For an actor on the rise, receiving acclaim and projects long overdue for a man of his calibre, Ali Suliman’s primary aim is to be unrecognisable as himself in every film he works. ‘This is my goal, my dream as an artist,’ he says, laughing easily. ‘I just don’t want to be boring.’
It’s impossible to be unaware of who Ali is. His charismatic screen presence has enamoured millions over the years, irrespective of the character he has portrayed – psychopathic cop in Emirati film maker Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzana, an apocalypse survivor in Ali Mostafa’s The Worthy, a Palestinian surgeon in Lebanese film maker Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack who finds out his wife is a terrorist, a Yemeni general in The Looming Tower or a Daesh commander in The State. His growth has been slow but steady and now, he’s approaching the top as a series regular in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan by Amazon Prime, which premieres tonight.
It’s a game-changer for Ali, and for Arab actors in an industry attempting to bring more diversity to the table. What’s the view like, I ask him. ‘The value of this project is massive, and the studio is brilliant. It’s overwhelming, although I’m experiencing mixed feelings. This should have happened a long time ago,’ he says.
There’s no trace of arrogance to this statement. It sounds more reflective, as if too much time has been lost before he could unleash his true potential. Considering he has starred in Golden Globe-winning Paradise Now, Peter Berg’s The Kingdom with Jamie Foxx and Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, Ali’s wistfulness makes complete sense.
Ali’s essence as an actor can be summed up in a cycle that repeats itself, fuelling him to reach higher and better – passion, which drives ambition, pushing him beyond boundaries, cultures and barriers, to arrive at projects that are memorable and also often less-known.
Zinzana, for instance, was shot in one location and was essentially a mad, horrific dance between two characters fighting to live. It was the Emirati director’s debut feature film, but Ali only cared about Dabaan and how he will come alive in it.
In The Looming Tower, Hulu’s critically acclaimed mini-series based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Ali is General Qamish, a military man of peace in love with books, knowledge and cigars; he’s powerful but restrained and charming. It ran from February to April this year and Ali appeared in several episodes alongside Jeff Daniels and French actor Tahar Rahim. And in Channel 4’s The State, aired by National Geographic last year, Ali is a hardened Daesh unit commander, fully convicted of his stance, gentle but frightening.
‘Be as different as possible – that’s my motto,’ says Ali. ‘That is the wonder of this profession; you can be whatever you dream of.’
The 40-year-old actor is an Arab man through and through, and proud of his ancestry. The youngest of 12 brothers and sisters, he lives in Occupied Jerusalem with his wife and three children. In fact, 2018 has proven to be his best yet – apart from his acting career, his producing work is also taking off with his first co-production The Escape premiering at the 37th Istanbul Film Festival. Ali stars in the Turkish-German film about a Syrian immigrant stranded on Turkey-Greece border as well, and preparations are afoot to screen it at upcoming film festivals.
‘I always wanted to be an actor, there was no doubt in my mind,’ he says. ‘My brother, older by 10 years, was an actor too and I wanted to do what he did.’ Ali graduated from the Yoram Levinstein Acting School in 2000 before moving to London to learn Commedia Dell’Arte, a popular form of Italian theatre, in order to hone his skills.
Back home, Ali decided to become a theatre teacher while juggling the few acting projects that came his way, determined to give back to the community. ‘I worked in theatre because it was more important than TV or cinema then,’ he says. ‘I taught because in the south of Palestine, people are starved for art and culture; they’re very isolated. In the village I used to visit, there was nothing. I worked with a group of young boys and girls who had big dreams. Today, I see them flourish and it makes me proud.’
Ali remains in touch with his students, even though he worked with them for about two years only. Today, most of them are in the arts – either in theatre or studying film.
‘I watch their programmes on Facebook all the time,’ he beams. ‘Nothing will stop them from living their lives.’
Ali made his debut in the film The Barbecue People in 2003, and went on to act in numerous Middle Eastern productions. He was very clear in his mind, however, that his work will never be confined to Arab cinema, making appearances in the movie Lone Survivor, The Promise and also Homeland. ‘As an international actor, I have the opportunity to do many things and play different characters, which is the real challenge.’
But it wasn’t easy to create that space for oneself. ‘As an Arab Middle Eastern Muslim living in Palestine and working in Hollywood, I’m always controversial one way or the other,’ he says. ‘You have to fight for your position, for your point of view. My identity always comes into the picture; this is politics, and we live with it.’
Ali refers me to the 2001 book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack Shaheen, an insightful and impassioned critique of how Middle Easterners and their culture are viewed by the West. Thoughtfully, he adds: ‘The stigma of how ‘they’ see ‘us’ does play out.’
In Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Ali may be essaying the most common role in Western media for Arab or Muslim actors – an Islamic activist – but for Ali, it has been his most invigorating experience yet. Pitted against John Krasinski, he portrays a character with a brilliant mind and a broken heart, which is nearly unheard of in Western cinema considering who he represents. ‘This is what got me, the first scene of the show, where Suleiman [Ali’s character] is a dreamy child in a village in Lebanon, which is bombed,’ he says. ‘This back story is the pivot of the show, which automatically leads you to sympathise instead of hate.
‘If I don’t bring my background to this experience, I will not survive [as an actor]. It is my responsibility, also, to show the other side to us.’
Preparation for the series, however, was not easy for Ali because he didn’t really have too many books to refer to. He studied economics briefly as well as French to appear more authentic and real; he delved deep into the psyche of the man he was about to become, who only wanted according to Ali, to be accepted free from the shackles of his past. ‘It’s a human story and sometimes, you really, deeply sympathise with him,’ says Ali. ‘There’s more than one colour to our lives; we have so many colours, so much to say. There’s always more than just one statement to make.’
However much he wants to capture a variety of characters working as an actor, Ali’s choices are also deeply affected by his beliefs and politics. This busts the myth that actors are actors, so they should be able to become whoever is written of. But having led a not-so-easy life in a region mired in conflict and a country that continues to suffer extreme misery developed in him a few non-negotiable perspectives. For instance, he counts himself lucky to have let go of an acclaimed Netflix series because of how it represents Palestine. ‘It remains very conflictual for me, because everything in it is very skewed.’
Politics aside, working with four directors on just one show – as is the norm in Western productions – was also a distinctive experience for Ali. ‘It was very new for me and not easy to prepare for,’ he says. ‘I learned that as the actor [and the constant on the show] I am the centre and everyone else is working for you, in a sense. Your input, your idea of character, its trajectory – it’s all on you.’
With the explosion of content across the world and uncharted opportunities, Ali is excited about all that he can do. ‘Online platforms especially are helping a great deal for the region to open up,’ he says. ‘It feels like media changed overnight as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon came in; the climb has been dazzlingly fast. But there’s also the flip side, such as people aren’t going to the cinema as much anymore.’
Ali seems to be one among these people, preferring to binge-watch Game of Thrones, Vikings, Orange is the New Black, Marco Polo, etc. But who can blame him, considering the amount of work he’s doing? He’s primed to start work on a Lebanese film, after which he’s moving to a Palestinian film. Ali is also excited about The Escape and how the world receives it.
But for now he’s enjoying a break, celebrating the birth of his third child and spending time with his family after a lengthy period away. For Ali, this is the crowning glory of 2018. Where does his mind wander, though? ‘My kids… the fact that I brought them into this scary world,’ he says, genuinely sounding anxious, only momentarily. It is this, I realise – being rooted in the ordinary everyday experience of being a person with real fears, desires and unconditional love – that gives Ali such power as a performer. This, which will take him to the pinnacle he is striving to reach.