Why it matters that FX’s ‘Tyrant’ didn't cast a Middle Eastern actor in its lead role
In reviews, podcasts and tweets, it has become common in recent years for me to lament the influx of British and Australian actors masquerading as Americans, all perpetrating the same flat, generic accents as if Americans all come from the same state, which is no state at all, but rather some nether-region dialect coaches call Mid-Atlantic or something.
I take semi-feigned umbrage at this infiltration and I am, indeed, a bit irked that a good 75 percent of the Brits and Aussies are trapped by exhaustively studied, but ultimately affectless accent work that leads them to give robotic performances they'd never tolerate from themselves in their native tongues.
Yes, I get my hackles up, but I know it isn't actually important.
The rise in work for Aussie and British actors is largely linked to the expanding TV universe, and even if this most recent upfronts season saw an encouraging uptick in TV shows with African-American leading characters, I think we can all look at the TV landscape and agree that in the multi-billion year history of our Earth, this is probably the greatest time in history to be a Caucasian man looking for TV work.
That's why when I see people earnestly complain -- Not many people... Trolls, mostly -- that they can't watch "Orange Is The New Black" because it's anti-male and the men are all one-dimensional, I get caught in a giggle loop that can last for minutes at a time.
The thing about white male representation on TV is that if you accidentally find one show in which the white guys are douches, you probably don't want to complain about it, because there are the other 100 shows out there. Whiteness on TV is represented in all of its myriad shadings. Sometimes white guys are heroes. Sometimes white guys are villains. There are gay white guys and straight white guys and white guys in every imaginable profession.
Other than fact-based based projects about actual, verifiable white people, it is never incumbent upon a film or TV show to "cast white," because if you don't cast a white guy in one project, you can safely guarantee that the next project with a potentially Caucasian lead will be right around the corner and Hollywood is far more committed to the quest for square-jawed white guys than geologists are to finding petroleum or astronomers are to finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
Now, though, I want you to look across the TV landscape for depictions of Middle Eastern men. You'll find them. They're not totally invisible. They're largely terrorists or characters who get confused with terrorists and try to be heroic in order to disprove stereotypes. Not all, but mostly. There are a handful of Middle Eastern cast regulars on procedurals and whatnot. They're out there. A few. It's not a particularly diverse set of representations, but they exist.
Now, though, look across the TV landscape for shows in which the unquestioned lead, the top-of-the-call-sheet role, is written specifically for a male (or female, for that matter) of Middle Eastern heritage.
That, friends, is why it is important that FX is premiering a new drama on Tuesday night in which the main character is an assimilated Middle Eastern man who leaves behind his life in the West and returns to the fictional nation ruled by his family.
At least as a log-line, the part of Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed in FX's "Tyrant" may not be unprecedented, but it represents a big enough deviation from the Hollywood norm and from the mainstream TV norm that it's notable and worth discussion.
And that's why it's not an insignificant problem that this role, this trailblazing step in Middle Eastern representation is being played by Adam Rayner, an English-born actor who is half-British, half-American and not Middle Eastern in the slightest.
At TCA press tour in January, Rayner was asked about his racial makeup and agreed that he was, indeed, a white male.
"I think we can all agree that if you are having to radically, physically transform someone to play a different race or ethnicity, that doesn’t fly anymore," Rayner agreed. "But we’re not changing my appearance in any way. My mother in the show is English if you want some kind of explanation for what I look like. And, of course, as was mentioned before, you know, people like the Alawites and communities like that could easily look how I do. But basically, I would agree that it’s completely unacceptable to radically transform someone along racial and ethnic lines, but we’re not having to do that so it seems like it’s okay."
