Shalhoub aims to change Arab image in U.S.
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Despite several chances to take the bait and swallow whole, Tony Shalhoub painstakingly resisted.
The star of "AmericanEast" was on hand Monday in Dubai to tub-thump the indie movie, which focuses on Arab-American immigrants in post-Sept. 11 Los Angeles, specifically their relations with their Jewish neighbors. The film screened Monday afternoon at the Madinat Jumeirah during the fourth annual Dubai International Film Festival.
Like most news conferences at film fests around the world, there are inevitably questions from the floor that tend to go for the jugular.
In this case, the discussion, in both Arabic and English, focused on whether the American public and the American media and entertainment biz were actually changing their attitudes toward Arabs.
"So many times, Arabs have been shown in a negative light," Shalhoub told the 50-odd reporters, but, he added, "things are beginning to change."
The past six years since Sept. 11, he went on, have prompted a lot of people to be "proactive and to push back."
He was, he said, inspired by efforts that his actor friend Stanley Tucci undertook years ago to foster Italian-American movies that weren't just about mafiosi as a model for what might be done for the image of Arab immigrants.
Asked specifically by an unidentified Arab speaker whether an Arab-American lobby was being created stateside to counter "the Zionist one in Washington and in Hollywood," Shalhoub was circumspect.
The Lebanese-born actor stressed that perceptions take a long time to shift, and that in any case the problem is not limited to the Arab-American question but encompasses "all kinds of prejudices and ignorance."
"I can't really give you a timeline," he said. "A lot of people have to be educated, or screamed at, or coerced, but I think we are seeing the beginning of change."
Shalhoub is best known in the Middle East for his starring role in "Monk," which has been widely licensed in the region by Universal.
Shalhoub is actively involved in a couple of ongoing initiatives in the U.S. dedicated to fostering greater understanding. They include the nonprofit Journeys in Film, which links foreign-film viewing to high school curricula, and an Arab-American Filmmakers Award for budding screenwriters.
The actor also let slip that he is mulling another film role, playing the Arab poet Khalil Gibran in a biopic currently being penned.
"In a business driven by money, we have to invest in ourselves," he said. "(Changing things) is a long-term play."
Asked if his own career was hampered by his Arab origins, Shalhoub said he was hampered by being "ugly and ignorant, not by being Arabic."
The other actors in the movie had somewhat differing experiences, with one of them, Sayed Bedreya, suggesting that 60%-70% of the roles he has played over the years were some sort of terrorist.
"AmericanEast" director Hesham Issawi said that TV shows such as "24" and "Sleeper Cell" perpetuate those negative stereotypes. "They take us in directions we don't want to go," he said.
On the other hand, the female star of the movie, Sarah Shahi, pointed out that the current primetime TV series "Life" features various crime perpetrators, but so far none of them has been of Arabic origin. She is a Texan of Arab origin but grew up being routinely mistaken for a Mexican.
Low-budget movies like "AmericanEast" rarely make it into the American heartland these days, Shalhoub admitted when asked by The Hollywood Reporter if TV series might be a more fertile ground for changing hearts and minds.
Does he know of any such series being hatched back in Los Angeles?
"There are people trying to pitch such shows here and there, both sitcoms and dramas, but it's slow going," Shalhoub said.
A wry comedy from Canada called "Little Mosque on the Prairie" was apparently pitched to CBS as a potential comedy format but was passed on.