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Meet Baghdad Central star Waleed Zuaiter – the new ‘Morse of the Middle East’

29 January 2020

Waleed Zuaiter can remember the precise day he was “catapulted into adulthood”, as he puts it. It was Thursday 2nd August 1990, and Zuaiter, then 19, was in Kuwait for his brother’s engagement party with his parents and 93-year-old grandmother. Born in California, from the ages of 5 to 19 he was raised in the tiny Middle Eastern state, where his Palestinian father worked in finance, before he returned to the US to attend university.

“Growing up in Kuwait, it was one of the most secure, wealthy countries in the Middle East, it was perfectly peaceful, ” the actor says today. That summer in 1990, there had been fearful rumblings that Saddam Hussein might be plotting an invasion from neighbouring Iraq. In August, those fears were brutally realised.

“I looked out of the window and there were Iraqi tanks right outside, it was so surreal. I speak fluent Arabic so I went out and spoke to the soldiers. Most of them had no idea what they were even doing there.”

Knowing they were to be at best evicted, Zuaiter and family fled to Jordan, the nearest open border, over three gruelling days. They slept for a few hours each night on his father’s Persian carpets, and saw the horrors of war all around them.

‘“Seeing death’ is the best way to describe it,” he says. “I remember very specifically that there was a family who didn’t have time to bury a child who’d died from dehydration, so it just looked like they threw a dead baby out of their car. It was horrifying to the point where you wonder if it was an illusion. I really lost my innocence then.”

The story is remarkable enough on its own, but the situation in which Zuaiter tells it today makes it all the more so. Now a chiselled and silvering 49-year-old, he sits in a crisp grey suit in a central London hotel, where he’s promoting Baghdad Central, a new six-part Channel 4 detective drama set in Iraq, in which he plays the heroic lead.

Described as ‘Morse of the Middle East’ and co-starring Doctor Foster’s Bertie Carvel, Zuaiter steps into the role of Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji, a world-weary, demoralised ex-policeman supporting his daughters after the fall of Saddam in 2003.

Zuaiter has been an actor in the US for decades, with credits including HomelandPrison Break and House of Cards among dozens of other credits, but Baghdad Central marks his first time leading a series.

“I figured I could bring some detail and authenticity to the role,” he says, with a smile of understatement. “The setting is foreign but the show really doesn’t feel it, because so much of what goes on is familiar. This is the kind of role I’ve always wanted to play, and I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more of these opportunities.”

But he almost didn’t take it. When the role was pitched to him two years ago, Zuaiter’s father had recently died, sending him into “a hole of depression” which he couldn’t shake.

“I was in a weird state of mind, with a very negative filter. I heard about it and just thought, ‘ugh, another accented Middle Eastern role’ – which I’d been trying to break out of because in the States they’re a little narrow-minded when it comes to casting those. But I read it a second time and just thought, ‘wow’. It really resonated.”

As an American actor of Middle Eastern descent, for several years Zuaiter struggled to find parts that didn’t involve a negative, stereotypical portrayal of people from the region. After 9/11, he was made to promise his father – who was never particularly approving of his decision to go into acting, especially as Zuaiter’s brothers went into finance, working for George Soros – that he’d never play a terrorist. It wasn’t easy, he says, “when all the roles involved something like being the leader of Isis in the US.”

“My first TV gig was an episode of Law and Order, where I played a guy in a sleeper cell who literally grabs a box cutter when the police come for him. I remember turning down a few things because I was so angry.”

Around the same time Zuaiter was in Kuwait in 1990, Joana – who has Lebanese, Scottish and Fijian ancestry – was in the region too, with her mother and grandmother. Unable to get out, the three women were eventually taken to Baghdad and held in a hotel with more than a dozen mainly British families. It was from there that Hussein made an infamous television appearance, explaining that they were being kept in order to prevent war.

Footage of the dictator ruffling one terrified-looking child’s hair went around the world. Joana, who was eventually released and made it to the UK as the last group of foreigners out of Iraq, was one of the hostages standing behind him.

“Yeah that’s funny – well, now it seems it, but at the time they were all worried about worst-case scenarios. Her mother even cut Joana’s hair really short and put a pillow under her shirt, to disguise the fact she was a girl, as she feared what might happen to her. They were terrified.”

Given recent global events, Zuaiter worries for the immediate future of the Middle East. “I fear things could get worse again, unfortunately. We say it in the show, but this is the cradle of civilisation, Iraq, Syria, Iran. Civilisation then spread to the rest of the world but the irony is that conflict is always coming back to that region, which I find so sad,” he says.

“People in the US are confused by what’s going on. But as somebody who’s been in the States for a while, it seems like it’s a war machine. Like every 10 years or so there has to be a war.”

