Fayssal Bazzi on playing refugee Ameer in Netflix's Stateless: 'I knew that it was an important thing to do'
We talked to the Australian actor about how his own experience as an immigrant helped inform his role and his hope the show can spark conversation and change.
In Netflix's Stateless, Australian actor Fayssal Bazzi (Mr Inbetween) plays Ameer, a refugee who flees Afghanistan out of desperation to save his wife and daughters from the Taliban, only to wind up separated from his family and stuck behind barbed wire in an Australian immigration detention center.
In preparation for the role in the Cate Blanchett-produced, 6-part series, Bazzi learned Dari in order to communicate some of his most emotionally-charged scenes in the foreign language, listened to and learned from the experiences of the background actors (many of whom had real-life experience in refugee detention centers), and grew an impressive beard. His heartbreaking portrayal of a very-real situation will haunt you long after you finish watching, but that's the whole point of the series.
With the show now streaming on Netflix, we talked to Bazzi about his journey into the world of refugee detention, how his own story as an immigrant to Australia has helped shape his perspective, and his hope that the show will spark conversation about reforming the seriously flawed immigration policies around the world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When this project came your way, did you immediately want to be a part of it?
FAYSSAL BAZZI: It was just over a year ago, I first heard about the project and thought it was a story I wanted to help tell. At first, when I was approached to do it, I was a little bit hesitant only because a lot of the dialogue was in Dari and I'm not a native Dari speaker. I was hesitant, but was assured that I'd have everything in place to learn and to be able to speak it fluently by the time we started filming. Then it just became so important. By the time I met the background cast in the detention center and hearing their stories — because the majority of them have been in detention and refugee camps around the world — of sacrifice and just the amount of heart and passion they had, I knew that it was an important thing to do. I needed to make sure I represented them appropriately and made sure that I helped them tell their stories. It's something that's so important, not only in Australia, but to get that kind of message out around the world, because there's only like a handful of countries that do treat refugees properly and with respect. I can't speak to any other country, but Australia has a checkered history in how we deal with refugees. We try to sweep them under the rug and politicians use them as ammunition against each other. It's very easy sometimes to forget that we're talking about refugees, we're talking about human beings. They're real people who didn't choose to just leave their home. They were forced to leave; they're not here for a holiday. This was their last resort. They've been through hell to look for safety and then when they arrive, we just put them in like camps surrounded by razor wire. We finished the show and then I did have moments of going, 'I wonder if enough people are going to be able to see this to make a difference and start conversations.' Thankfully, with Netflix picking it up, it's getting the global recognition that it deserves. I've been getting so many messages from people around the world who have connected with the story and want to learn more and asking how they can help — and it's beautiful.
That's exactly what you want from a show like this, people wanting to be active in making a change. It's incredible that a lot of the background cast had actually been refugees in camps like this. I'm sure that was massively helpful in terms of a resource for you as an actor, but there must've also been some pressure there to make sure you did their stories justice?
There wasn't a scene I finished where one of the extras didn't run up to me and say, "Oh my God, this happened to me, this happened to my friend" and would just be so open about the trauma that they'd been through. It does highlight how it's important to let this story get out there so that people do know that we're talking about real things here, it isn't just make-believe. All this drama is pulled from real life. I did feel a bit of pressure to just get it right. On my first day on set, I was welcomed by the Afghan elders, who, in a ceremony, welcomed me and were telling me how honored they were that I was representing them. Then, just having the response I had with people coming up to me to keep sharing all their lives. It's funny to share with strangers no matter what's happening and having that kind of thing happen, I realized the responsibility and the pressure to make sure I represented them — that was at the forefront.
How familiar with the refugee detention situation were you before you signed on? Was it something you had to research before shooting?
Oh, I was very familiar with everything that was happening because I come from a theater background and in the early 2000s, when we did have on-shore detention, I was working on a play with someone that was in a detention center here. So I was visiting them and getting their story to be able to put it on the stage. Also, I was born in Lebanon; I'm half Lebanese, half Syrian. We immigrated here from the war in Lebanon, so a lot of what I based Ameer on was things that I saw from my parents trying to rebuild our family. What I ultimately wanted to bring with Ameer...I didn't want to slam the audience with a lot of foreign expectations. I just wanted to show that he was a father looking for the best for his family and no matter what anyone's background is based on, they can relate to that. I was reading a study the other day about the mental health issues of people that have come back to Australia and have to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. You're not allowed to leave that room. There's a study on the decline in mental health of the people that have had to do that. We have refugees who've been stuck for seven years. We're touching on this because white people are complaining about two weeks in a hotel. What kind of life are we living here? We had to actually do this study to go, "Oh, it does have a bad effect on people's mental health."
I wanted to ask you about the scene where Ameer finds out the fate of his wife and his younger daughter. It was heartbreaking to watch and totally just stays with you afterward. How was that to shoot and prepare for?
It's very poignant in my mind and that was on my first block in episode two with director Emma Freeman. We had a good chat before we started filming, during rehearsal, because in that scene my dialogue is in Dari. She was like, "How do you want to approach this? Because I won't understand what you're saying when we're filming." Yvonne and I, in a meeting with Emma, said that we always want to start with closeups because it's going to be hard to keep tapping into all of that emotional stuff. So that day, in particular, I was picked up at 5:00 a.m., and the mood on the bus... no one would make eye contact with me and just knew that I do this thing. Emma just came up and tapped me on the shoulder and gave me like a thumbs up and then just left me alone. Our fantastic director of photography Bonnie Elliott took me through a light block of the scene and where we were going to end up. I just checked in with Soraya (Heidari) who plays my daughter and then they just started up close and went wider. Everyone just left me alone between takes. In the end, there was this really warm applause and I think I had the rest of the day off.
Soraya Heidari who plays Mina, your character's daughter, is also so good in this and it's her first role. Were you just so impressed by her?
Yeah, totally and she's so smart. She turned 16 while we were shooting and I was just the most embarrassing fake dad. Every time she was on set, I'd take a photo of her, like, this is her first night shoot, this is her first day. Then on her 16th birthday, I covered her trailer with all of the photos of her firsts. She has a big heart but is also kind of sassy. If we were doing a scene and I got a pronunciation thing wrong, she'd stop and correct me.
Love that! You obviously didn't share any scenes with Cate Blanchett's character but how was working with her a producer?
Amazing. We've kind of known each other through the theater scene in Sydney. My first proper hang out with her, I was flown to Adelaide, where we were filming, to have dinner and it was amazing. She was wonderful. We spent some time in London together in December when we were selling the show there and she's just a force of nature. What an amazing human being and talented and a great producer. I had a couple of things I needed to discuss while we were filming and she was on the phone straight away — and she was filming Miss America at the time, but would always just keep herself open for anything. She's great.
You talked before about people reaching out to you and wanting to know how they can help and raise awareness, is that your main hope for the lasting impact of this project?
Yeah, I think it's about starting the right kind of conversation. I don't know if it'll make full-scale changes to the refugee treatment here, but if people start asking the right questions and people start engaging in the right conversations and show that we all want change, we all asylum seekers to be treated humanely, then maybe the political spin on this will change too. At the moment our position on refugees is just used as political fodder to take blows at each other, but if everyone gets behind it and goes, "We don't want you to do this anymore" then political voices will change and they'll start trying to implement change to seek more support from the public.
Stateless is available to stream on Netflix now.