Alexander SiddigBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at September 25, 2006 - 10:56 PM GMT
The stereotype about Star Trek actors is that after their shows leave broadcast, they have a hard time being known as anything other than Star Trek actors, no matter how many memorable performances they give elsewhere. Unless we're talking about William Shatner - who is as famous for being William Shatner at this point as he is for being Captain Kirk - many of the performers linked to regular Star Trek roles remain famous as those characters, even actors of the stature of Patrick Stewart, who continues to find himself answering questions about Star Trek despite many years of success in the theatre and another huge film franchise.
But then there's Alexander Siddig. After seven years playing Julian Bashir on Deep Space Nine, the actor is moving into A-list circles in the film industry and will appear in the new season of 24 as the series' major villain. Siddig spoke to The Trek Nation about his recent work in such films as Syriana, whose screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Nativity Story, in which he plays an archangel opposite two Oscar-nominated actresses.
"I'm pretty lucky at the moment to working on some very interesting films, but TV's going through a renaissance with a return to script driven drama presented in a reality format," Siddig said when asked how it felt to be back on a weekly series after shooting several feature films. "It's very cool being a part of that on 24 - which I believe is one of the trailblazers in the field." The show, which takes its name from the fact that each hour of television represents an hour of real time in a single day, won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series last spring.
"It's a totally different climate from DS9 for a couple of reasons," explained Siddig, calling the third Star Trek series "a good show in the dying days of mass interest in sci-fi." Although Siddig said that he and his fellow actors were very proud of the show and loved the work, "we never felt we were cutting edge." 24, on the other hand, perfectly translated post-9/11 paranoia into a taut real-time show about terrorists and threats to national security, and has managed to raise the stakes each season. One of the current writers is former Enterprise show-runner Manny Coto, though Siddig had not yet met him at the time of this interview.
24 also has Emmy-winning star Kiefer Sutherland in its crucial lead role. "Keifer is funny, moody and 'old school'...a powerful actor with steel-like determination and when he laughs, everyone laughs," Siddig said. "I always have to stay on my toes around him, because he has a finely tuned 'bullshit meter' and it's always on." Siddig added that Sutherland is "the pivotal decision maker on the set; we, on Star Trek, were an ensemble, so we took it in turns to be grumpy." He declined to say how much or if he works with Sutherland because "it opens the door to the plot."
In fact Siddig could say little about his work on 24, which will not debut for the season until January 2007. TV Guide described the character he would be playing as one of the "big evildoers" in the new year. Does Sid feel that is a fair characterization? "'Big evildoer' is a fairly apt description," he agreed. "Although I wouldn't get too carried away with the 'big' bit...'biggish' doesn't sound as good." Well, then, is he as evil as, say, Gul Dukat on Deep Space Nine, played by Marc Alaimo, who claimed that Dukat was the misunderstood hero of that series? "Marc is an eccentric - had a pet wolf, if I remember correctly," recalled Siddig. "I don't have a wolf."
Given the number of film and television roles he has worked on since, Siddig is understandably reluctant to dwell on Star Trek, though he said he considers many of the cast members friends and remains impressed with the quality of its writing. "DS9 was terrific," he said. "It was talking about the issues we're all talking about now - the Maquis, the Jem'Hadar were all terrorists, Bajoran religious fanatics were assassinating people, bombing the Promenade - and all this nearly 10 years before 9/11. No other Star Trek show dealt consistently with these themes. The style of the show may not have been cutting edge but the storytelling was prescient. Of course it was a learning experience for all of us. Seven years was just enough. One more day would have been interminable and one day less, unsatisfying."
Siddig has a home in the UK where he spends time when he is not filming. Though he has had less time than he would like to remain in touch with his friends in the cast, an obvious exception is Nana Visitor, to whom he was married for several years. Visitor now plays Jean Ritter on the ABC Family series Wildfire and lives with their son Django. "Obviously Nana and I chatter all the time - but we share a son - who is ten years old now!" Siddig exclaimed. "I love my boy and his brother [Visitor's son Buster] - they know it. I made a decision to do this job and I have to earn my freedom to live anywhere I please whenever I like."
Since the events of 9/11, Siddig explained, his life has changed in ways he never expected. The Sudan-born actor was quoted in a recent Vanity Fair article as saying that before that fateful date, he never much worried about whether to define himself as English, Sudanese or both, but as of 9/11, "Suddenly, I became Arab overnight." Many reports have been published in the intervening years about the sorts of racial profiling and prejudice to which Muslims have been subjected on both sides of the Atlantic, a situation the actor George Takei (Sulu) has compared to his own experiences being incarcerated just for being Japanese-American during World War II.
How difficult has it been for Siddig to define himself in such an environment? "In less than 4000 words? Dadaists would have no problem answering that one - they'd just say, 'fish' and that would completely cover the whole subject. But I'm not really a Dadaist," he joked. "I just wish I was right now. I did become Arab 'overnight' - I wasn't looking for it, it just happened. My professional life bled into my private life where normally I like to keep the two as distinct. And I'm not sure I'm comfortable with it."