He intends to play his part in an image change. Now that television executives have seemingly investigated every crime in Scandinavia, Baghdad Central, which is based on a novel of the same name by US author Elliot Cola, is arguably the first ‘Middle Eastern noir’. It was part of the appeal for Zuaiter: telling a universal whodunnit story that just so happens to be set in Iraq, and shows how similar, rather than different, the Middle East is from the West. After enough drama in his own life, TV’s newest detective can’t wait to tell it.

Love/Hate stars return for RTE murder series Dublin Murders

18 June 2019

RTE’s new big-budget crime series based on the hit novels of author Tana French will hit TV screens in the autumn and run for eight episodes.

Tipped to become one of the key highlights of its autumn/winter 2019 schedule, Dublin Murders has been filmed on the streets of Dublin and will star Killian Scott and Sarah Greene.

It will see Scott reuniting with his former Love/Hate co-star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, alongside Moe Dunford, Ian Kenny and Eugene O’Hare.

Set during the height of the economic boom, Scott takes on the role of Detective Rob Reilly, who has partnered up with Detective Cassie Maddox, played by Greene.

Based on the first two books of French’s Dublin Murder Squad series and adapted for the screen by Sarah Phelps, the detectives are tasked with solving the murders of two seemingly unconnected women.

One of the victims is a talented young ballerina, while the other is a vivacious, free-spirited woman who is found stabbed in a derelict famine cottage.

Co-produced with the BBC and US TV network Starz, the show is described as a “dark psychological mystery with a tap root that drops deep down into Ireland’s past, foreshadows the future and brings insight to its present”.

“This series, set during the height of the Celtic Tiger financial boom of the millennium, will focus on two murder investigations led by ambitious and charismatic detectives Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox,” said the BBC.

Speaking about his new role, Scott said: “Sarah Phelps has beautifully adapted Tana French’s compelling novels into a complex and dark exploration of memory, identity and the potentially devastating consequences of pursuing truth.”

Greene said that the writing was “brilliant and dark”.

“It’s thrilling to give Tana French’s words a new life on screen through the wonderful Sarah Phelps,” she said.

Dublin company Element Pictures has also come on board with the production, which is currently available for sponsorship with RTE for its eight-episode run.

Directed by Saul Dibb, the series will focus on French’s first two books In The Woods and The Likeness.

Variety: Stephen Butchard talks Baghdad Central at Series Mania

18 June 2019

The first scene of Channel 4’s upcoming “Baghdad Central,” created and written by Stephen Butchard and lead-directed by Alice Troughton, captures, with a jolt, the hectic hubbub of an ordinary street scene in Baghdad: One man fixes a container, banging it rhythmically as if it were a drum; there’s the table of street conversation, a car tooting, people throwing a dice, a woman selling fruit.

Produced by Fremantle’s Euston Films and sold by Fremantle, “Baghdad Central” surprises in other ways. Apart from a brief prelude, it unspools from November 2003, when Baghdad has fallen to Coalition forces, but is told majorly from the point of view of normal occupied Iraqis, especially former inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter, “Omar,” “Altered Carbon”) of the Iraqi police, once an upright respected cop, and his two daughters, the gravely ill Mrouj (July Namir, “Homeland,” “Collateral”) and the estranged Sawsan (Leem Lubany, “Omar,” “Condor”).

When Sansaw goes missing, Khafali begins to suspect she has joined the resistance. Offered a job as police by Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel, “Jonathan Strange”), an ex-British cop working for the Coalition, Khafaji accepts in order to get Green Zone medical treatment for Mrouj and also get to Sawsan before Coalition forces do.

With the wound daily tension of a mafia movie – as a collaborator, Khafali could be shot at any moment – “Baghdad Central” builds very fast into a survival thriller set in a foreign land, and told from an unusual POV, but utterly relatable as human drama. And Khafaji emerges as a hero for the times.

Kate Harwood, Butchard and Troughton serve as executive producers, Jonathan Curling (“The Secret”) as producer.

Variety talked to BAFTA-nominated Butchard (“The Last Kingdom,” “House of Saddam”) before the series’ world premiere in main International Competition at Series Mania:

My impression is that you wanted to create a series which was totally foreign in setting and main protagonists, Khafaji and  Mrouj, and totally relatable in its backbone: Khafaji’s battle to save his daughters, whatever it takes. Could you comment?

I think your impression is absolutely correct – what make this story universal or international is that at its core, is the relationship between and the love of a father for his daughters. His daughters are in danger and therefore he must and will do everything in his power to help them, in this case, survive. The backdrop of Iraq in 2003 adds a real and constant danger, as well as a political and global event that has rarely been explored from the viewpoint of an ordinary family; this adds texture, intrigue, suspense and of course threat – but the family remain front and centre.

