Iyad Hajjaj, a celebrated Palestinian actor making it big in Hollywood knows a thing or two about how much it takes to get into the American acting scene.
It was an arduous journey that took the now 40-year-old Palestinian from a Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip to Los Angeles. The sixth of 12 siblings, Hajjaj has guest-starred on The Brink, HBO’s dark comedy about an attempt to prevent World World III with Jack Black and Tim Robbins, and also on Fox’s show Touch, alongside Kiefer Sutherland.
Growing up, Hajjaj studied at a United Nations-run school in Gaza and earned his bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from Bethlehem University in the occupied West Bank.
Dreaming of a better life, he moved to the US in 1998. He started off working odd jobs before moving to California to work at the Stanford University Medical Center. There, he made some friends, who learned he was interested in acting – and it marked the beginning of his Hollywood career.
Al Jazeera: Why did you leave Gaza, and how did you get started in the acting business?
Iyad Hajjaj: I have always acted, even as a child back home. I used to work [as an extra] on big movie sets. One was Rambo III [shot mainly in the Dead Sea area and Thailand] and another was called Appointment with Death, starring Carrie Fisher [shot mainly in Petra, Jordan, Jerusalem and Qumran, near the Dead Sea].
I told my friends at Stanford that I loved acting, and I didn’t get a chance to do it for a long time. They asked me to audition for a 45-minute-long student graduation film, and I did and got a role. It addressed the issue that most Arabs had faced after September 11 through the story of an Arab student in America, who is targeted by government agencies, captured and shipped to an undisclosed location to be interrogated. That film won six awards worldwide.
That short film was the beginning of my acting career. As I mentioned, I left Gaza in 1998. Everyone leaves for a better life. Families would encourage at least one member to do so – to improve the life of the rest of the family. I do that as much as I can; I help my family over there. If you stay in Gaza, you have one choice: You sit around and wait until you die or get killed. That would be the reason why many people are leaving now.
Al Jazeera: What were your impressions upon arriving in Hollywood?
Hajjaj: Hollywood proved very challenging. Acting was not as easy as I thought, and breaking into the business was not as easy as a lot of people think. Not only for foreigners, but even for Americans. It’s a very challenging experience. Everyone is there for themselves; everyone is there to succeed.
Coming from a business and management perspective because of the jobs I had taken earlier, I handled acting as any business model, because acting is a business and the product is ‘me’. So to sell ‘me’, I had to work on ‘me’, and make ‘me’ better – not physically per se, but also the skills and talent. Language was a barrier, because my English was not as good as it is now. When I got a script, it took me probably 60 to 70 times to read it, and I’d have to look words up in the dictionary.
Now after seven or eight years in Hollywood, I can memorise a script in a few hours. I even teach on-camera auditioning skills. I took it upon myself to help others. And I have been supporting a group for three years for free. I give them advice, coaching and career guidance.
Al Jazeera: What are some of the most interesting roles you’ve played?
Hajjaj: A short film I’m really proud of is one I produced, starred in, directed, and casted, called Not in My Backyard. It addresses the issues that almost every Arab and Muslim person has faced after September 11. It’s about the struggles of an engineer who loses his job then becomes a math teacher in a small town. He gets beaten up and is called a terrorist.
Another role I’m really proud of is in a show called Touch, starring Kiefer Sutherland. I took up the role of a Saudi father to a teenage girl. Initially, I wanted to marry her off to a rich man, who had asked for her hand. Eventually, I broke off the engagement and sent her to college. People who watched it told me they teared up when they saw what this man did for his daughter.
Al Jazeera: As an Arab, have you faced any challenges in terms of being pigeonholed into stereotypical roles, and how have you dealt with this?
I was offered a lot of roles, but I have a message as an actor, as an Arab and a Muslim, to show those [communities] in the best way I can. The dialogue is what drives me to accept or decline roles. If the dialogue is directly or indirectly showing Islam in a bad way, then I’ll decline or ask for the lines to be changed.
Hajjaj: I was offered a lot of roles, but I have a message as an actor, as an Arab and a Muslim, to show those [communities] in the best way I can. The dialogue is what drives me to accept or decline roles. If the dialogue is directly or indirectly showing Islam in a bad way, then I’ll decline or ask for the lines to be changed.
I’m also a cultural and language consultant. I make sure that [actors] say things in Arabic correctly, and if there are things in the English script that are offensive, I fix them in the Arabic translation, and/or I tell them this is inappropriate.
The last major job doing this work was on Katherine Heigl’s TV show, State of Affairs. I worked with her and all the show’s stars on the parts that included the use of Arabic. Whenever there was something Middle Eastern, I made sure they don’t do or say anything offensive towards Islam. And they were very flexible. I believe that after 14 years [since 9/11], people in Hollywood are more open-minded, and they are changing slowly. They are more accepting of the ‘good Arab’ image.
Al Jazeera: Do you still get back to Gaza to visit your family, and what do they think of your current career?
Hajjaj: I talk to my family on the phone, and I’m constantly in touch with my friends there all the time. I dream of a time when there’s peace, not just for Gaza, but for the whole Middle East, so I can go back and spend time with loved ones.
My mother and father passed away while I was here, and they were the reason I wanted to go back the most. At the time that I left Gaza, my dad encouraged me to go to the US; he knew it was not good there for me.
My family misses me, and they want me to come back, thinking my presence with them will make things better. But they are very proud of me, of my success and the fact that I didn’t waste time here in the US. I stayed focused, and I changed my career a few times, but each time, I was successful.
When I sent them a copy of my first film, they were proud because I’m doing something good for all Arabs, and that’s something I intend on doing for a long time. I’ve tried to show the Muslim, Arab man here as a peaceful, tolerant, understanding person because what we see on TV is something different.