A character actor's job is never entirely free from disorientation, but Tony Shalhoub underwent more than his fair share while filming two of this year's aspiring blockbusters. On the Los Angeles set of the December release "A Civil Action," he assumed the mantle of Kevin Conway, a Boston Irish lawyer fighting beside John Travolta on behalf of parents whose children had died as a result of toxic waste dumped by corporations.
No sooner had he wrapped that role than he caught a redeye for New York. By the next afternoon, the 45-year-old Shalhoub was plunging in to his first scene as Lebanese-born FBI agent Frank Haddad in "The Siege," Edward Zwick's controversial 20th Century Fox thriller about the declaration of martial law against an Arab American neighborhood in Brooklyn in reaction to terrorist bombings.
Filmed completely out of sequence, this scene was to be Shalhoub's emotional crescendo. As the distraught agent Haddad, he was sent wandering through a sports arena that Bruce Willis had turned into an Arab American internment camp, calling out for his imprisoned son, Frank Jr. The search was made all the more difficult because Shalhoub had not yet met the actor playing Frank Jr., let alone the actress playing his beloved wife.
Nevertheless, the brutal spectacle shocked the Lebanese American actor into the role.
"It was a bitter cold night," Shalhoub remembers. "There were hundreds of extras wrapped in these plastic tarps, and all this military equipment. Looking into the faces of those extras, they all looked like my family--my cousins, my brothers and my uncle. It seemed to bring me into the state of mind I needed."
For some prominent Arab Americans, "The Siege" is no warning against U.S. government excess--as the filmmakers say--but another chapter in the vilification of Muslims in movies. After seeing the preview, Hala Maksoud, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, wrote an open letter to Zwick, advising him that "we can only hold you responsible for any actions of hate directed against our community as a result of this extremely damaging and dangerous film."
The controversy has placed Shalhoub in a difficult position. The actor delivered a keynote speech at the Anti-Discrimination Committee's convention before he began filming "The Siege," and both he and Maksoud profess admiration for each other. Still Shalhoub is puzzled how "The Siege" could be construed as anti-Arab.
"I don't think the point of this movie was to instill fear and this sense of foreboding against Middle East terrorism, unless you walk out in the middle," Shalhoub says. "The image of the U.S. military policing its own people, of Arab American victims being rounded up and herded into camps: That's the most stirring and the most interesting." The actor supposes there are those viewers who will show up just to watch the explosions. "But if people are really listening and following the story. . .," he says. "Terrorism is something to be reckoned with, but our response is equally frightening."
Shalhoub went into "The Siege" aware that certain adjustments had to be made in the script and that a few things had to be toned down--some of them by the actors themselves. He now sees the character of Frank Haddad as "completely sympathetic," and the film itself as a "balanced portrait."
"You know, political correctness can only go so far," Shalhoub says. "You still have to be able to tell a story and allow the story to take a life of its own. I wouldn't have done the film if I had thought it was offensive."
Shalhoub's Career Proves Versatility
In the past, Shalhoub has steered clear from playing someone of his own ethnicity, given the dim Hollywood climate for Arab American actors. "I've avoided terrorist roles," he explains, "and frankly any Arab roles, because they're often portrayed in such a negative light."
Still, Shalhoub's other ethnic characters have been numerous enough to repopulate a sizable portion of Disneyland's "It's a Small World." In 1997's "Paulie," he was a Russian expatriate janitor male-bonding with an imprisoned talking parrot. In "Big Night," his turn as an Italian emigre chef besieged by meatball-loving American philistines won him the National Society of Film Critics best supporting actor award. He let loose in the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink" as a manic Jewish studio executive, while "Men in Black" saw him as a space alien pawnshop owner.
Shalhoub's apprenticeship for his ethnic roles was a regular stint as a Russian cabdriver on the TV show "Wings." To portray these outsiders, Shalhoub has assumed so many dialects and perfected so many meek slouches and pumped-up gaits that the actor's underlying personality has become anybody's guess.