In "Tyrant," Al-Fayeed's mother is, indeed, played by Alice Krige. That the potentate of a fictional Middle Eastern country was married to a white woman and had multiple children with her seems like something at least semi-worthy of discussion to me, but it's never addressed in the first four episodes of "Tyrant." Her mere presence is mostly an excuse for allowing Adam Rayner to play Bassam Al-Fayeed, as if casting an actor with no Middle Eastern heritage in TV's only top-of-the-call-sheet Middle Eastern role would be bad, but casting an actor with no Middle Eastern heritage in TV's only top-of-the-call-sheet *half* Middle Eastern role is totally halal. Adam Rayner is absolutely one step closer to being half Middle Eastern than he is to being wholly Middle Eastern and I guess it's your prerogative if that makes a difference. Half Middle Eastern representations also aren't so frequent on TV in major roles and just as you either are or aren't Middle Eastern, you either are or aren't half Middle Eastern.
The thing that Rayner and the "Tyrant" producers seem to be saying -- Rayner more literally at press tour -- is that because he isn't technically in brownface, the casting isn't a problem. Rayner doesn't require embellishment -- I'm not so convinced on this, but lighting and facial hair are powerful things, so I'll give the "Tyrant" team the benefit of the doubt that a marginally different shade of foundation isn't being used -- and therefore he can pass as Middle Eastern.
"Passing" is something that typically works that other way. The member of a non-hegemonic group with the capacity to integrate into a hegemonic group might change a name or put aside racial or ethnographic signifiers in order to pass. It is, in fact, the prelude to the story of "Tyrant," in which Bassam has become "Barry" and he attempts to go through life without people knowing that his family runs a fictional Middle Eastern nation. He denies his name, but he doesn't need to deny his race because, as you may have already heard, Adam Rayner isn't Middle Eastern and he looks no more or less Middle Eastern than he looks Latino or Mediterranean. Would there be protests if Adam Rayner played Zorba the Greek today? I'm not sure. But would there be protests if he played Che Guevara? Well, yes. Latino advocacy groups are loud and proud and FX wouldn't have dared run afoul of those groups by casting a British actor in the lead role of Jorge "George" Sanchez, son of a banana republic dictator in the new drama "El Jefe." That might have happened 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, but it wouldn't happen today.
And the "Tyrant" team really did know better. In Lacey Rose's excellent Hollywood Reporter story on the drama's behind-the-scenes struggles, she says that "the producers wanted an actor who looked more authentically Middle Eastern," a search that led to the rejection of names like Dominic West. Other actors, including the legitimately half Middle Eastern Tony nominee Omar Metwally were passed over because of questions about his ability to carry a show. It was only as production on the pilot neared that producers had to broaden their search to include people who looked plausibly Middle Eastern without actually being Middle Eastern.
Both at press tour and in Rose's story, producers hail Rayner's resemblance to Ashraf Barhom, the Israeli-Arab actor who plays Barry's brother Jamal, and also to the Moroccan actor who plays Young Bassam. Let's leave aside that this is only sort of true. We can quibble over whether Young Bassam's look is Middle Eastern or North African and whether that's a distinction we want to get into at this moment, but he looks ethnically specific in a way that Rayner does not. Similarly, while Rayner and Barhom absolutely share a common genetic disposition towards handsome angularity, one looks like Adam Rayner and one looks like an Arab-Israeli Adam Rayner. Given his apparent resemblance to Adam Rayner, I'll let Ashraf Barhom talk about how often Hollywood lets him audition for roles written for British guys with non-ethnic last names, because apparently that market should be wide open to him. But sarcasm aside, when the best defense for your white-washed casting is that the actor you cast resembles other actors who actually fit the ethnic requirement, you may want to stop and pause and wonder if, indeed, you exhausted the available resources of Middle Eastern actors.