"My dad was from the Sudan and my mum was from Merseyside and it's hard to choose between them as I loved them both," he continued. "But as an actor, the roles kind of chose me and (for the time being anyway) so has Arabness. I love both of my cultures and have been fascinated to start learning more about 'the orient'. Even though our feckless politicians don't understand the meaning of the word 'peace' (on both sides of the divide) - most of the rest of us do. So I think we all have a responsibility to make sure that neither culture is destroyed by a few brainless morons."
The other big change in Siddig's fortunes occurred when director Ridley Scott cast Siddig in Kingdom of Heaven along with a cast of very well-known actors including Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons (this after Oliver Stone refused to cast Siddig in Alexander after learning that Siddig had been a Star Trek regular). "Kingdom of Heaven did, I think, change some stuff in my career...I do get really interesting looking scripts emailed to me now," he said. "I really hope that some of them will translate into interesting films, but it's hard to tell until they're finished, which won't be until 2008! Bummer."
But for Siddig, the interest in a film has more to do with the character and screenplay than the prominence or visibility of the stars. "It's always about the appeal of the character at the moment," he said. "I just happened to luck out on Syriana because the two biggest stars in it were also nice blokes - I've worked on stuff where the stars were so dodgy that you had to wonder how they achieved the stardom they so richly didn't deserve." He described writer-director Stephen Gaghan as a "super-smart, mental multi-tasker" who "thrives on debate and eats lesser intellects for breakfast...trouble is, I barely qualified as a snack so he wasn't exactly jazzed. Bush was re-elected while we were filming in Dubai. You couldn't walk away from the role when you went back to the hotel. Some movies are like small infants who just won't sleep - they keep you up all night."
Kingdom of Heaven, on the other hand, "always slept right through - a dream child!" Siddig spoke very positively of the experience, though that film did not enjoy the critical success of Syriana (ironically, Siddig played characters named Nasir in both productions). "I'd work for Ridley again, it was such a sumptuous experience," he said. "I'd love to work for any passionate director who has a collaborative instinct and an eloquent visual vibe."
Though Siddig has played two prominent complex Muslim characters in the past year, several Arab-American actors have complained that they are seeing an increase in scripts about Muslims as vicious killers - a trend that Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub once protested by saying that he would rather tear up his Screen Actors Guild card than play an Arab terrorist. "Hollywood is supposed to exacerbate stereotypes - that's what it does for a living," noted Siddig. "Most roles, Muslim or otherwise, are stereotypical in a fashion. There are plenty of offensive-seeming women, blacks and idiotic white men on the screen...I'm not aware that there is a particular increase in scripts of that kind in the last couple of years, but it's just as likely my agent wouldn't waste the postage to send them." Siddig says that he is more interested in the fact that there is new dialogue underway, "and I'm lucky to be taking a small part in it. Arab/Western relationships will be normalised on the screen and in print way before it happens at the UN. The more people are acclimatized to 'Arabness' the less likely our politicians will be able to scare the living daylights out of us by shouting 'Islam.'"
Siddig has two upcoming projects in which he plays rather unusual roles. In The Nativity Story, which is due in theatres in December, he plays the archangel Gabriel, who appears to Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) to announce that she will bear a miraculous child. How does one prepare to play an angel, particularly one with such enormous literary and historical significance? "They were looking for someone to play Herod," Siddig explained. "I asked if the angel was free - they looked at a bunch of other people and then said I could do it." The role appealed to him because Gabriel exists in several religions. "I like that," Siddig said. "I'm a Muslim by birth, but humans are way more important to me than God and if God can't handle that then he should find another job."
The other oversized role Siddig played recently is Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian leader who defeated the emerging Roman Empire. The TV movie aired on the BBC but has not yet been broadcast in the US. How does an actor identify with a military strategist whose soldiers killed nearly a hundred thousand people in the Battle of Cannae? "I killed a hundred thousand people the other day after I came back from the gym and it was fine - then there was a power cut, and I hadn't saved, and I had to do it all over again after dinner that evening," joked Siddig, who admitted to playing Everquest II on occasion. "That was exhausting. I bet Hannibal fell asleep with all his clothes still on after Cannae."
Siddig recently played Theodorus Andronikos in the film The Last Legion with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley - an epic about the fall of the Roman Empire in which Romulus Augustus searches for supporters in distant Britain. That film is expected to be released next year, at which time the actor may be best known for giving 24's Jack Bauer yet another miserable day in and out of the office.
Syriana co-star Matt Damon may be a nice bloke, as Siddig says...but what does Siddig think about the rumors that Damon might be in line to play a young Captain Kirk in Star Trek XI? "Damon would be a great Trek captain, but I'd be a little surprised if he has agreed to do it, frankly," Siddig replied. "He's already got a decent franchise on the boil."
All right, then, what about Siddig himself? If J.J. Abrams called, would he be interested in returning to Star Trek...?
"Next question, please."
Many thanks to Alexander Siddig and to Sid City for links and background.
Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.