film reporter

Arab talent in spotlight as Mideast meets West

New Line's political thriller "Rendition," which opens Friday, might picture Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal on its one-sheet, but its real stars are two actors — Omar Metwally and Yigal Naor —who hardly qualify as A-listers.

But while their names might be unfamiliar, they are among the crop of new faces who populate the current wave of films about the Middle East.

In the past, when Hollywood cast a Middle Eastern role, seemingly any dark-skinned actor would do. Not anymore.

"We are no longer content to let the dark-skinned kid from Encino play a Muslim from Iraq because we've seen the reality," says Anonymous Content's Michael Sugar, who represents Naor. "As stories expand, the canvas expands, and the paint needs to adapt. There are so many brilliant actors that are not from the U.S. or Vancouver, and it's nice to see that we're finding the most talented people."

But discovering and nurturing such actors is tough work. Major agencies are not rushing to rep Arab actors, even those among the bigger names in world cinema. To many, it isn't worth the effort.

"If I had a client like that, they'd go out twice a month," says one agent who declined to be named. "If I have a beautiful white actor, aged 19 to 24, they go out three times a week. So why take them on?"

Directors often have to search out such actors themselves. "Rendition" helmer Gavin Hood remembered Metwally and Naor from key scenes in Steven Spielberg's "Munich": Metwally played an Arab who has a philosophical discussion with Eric Bana's character, while Naor was the Palestinian father who sets off an explosion when he picks up the phone.

Metwally, living in Orange County, Calif., and repped by Paradigm, was easier to track down than Naor, an Iraqi whose family had moved to Israel when he was young and who has thrived in Israel's theater world.

Hood flew to Tel Aviv to meet with Naor, who was not yet represented by Anonymous, and broke bread with the actor between stage performances. "We had an immediately good connection, and I pretty much knew I had found (the character of the interrogator) Abasi," Hood says.

Hood is convinced that actors like Naor bring with them experiences that enrich deeper, more complex roles.

"Many of these actors who we found come from more volatile parts of the world and are incredibly in tune with the emotional roller coaster that living in these more volatile societies involves," he says. "As a result, they are very quick to intuitively understand the emotional and dramatic dynamics of these scenes that they are being asked to play."

The next challenge for this new group of actors is to avoid being typecast as just the newest "Arab guy" on Hollywood's radar.

"Although I do try not to worry about it, of course typecasting is something I have to think about," says Metwally, now shooting James Ivory's "City of Your Final Destination." "If the role is primarily about the character's race, I try to avoid that kind of part. But if the character is fully human and different from the last role I played, then I don't feel in danger of being typecast regardless of the character's race or if I've played someone from that background before."