun] because of their perceived economic dominance.”

Historically speaking, the fact that Arabs and Muslims were a relatively unknown quantity to American moviegoers worked in their favor: Hollywood (and audiences) knew so little about their heritage that they could be cast in a variety of roles. The last major Arab movie star, Egyptian-born Omar Sharif, earned an Oscar nom as a sheik in David Lean’s 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia and then became a go-to Every Ethnic — from a Russian physician (Doctor Zhivago) to a New York Jewish gambler (Funny Girl) to a Mongolian conqueror (Genghis Khan). Thomas and Farr found success as comic foils, as have fellow Lebanese-Americans Kathy Najimy (Veronica’s Closet) and Tony Shalhoub (Monk). ”I don’t think I was identified as Arab-American for a lot of years,” says Shalhoub, 58. ”If I could come up with an accent, I could pass for Greek, Italian, Hispanic, Jewish, whatever. And Middle Eastern, if I was lucky.”

In the years immediately following 9/11, TV shows were some of the worst offenders. Sleeper Cell and 24 regularly depicted Muslim Americans plotting homegrown terror around the breakfast table. ”Even before 9/11, I was mostly getting roles as terrorists,” says Egyptian-born actor and stand-up comic Ahmed Ahmed, 41. ”But after, it got even worse. I read for a part as ‘Terrorist No. 4’ once. My comedy career was taking off, so I didn’t take this role that seriously. In fact, I read my lines way, way over the top… But that’s exactly what the casting director wanted, and I got the part.”

The TV industry gradually realized that it was stoking dangerous fires. ”Some critics even accused the show of promoting torture and provoking Islamophobia,” 24 exec producer Howard Gordon wrote in EW last month. ”To remain relevant, our story had to evolve.” In some cases, showrunners tried to create positive Arab and Muslim characters. Carlton Cuse, an exec producer of Lost, says he and partner Damon Lindelof were looking to ”upend the stereotype” with Sayid, the tormented former Iraqi soldier played by Naveen Andrews, a British actor of Indian descent. ”Sadly, way too many Arabs are still cast as one-dimensional terrorists without countervailing roles showing them as heroes, or at least complex, multifaceted characters,” Cuse says.

The big screen hasn’t been much friendlier. Middle Easterners became stock villains in films like The Kingdom, Iron Man, and Taken — in which Arabs force Liam Neeson’s daughter into slavery. The implicit onscreen hostility to Arabs post-9/11 shocked Alexander Siddig, a Sudanese-born British actor whose charismatic medic Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99) had been a breakthrough Arab character in pop culture. ”Suddenly, there was a deluge of roles that came to me in which I’d have a metaphorical sword in my teeth, climbing over a ship ready to rape and pillage everybody,” says Siddig, 45. ”My agent told me I’d work much less if I only waited for positive characters.” After seven years of regular employment, Siddig had the luxury to choose roles carefully. He played a lieutenant to noble Islamic warrior Saladin in Ridley Scott’s evenhanded 2005 crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven. And he recalls an audience in Beirut erupting into cheers when Saladin restores a cross that had been dislodged from a church altar — a moment symbolizing reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.

Another heartening success story? Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who scored an Oscar nomination for her riveting turn as an exiled colonel’s wife in 2003’s House of Sand and Fog. Aghdashloo, 59, has worked steadily in Hollywood ever since. Her first role after House of Sand and Fog — playing the wife of a terrorist-cell leader plotting mayhem from the suburbs on 24 — drew some criticism, and she herself admits, ”Obviously that part didn’t reflect reality.” But she also says the role was ”one of my best experiences in television.” Over the past six years, she’s appeared in movies as diverse as X-Men: The Last Stand and The Lake House and TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House. It’s all been a sweet triumph for an actress who had tried — and failed — to break into Hollywood in the 1980s. ”I realized that I’m not exactly the girl next door, with my accent and black hair,” she says. ”Friends advised me to change my name to Sherry Lou. Now I figure, if Arnold Schwarzenegger can make it here, so can Shohreh Aghdashloo. I’m very grateful that I’ve been accepted in Hollywood, so I don’t complain if I have to make my accent thicker sometimes than it already is.”

Despite improvement, Hollywood still clings to stereotypes in a way that would be comical if so much weren’t at stake. For many casting agents, The Daily Show regular Aasif Mandvi’s brown eyes, dark skin, and black hair fit the image of an Arab. The fact that he’s Indian is beside the point. ”After 9/11, I was getting a lot of terrorist roles,” says Mandvi, 45. ”I was getting called for more roles as an Arab even though I wasn’t an Arab.” The misconception helped land him his Daily Show gig: ”They needed a Middle East correspondent, and I looked close enough to what they needed.” Director Stephen Gaghan, who gave a panoramic view of the Middle East in his 2005 oil-politics film Syriana, says, ”Nuance can get lost. Arabs are different from Afghanis, who are different from Pakistanis. Urdu speakers are different from Pashto speakers. But when Hollywood is looking for a good antagonist among the people America’s ‘at war with,’ those distinctions get lost.”

Oddly enough, that means the fair-skinned, green-eyed Bishops sometimes struggles to land Arab roles. ”I’ve gone in for auditions, and casting directors will say I’m not Middle Eastern-looking enough,” he says. In any case, the actor still feels that Thom Bishops has a better shot at becoming a leading man than Tarek Bishara. Bishops romanced Lisa Edelstein on House in May. Could Bishara have done the same? ”It scares me to think I may not have landed that part with my birth name.”