And keep in mind that Middle Eastern in this case can mean literally anything in practically an entire hemisphere. Abbudin is the most generic of Middle Eastern nations. "Tyrant" executive producer Howard Gordon made a career of fictionalizing vaguely sketched adversarial Middle Eastern nations on "24" and this is one of those, only we actually have to spend time in it. In the real world, Saudis are ethnographically different from Jordanians are ethnographically different from Syrians are ethnographically different from Egyptians are ethnographically different from Libyans, Iranians, Iraqis, etc. This was not a concern on "Tyrant," where Abbudin is a simmering crock pot of Middle Eastern cliches. Bassam Al-Fayeed could have been played by an actor who was entirely or half from any one of those countries, or whose parents or grandparents were entirely or partially from any of those countries. We span the globe looking for white guys to play white guys, but the "Tyrant" team hit a wall when it came to the quest for Middle Eastern actors who might want to be the lead in a major cable television show.
That has to be it, right? There literally must not be enough Middle Eastern actors out there, right?
Oddly, however, Gordon has never lacked for Middle Easterners to serve as obstacles for Jack Bauer, nor strawman Middle Easterners to serve as potential suspects for Jack Bauer, only to eventually martyr themselves in the name of proving their innocence and nobility. And "Homeland" has also been awash in legitimately Middle Eastern terrorism threats, as well as the occasional red herring.
And credit has to be given where it's due: "Tyrant" is awash in actors with all manner of Middle Eastern backgrounds including Barhom, Labanese-born, Sweden-raised Fares Fares, Israel-born, Italian-trained Moran Atias, Belgian-born Mehdi Dehbi and many more. The producers seem to have looked far and wide, finding actors to their specifications to fill every role except for the most important one, before giving up on finding a Middle Eastern actor capable of carrying a TV show.
Yes, Israel has a thriving TV industry that American networks are regularly raiding for formats, including "Hatufim," from Gideon Raff, who created "Tyrant," but didn't continue with the show. Surely there are Israeli actors carrying those shows? Most Israeli actors can speak English fluently, but maybe "Tyrant" didn't want to open the door for additional controversy by casting an Israeli lead in a show that was already filming in Israel, but masquerading as a generic Middle Eastern country? Iran has one of the great thriving communities in international cinema, but maybe none of those actors could speak English? Again, I don't know. And one can only assume that somebody determined Fares Fares doesn't look enough like a TV star, because with "Zero Dark Thirty," "Safe House" and the Swedish smash "Snabba Cash" films, his resume is intriguing.
But it wasn't as if FX turned around and cast a white actor with a proven TV track record. This goes back to the Dominic West concern: If you cast an actor who is too recognizably non-Middle Eastern, they no longer have the capacity to pass. Would all concerns be alleviated if Rayner were a gripping leading man? The honest answer? Maybe. At press tour, producers insisted they just cast the best actor for the role, which ignores the time they spent trying to cast a Middle Eastern actor because "the role" happens to be Middle Eastern. But Rayner is, unfortunately, average at best. In the pilot, which has intimations of character complexity, Rayner is forgettable most of the time, but becomes a bit more interesting in later moments of darkness. In subsequent episodes, all edges have been sanded away from the character and Rayner ceases to add anything and becomes blander along with the show.
If Rayner were giving a performance that felt revelatory, at least you could take the "best actor for the role" cliché -- ignoring, once again, that "the role" is a half-Arab character and a half-Arab character meant to be at least several years older than Rayner's 36 -- at its word and Middle Eastern actors could have said, "Damn. This is the probably the most substantive major TV role available in my lifetime and I genuinely don't know the next time a casting sheet will read '40-year-old Arab family man' for a lead role and they gave it to a white guy. Oh well. At least he's giving a tremendous performance." Instead, the message is, "This guy who you've probably never heard of before is the wrong age for the part and the wrong ethnicity for the part and he's only kinda OK. And we still went with him over every available actor actually fitting the description."
I would think that would hurt.
I would also think it might hurt that, according to Rose's story, even after the pilot, FX execs needed more assurances that Rayner was capable of carrying the show and they shot a couple additional scenes, not even scenes for the show, just to see what Rayner could handle.
