Serena Rasoul is not satisfied with Muslim representation in entertainment. From stereotyping to underrepresentation and an absence of depth in characters, the problems with the lack of accurate and rich opportunities for Muslim actors and stories to be told are many. So she decided to do something about it. She created Muslim American Casting, a resource for filmmakers and Muslim talent alike. With her company, she can cast, but more importantly consult and be a voice for a population that has not gotten the attention they deserve in Hollywood. Rasoul spoke to Backstage about her experiences in the industry, what she’s trying to do, why it’s important for representation to exist on both sides of the camera, and what actors and creators should know about Muslim stories. Oh, and if you have a question for her, she wants to help you out and consult to forward the portrayal of Muslim characters in entertainment.
“I’d love to be a resource. I’m not going to say I speak on behalf of every single Muslim in the United States, but I would like to be a starting point. I would like to be a resource for production.”
What have your experiences been as a Muslim actor?
One particular instance that really stands out for me was when I was cast to be a woman that wears the headscarf, which we call the hijab. Despite this being a large production for a large network, when I got to the wardrobe department, I discovered they had no headscarves available.
Luckily, I was able to run out to my car and grab what I had. But when I came back to the set and I asked wardrobe, “Where are these women supposed to be from?”—explaining that depending on where the woman is from, the hijab can be worn differently. They had no idea and said while pointing to the other actors, “Can you just make them look Muslim?” I realized we were being used as diversity props and frankly, that’s just not enough anymore. That’s why I started Muslim Casting—I’d wanted to be a resource. I’m not going to say I speak on behalf of every single Muslim in the United States, but I would like to be a starting point. I would like to be a resource for production, for filmmakers to come to and say, “Hey, I am actually putting a Muslim character or Middle Eastern character in my show and I have a couple of questions.”
Describe how you work when you’re hired for a production.
It’s two sides: casting and consulting. I added the consulting side because I found there was a general lack of understanding when it comes to Muslim inclusion. So for instance, when a production hires Muslim Casting for consulting, they have a few options [of focus]: scripts, styling, and sets.
For scripts, we can help provide script notes to make sure it’s religiously, socially, or contextually appropriate. For styling, we can help provide everything from hijab stylists to style scarves on set, to consulting on appropriate garb and attire traditionally worn in Muslim majority countries. For sets, we can consult on set as well ensure that set design is authentic when telling stories about Muslims or Muslim-majority countries.
And lastly, for quick go-to guidance, we have toolkits that give general guidelines on Muslim inclusion. One is called, “So you hired a woman that wears a hijab, now what?” And it gives some general tips on how to make the talent feel welcome and not so isolated or intimidated on set. For example, one of the tips in the toolkit: Think about hiring a hijab stylist on set and not relying on the talent to style her hijab herself (the same way you wouldn’t rely on talent to style her own hair).
What advice would you give to actors who are just taking their first steps into the acting world, especially those who are coming from underrepresented communities?
We have been boxed up, marginalized, and fed this belief that our histories are marred by our sociopolitical or geopolitical circumstances, especially those of us that are immigrants or children of immigrants. But our histories are so much more than that. The arts are woven into the very fabric of our ancestral and historic roots—reclaim them. Decolonize your mind from the belief that you don’t belong, because you not only belong, your ancestors helped build this from the ground up.
This is a very long process, so be patient with yourself, create your own content, perfect your craft, and explore other pathways within the industry that interest you. You may start off as an actor and end up a costume designer. Be open to adapting.
You have a quote on your website that says, “Putting a woman in a hijab in a campaign is not inclusive.” Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? I think this is a super common issue and people from outside of the community don’t actually understand why that’s not enough.
Muslim women come in all shapes, sizes, races, abilities, and varieties. Some wear hijab, some don’t—some wear ball caps, beanies, or hoodies. A Muslim woman is more than what she wears at any given point in time. Furthermore, of the Muslim women that do wear hijab, they don’t all wear them the same way! They wear them in a variety of ways and take so much pride in them when they do. You can still convey diversity and representation, but it doesn’t have to just be like a woman in a hijab.
What else should people know about your work?
We cast everything from TV and film to commercials and print. We can offer full casting services or work on a consultancy basis—it’s really up to each individual production’s needs.
We’ll be participating in and working with our partners to offer a variety of panels, workshops, and opportunities to Muslim talent in the coming months. Including opportunities to produce their own short films through a program called M Film Lab.
Lastly, we’re trying to build a very diverse database of Muslim talent. I would encourage anyone who reads this to visit our website and join our database for free. And also to follow us on Twitter and Instagram to learn more about the many opportunities we have upcoming.
Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.