*This interview of mine is published on Medium.*
While Lebanese-born actress Yasmine Al Massri may be best known in the United States for her star-turning role as twin Muslim FBI agent sisters in ABC’s hit show, Quantico, the actress returns to the big screen with her latest film, Refugee. The story centers on a Syrian doctor who is forced to flee her war-torn hometown of Aleppo to give her daughter a better life. The actress spoke with Medium’s ZORA to talk about fighting stereotypes in Hollywood, her personal connection to Refugee, and why she refuses to limit herself in film and television roles.
Your portrayal of not one but two badass Muslim women of color, identical twin Muslim FBI agents, Nimah and Raina Amin in ABC’s “Quantico” was revolutionary. How do you look back on that role today with Trump in the White House?
Yasmine Al Massri: It’s been very disheartening and disturbing to hear all this inflammatory rhetoric and policies coming from this White House — banning Muslims, caging and separating children from their parents, pulling the troops out from northern Syria, just to name a few. I vividly remember the night Trump won the election. It was the same night we started filming the second season of Quantico in New York. That night, I felt that there was no other place else I’d rather be than on set portraying badass Arab American twins who exude different religious beliefs. It’s been two years since I’ve played those characters, and I am so happy to see more badass characters wearing the hijab on the screen, and more Muslim writers in writers’ rooms. I think Nimah and Raina’s character started this moment. Though Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to representation, and giving opportunities to people of color, I’m grateful to Josh Safran, Quantico’s showrunner for creating these two characters. He fought very hard to make them be the voice of a very unrepresented part of the world in this industry.
The timing of your latest project, “Refugee,” is a poignant reminder of the state of the world’s refugees today. Tell me why you call this film your “baby.”
Telling stories like Refugee is the reason why I wanted to be an actor. When I first read the script, I instantly fell in love. Refugee is the kind of story that gives me a purpose as an actor. I am a Palestinian refugee who didn’t have a Lebanese citizenship, nor did my parents. For 17 years, I lived in a country where I felt like a stranger. I had to hide my true identity so I wouldn’t be discriminated against. I had no sense of belonging. I left Lebanon for France at the age of 19 to pursue my education in the arts. In Paris, I was also seen as the “other” who looks and speaks different from them. So when this opportunity came around, it transported me back to my upbringing and experience in Europe. Having this incredible opportunity to be able to humanize refugees and relive my own experience felt like an honor and a blessing.
It’s been an amazing experience working with Brandt Anderson [the director] on this project. I was so surprised, humbled, and filled with hope to learn about Brandt’s humanitarian work, volunteering with NGOs helping refugees in Jordan, Greece, and Turkey. This is where the story of Refugee stemmed from. The characters Brandt brought to life were inspired by the refugees he met on the shores of Greece and Turkey during his volunteer work. I felt an instant connection to the character I play, Amira, because her story is written in an authentic, human way. And that’s what made me jump on this project and be so excited to work with Brandt.
“I hope our film will challenge these misconceptions and stereotypes of the other by humanizing the conflict. Stories like ‘Refugee’ allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with the other.”
Anti-immigrant sentiments are at an all-time high in the U.S. right now. How do you hope “Refugee” will challenge people’s stereotypes of the “Other”?
We have to be careful not to generalize given the current political climate in the U.S. I don’t consider the U.S to be an anti-immigrant society. America is made up of immigrants. That’s what makes America great. Of course, we can’t ignore Indigenous Native Americans when we talk about what makes America the country it is today. Unfortunately, in the U.S. and abroad, there is so much stigma and mischaracterization when it comes to refugees. I hope our film will challenge these misconceptions and stereotypes of the other by humanizing the conflict. Stories like Refugee allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonalities. That’s what our film does best.
You grew up as a refugee in Lebanon during the Civil War. What did your Egyptian mother and Palestinian father teach you about identity and belonging?
I am so proud to be a refugee. Growing up, I always had to work harder than everyone else without expecting anything in return. This has given me a sense of purpose and drive to always do better. It wasn’t easy to grow in a country where there’s a lot of tension and baggage between the host country and your country of origin. My father is a Palestinian refugee and my mother is Egyptian. I grew up in a typical Arab family. My parents had a completely different plan for me than mine. I wanted to dream big, explore the world, and find a place that I can call home. For me, identity is bigger than where our ancestors came from. I truly believe that you build your own identity.
Your co-star in “Refugee,” Massa Daoud, who plays the role of your daughter, is herself a Syrian refugee. How did you two collaborate to translate your personal insights onto the screen?
As an actor, it’s very important to have chemistry with your co-stars, especially when you play a mother. Brandt asked me to meet all the actors who auditioned for this role. The moment I met Massa, I knew she was the one. Brandt also felt the same way about Massa. She captured us with her beautiful, big, and mischievous eyes.
“As an actress from the Arab world, Hollywood sees me in a stereotypical, limited way. There are times when I would ask my agents not to send me any roles that depict a Middle Eastern character.”
She is a Syrian refugee who fled the violence there, seeking a safe haven in the U.S. She didn’t look like a sad or traumatized kid at all. It was never our intention to portray a child refugee in a cliché, dehumanizing way like we’ve seen in many big productions. Massa left Syria at a very young age. She doesn’t remember much of Syria and is not aware of the political aspects of this conflict. She was very mature for her age. She worked hard and diligently to prepare for her character. I told her many times that I was going to be tough on her, and she always surprised me with her resilience of taking it all in. When we wrapped, I gave her a hug and thanked her for bringing the maternal side to me on the set. Massa is going to be a successful actress. I can’t wait to see her grow up and blossom.
You’ve been living in Los Angeles for a few years now. What is it like working as a woman of color in Hollywood?
I never talked to the press since Quantico, but after I left the show, I had an existential crisis. Although every actor who tags themselves under the diversity and ethnically ambiguous umbrella would have killed to be in my place, after being a series regular star in two major network TV shows in the U.S., I felt and still feel today that all Hollywood wants from me is my long black hair and my best anxious mysterious nods.
I try to avoid “Quantico-wannabe’’ characters to play. As an actress from the Arab world, Hollywood sees me in a stereotypical, limited way. There have been times when I would ask my agents not to send me any roles that depict a Middle Eastern character. I’m an actress and artist; it’s sad for me to feel that Hollywood doesn’t trust me to play universal characters, and that the only show I can lead would have to be an all-Arab-box type of situation. Hollywood still associates the Arab world with negativity and stereotypes, and it continues to exist in a bubble that chooses to separate itself from the diverse and nuanced stories that are culturally rich and reflective of the world we live in.
*This interview of mine is published on Medium.*