The issue here is one of priorities. Everybody involved knew they wanted to cast the show correctly, honoring the Middle Eastern lead role by not casting somebody who could merely pass. Then when they couldn't, though, that became a secondary priority to making the show, as if "Tyrant" is some great masterpiece that needed to be made and needed to be made this year. Nobody wanted to say, "Let's wait until we absolutely get this right," which is what happens all the time when TV shows are given "cast contingent" orders. A "cast contingent" order says, "If you get the right guy for this show, we'll make your pilot."
Story seems to have been king on "Tyrant," which is weird since as you'll see if you watch "Tyrant" beyond the pilot, nobody associated with the show knew what the show was. There is a lack of focus to later episodes of "Tyrant" that I can't believe the creative forces at FX weren't aware of. The pilot for "Tyrant" is packed with cliches, but it has enough moral ambiguity and potential for intrigue that I resisted tweeting or writing anything negative about the show after watching it in January because I wanted to give it the chance to find its footing. After seeing four episodes I feel no such compunctions.
Adam Rayner does not make "Tyrant" worse. I need to make that clear. He isn't capable of elevating flat material, but he doesn't diminish it. But although Rayner's performance doesn't hurt "Tyrant," the white-washing of the main character only serves to underline the condescending and vaguely paternalistic tone of the entire show.
"Tyrant" is a world of one-dimensionally noble revolutionaries and one-dimensionally savage rulers. The leading man's not-quite-Middle Easternness throws the drama out of synch, since he's always right and the native characters, at least the ones in power, are pretty much always wrong. With an almost Will McAvoy-esque sense of certitude, Barry is somehow the only person in the palace aware of the Arab Spring and the ebb and flow of history, while everybody else just wants to hang dissidents in the street, much to Barry's very Westernized horror. Even if Barry were played by a Middle Eastern actor, there would still be the condescension inherent in the Westernized character returning home to judge, condemn and educate his "barbaric" relatives, but having a Caucasian actor in the role only makes the Whitesplaining worse.
For three straight episodes, the rhythms are identical: Barry sees or hears about something the government is doing and expresses shock and indignation. One or two of the generals or advisors offer half-hearted defenses. Barry stands by his moral righteousness. Guess who's gonna be proven correct? Barry Al-Fayeed is the Jiminy Cricket to the nation's ruling brutes and when he has any doubts, he has his own Jiminy Cricket back home in his wife, always ready to clear Barry's head and restore his equilibrium. It's a good thing that, through four episodes, she has yet to be wrong, because you probably can't find an actress much lighter than Jennifer Finnigan.
And none of that would be any better if Omar Metwally were playing Bassam Al-Fayeed. "Tyrant" is ultimately a bad show because it's a bad show and not because they cast a white actor in the lead role and expect you to think that's OK on the basis of his superficial resemblance to Middle Easter and North African actors. That's just why it's problematic and why anybody telling you that it doesn't matter is incorrect.
So what should the "Tyrant" have done? This is simple and it's not the way TV is made, but so much the poorer.
It starts with this: If you have a show with a Middle Eastern main character, it's probably important to have a Middle Eastern actor in the lead role. Right? Right. And if you think it's important to have a Middle Eastern actor in the lead role, cast a Middle Eastern actor in the lead role. If you cannot immediately find a Middle Eastern actor for the lead role... Try harder. If you still cannot find a Middle Eastern actor for the lead role, pause and reflect on the message you're sending both to Middle Eastern actors, but also to people of Middle Eastern descent and then try even harder. Maybe during that time, you can also make sure that your creator and your showrunners are on the same page and that the pilot you're ordering is related to the show it will become. And if you still cannot find a Middle Eastern actor for the lead of your show? Don't make the show because... Let's return to Point A: You once thought it was important to cast a Middle Eastern actor in the lead role and you were right.
"Tyrant" premieres on Tuesday, June 24 on FX.