There’s so much more to Sayed Badreya than what appears on the surface. Born in Port Said, Egypt, the actor took a rather circuitous route to his current position in Hollywood as the go-to man for terrorist and doctor roles. “The most difficult time in my life when I was a little boy was the war,” Badreya explains of his beginnings. “I used to go and hide in the movie theater and be in love with American movies and America itself.” The plan was for Badreya to go to college, but after his father’s passing he was expected to work to help his mother support the family. It was while he was serving the country’s required military service that the future actor heard he was accepted to college in the United States. “So the deal was, ‘Okay, let me go to America for five years to study,’ because this was my dream.” He spent his first few years at the University of Massachusetts in Boston before studying film production at New York University. “The problem is, everyone in the class was using me as an actor. So I became really good at it,” Badreya says.
Five years turned into a few decades and by 2008 Badreya had carved himself a niche in the American movie landscape as Hezbollah Head Gunman (The Insider), Terrorist (in his own T for Terrorist) and Assisting Surgeon (Stuck on You). The stereotypical roles didn’t exactly ask him to challenge conventions but Badreya understands the system. “The stereotype is part of Egyptian film also,” he says. “If you look at Egyptian cinema they have a Black stereotype, a stereotype for foreigners and Jews. It’s everywhere.”
To counteract the prejudicial ideas prevalent both in the United States and abroad, Badreya co-wrote AmericanEast with director Hesham Issawi. “It’s a movie about your grandfather who came here in the beginning of time. It’s an Americana movie,” he says. “That was the most important thing—to put ourselves as Arab Americans in Americana, as an immigrant who came here as part of a community, like your grandfather—everybody’s grandfather.” The movie, which also stars Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) as a Jewish immigrant, made its way around the festival circuit in the years since completion and the response was exactly what Badreya hoped for. “After the movie people were crying because they said, ‘My grandfather came from Germany and opened a restaurant and struggled. Now I’m watching him again in an Arabic skin.’
“When I came to America people were speaking Arabic as gibberish. Now people know the difference. We’ve changed a lot. We’ve become like the old movies. The good Arab is the one with the hero and the bad Arab is the one with the bad guy. But we have to take responsibility. African-Americans changed cinema after Spike Lee and I want to do that. So, I write and I produce and I try to direct, to change not only the image but to make a connection between Arab and the West and America. Because I sit here and I watch Fox TV and they’re talking about Arabs, and that’s not my Arab.”
For now, Badreya is preparing for reaction to his role as Saddam Hussein in Oliver Stone’s anticipated drama W. According to the actor, his resemblance to the dictator is uncanny. But it takes more than makeup to make a character, doesn’t it? “I studied Saddam,” he says. “Because I’m not only doing it for the American people, I’m doing it for the Arabic people.”
In a recent conversation with MM, Badreya revealed even more of his history, his projects and his responsibilities as an Arab actor.
Mallory Potosky (MM): You have directed one feature, right? A documentary?
Sayed Badreya (SB): Yeah, I directed a documentary called Saving Egyptian Film Classics. I grew up loving Egyptian cinema and got connected with the preservation. I studied preservation and I said, ‘Wow, Egyptians should have that.’ So I made a movie about it and the Egyptian government didn’t like it.
MM: Do you know the reason they didn’t like it?
SB: Yeah. They don’t want to preserve anything. They have a big, big amount of cinema. I brought them two films to be preserved for Egyptian cinema. They said, “We don’t want to preserve the two films. Then the public will ask us to preserve everything.”
MM: Do you ever feel you’re getting typecast or being passed by for roles because of your appearance?
SB: Well, I am a student of cinema, so I understand mechanical cinema. American Indians have to do that, African-Americans have to do that, Latinos have to do that and Italians have to do that. I found out that you go with the system, you don’t fight the system. You work from the system. So I put on weight and grew a beard, and here you are. I had this talent but I didn’t have the look the American cinematic people wanted. You know, when I go out and hire someone for a short film, I don’t want to teach someone to be black, I want a black guy. When you’re casting you look at that. So, I figured out who I am. I went to the mosque and I stayed there for three years so I had the knowledge for Hollywood. And I had the look of course and I studied filmmaking, so I packaged myself.
MM: Your two most recent movies, Iron Man and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, were very different. Can you talk about the roles that you played and what attracted you to them?
SB: Well, with Iron Man, I wasn’t in the script. They brought me in [to audition] three or four times and wouldn’t hire me. In the end, they had to take me to the location with Robert Downey Jr. Everybody had to vote and it was five to five. Some people wanted me and other people wanted this other guy. It was given to Robert to choose and he said, “Can I have the two?” and that’s what happened. It was fun because everyday was a new page with a new scene for us. I loved working with Jon Favreau. He had a system with me. He said, “Okay, you start high and let me dial you down.” I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I like.’ Because in the audition I said to him, ‘That’s what I do. I start high and dial me down.’ He remembered that.
With Zohan, I had hesitation going in there because I didn’t know Adam Sandler. After I knew him, I loved this guy. Adam Sandler is a great guy, really great guy. But before I knew him, his reputation in the Arab community is very pro-Israel so I went there [thinking that]. Then I started to know him. He had people in the middle of all our trailers—all the Arabic and Muslim guys, with Israeli and Jewish guys—and we had discussions about everything.
…I wanted to talk about Backyard. It’s a Spanish movie directed by Carlos Carrera. This movie is real life.
MM: It’s based on a true story?
SB: Yeah, and I play a serial killer.
MM: You’re always playing—well, I guess not in Zohan—but you’re always playing that evil character.
SB: Actually, this guy was never convicted. While he was in jail, the killing was going on. And he was charming. In the movie, he’s flirting with the cop. Was he a bad guy, good guy, drunk? I enjoyed that very much because it’s international cinema and it’s outside of Hollywood. It’s a great, great character. But don’t forget, I played a doctor in Shallow Hal.
MM: That was part of my idea when I asked about you being typecast, because I think also, that’s another way that…
SB: You know why? Cause this guy was my friend. We grew up together in Boston. My life is strange. You know who I lived with when I was in New York? I mean, here I am, a really good boy, and I end up living with Woody Harrelson. So, imagine what he did to me. I knew Peter and Bob Farrelly before they started working as directors. Then I worked with them on Shallow Hal and Stuck on You. Don’t forget that this movie came after 9/11, where people really felt Arabic people were terrorists, so that was giving back to me because they felt bad that I looked like a terrorist.
MM: Speaking of playing a terrorist, you’ve played a few in your career. Next up you’re playing Saddam Hussein. Was there any hesitation in taking that role?
SB: No. When you work with someone like Oliver Stone, you know that it’s a great piece. Here’s the thing: Saddam and Bush never met. So you have to listen between the lines and understand what you’ve seen about them. So they never met, so Oliver had to do it in a different way. If you have an enemy, you dream about it, if you have an enemy, you can think you see him. Anyway, I had to learn what Saddam said about Bush. He always called him “the boy,” he never called him “George,” he never called him by his name. And he always called him names—“slush” and “alcoholic” and stuff like that. So I had to bring all that in the scene.