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Interview

From 'Deep Space' to 'Cairo'

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From 'Deep Space' to 'Cairo'
Photo Source: Jason Kempin/Getty Images
As an actor of Arab descent, Alexander Siddig has strong feelings about what roles he'll tackle and conversely pass on. He'll play a terrorist if the character is presented in a larger context—"a man with a wife or family or capable of loving," he says—or if the film addresses some other issue, such as the lives of children who are trained to be suicide bombers he explains.

Still, it's refreshing to be cast as the genial lover, opposite Patricia Clarkson, in Ruba Nadda's award winning film, "Cairo Time," which was just shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.  He compares Clarkson to a young Katherine Hepburn and praises the maturity of Nadda's vision. She is a young filmmaker recounting an intense love story between a married middle-aged woman and her husband's friend, which is never sexually consummated. Nonetheless, "they've absolutely had an affair," insists Siddig.

Perhaps best known for his long running stint as chief medical officer Dr. Julian Bashir on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," his recurring role as an ex-terrorist on "24," and as the forward thinking Emirati prince in the political thriller "Syriana," Siddig says there are no roles he's dying to do, though he'd love to tackle the lofty subject of God. "I don't want to play God, but I want to talk about religion, which has been of interest to me ever since I read 'The Tempest,'" he says. "I always thought Prospero was God and the island purgatory. I think it's about time we handled God, Him or Her. It's a subject that's right up there with art and interpretation."

Siddig was born in the Sudan in Northern Africa, his father was Sudanese and his mother is British and the sister of actor Malcolm McDowell. When he was still a youngster he and his mother relocated to England and Siddig, whose first language was Arabic, became fully assimilated. As he tells it he identified far more with the British than his African-Arab roots. "I was aware I had a certain ethnicity, but it didn't walk into the room before me," he says. The response to him in those post-Sept 11 days came as a shock, he recalls.

Never Planned to Act

Siddig graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but he always had his sights set on a directing career. Indeed, for two years he helmed The Arts Threshold Theatre Company, "an off-off fringe" operation, made up of recent drama school graduates, none of whom were paid, he says. But then he earned no income either.

Siddig began acting when a production company in search of an Arab actor started checking photos in acting school albums and found him. Within short order he was on television, which in turn led to his garnering the role of Feisal in "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia," with Ralph Fiennes who was no star at that time.

"I bumped into Ralph four weeks ago on the set of 'Clash of the Titans' and it was quite weird after 20 years, knowing we had started in the same place and that our statuses had changed," says Siddig. "The status of a movie star is so profoundly and absurdly different. It's like a lord and a serf. You can meet someone who is 20 and he's a huge movie star and you have to stand up when he comes into the room, I mean metaphorically. It's nauseating. No Ralph and I are not in the same league. He is charming. That has to be said. I was the one who was especially nervous."

Despite the mega-success of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," Siddig views his appearance in "Syriana" as his career and artistic watershed. "I finally became comfortable with myself as an actor," he says. "My status shot up a couple of notches and made me realize I was an actor whether I liked it or not and should stop fighting it and stop being a director who happens to act and be honest with myself and say, 'I'm an actor who may one day direct.' But I do have one rule. I have to write it. I will never direct another person's project."

He's currently having a fine time on a children's TV show in Ireland, called "Primeval," dealing with dinosaurs. "I play an ideologue with a wicked streak," he says. "I feel like I'm coming home. I started with 'Stark Trek' and every time I come back to a genre project I have so much fun."

Still, he can't help comparing the casting process in the U.S. with the U.K. It's so much freer and more relaxed in the States, he says. Casting directors are willing to look at a much wider variety of actors for any given part. By contrast in England there is an obsession with authenticity, and, "unless you happen to be from a bizarre region of Afghanistan and speak a certain dialect you won't get the job.

So, it's quite a struggle for a half-Sudanese, half Englishman—for whom no part has been written as far as I know—to get a part as an Afghan or anyone else." In the U.K., you climb ladders and kowtow to those in power, whereas in the States, "you can have a Masters degree or be an ape, but if you have a good idea they'll give it a go. It's a healthy, open, pragmatic attitude."

Asked where he'd like to be in five years, he doesn't miss a beat: "in the arms of someone I love." 

Always the romantic.

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