“Baghdad Central” soon emerges as a portrait of Khafaji, described by Kate Harwood as “a hero for the modern age.” Would you agree with Kate?

I certainly wouldn’t disagree with Kate – she’s far too bright and clever. For me, Khafaji’s heroism evolves, he doesn’t choose to be a hero, and the only world he wishes to changes is that of his family; there is simply no avoiding the danger and hurdles that present themselves. Because he is a father, he has no choice but to take risks and keep on moving forward – but as he moves forward, he grows, facing and overcoming the dangers make him stronger, more determined and indeed he comes to realize that he should have been much braver in the past.

Set in a world which seems to be falling apart, and whose rulers are absurd,”Baghdad Central” appears to capture a broad contemporary zeitgeist. But would you agree?

I think there is a contemporary resonance; we tend to believe (or rather hope) that our leaders are smarter than us and act in our best interests – but sadly and too often, that isn’t the case. The ordinary man and woman do not give themselves enough credit – if our elected leaders behaved with the same integrity, loyalty, compassion, truthfulness and commitment of say a parent… I would envision a totally different political landscape. Unfortunately, hubris takes a role and power corrupts to a greater or lesser degree. We see this across the world and today is no different.

The series also comes in at the invasion from the POV of Iraqis who are portrayed as far more cultured than most Coalition members. Wanting to secure Iraq, the Coalition has no idea or even desire to win the hearts of its people. The music brings out a note of absurdity. Could you comment?

Yes, we see things from an Iraqi perspective – but that perspective is also familiar and grounded because it is a family’s perspective. To date, we have predominantly seen these events through the prism of politicians, soldiers and journalists, but rarely (if at all) from the POV of an ordinary family: a family that must live every minute with the consequences of the war; they must survive. What was important, was to identified and show that the love and fractures within this family are no different to the love and fractures within families worldwide – Khafaji and his daughters are us. It is the world in which they exist that changes, and as that world begins to change, as they are confronted by threat, danger and a loss of hope – as the promised liberation becomes an apparent occupation – the family too begin to change and react; rebel.

As for the Coalition personnel, the vast majority of actual boots-on-the-ground men and women, as individuals, were not absurd at all, they were predominantly professional people tasked with an impossible job. Like the Iraqis, they were failed by their leaders – who were confident of winning a fight, but had little idea how to win the peace, keep the peace or even who to trust. War, by its nature, brings fear and barbarity; but in Captain Parodi, it is important that we show a good man doing his very best by the men under his command AND the Iraqi people. He too, however, is sucked into the murky world of grey and is faced with the choice of duty and justice.

The score, I think, is brilliant and clever, evoking game-playing, intrigue and agenda’s… a “trust no-one” vibe; nothing is as it seems!

What were the main challenge of adapting Elliott Colla’s novel into a six-part series. 

Elliot’s novel was a beautiful, thoughtful inspiration. The series is derivative from the novel, but not an adaptation. The challenge in creating the series was the eternal challenge of finding a truthful and gripping story and ensuring that story is told through characters we believe in.

When will “Baghdad Central” air after Series Mania and will it air or be released elsewhere, outside the U.K.?

U.K. transmission date is in the hands of Channel 4 – whose support for the project has been quite magnificent.

CASTING ANNOUNCED FOR BAGHDAD CENTRAL

26 September 2018

 

Waleed Zuaiter, Bertie Carvel, Clara Khoury, Leem Lubany, Neil Maskell and Corey Stoll join an international cast for Channel 4’s new six-part crime series, Baghdad Central, written and created by BAFTA-nominated writer Stephen Butchard (The Last Kingdom, House of Saddam) based on the novel by Elliott Colla. Production has begun in Morocco.

Charlotte Spencer, July Namir, Tawfeek Barhom, Youssef Kerkour, Hisham Suleiman, Nora El Koussour and Maisa Abd Elhadi round out the cast

October 2003 and Baghdad has been occupied by American forces for six months; but the disbandment of the Iraqi army, the police and civil leadership in the aftermath of the invasion means there is no one in charge and no effective rule of law.

In the midst of this chaos, crime and paranoia, Iraqi ex-policeman Muhsin al-Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter; Omar, Altered Carbon) has lost everything and is battling daily to keep himself and his sick daughter, Mrouj (July Namir ; Homeland, Collateral), safe. But when he learns that his estranged elder daughter Sawsan (Leem Lubany; Omar, Condor) is missing Khafaji is forced into a desperate search to find her. He soon finds himself up against her enigmatic university tutor, Professor Zubeida Rashid (Clara Khoury, Homeland) and discovers that Sawsan and her two close friends Sanaa (Nora El Koussour; Layla M) and Zahra ( Maisa Abd Elhadi; Tel Aviv on Fire, The State) have been leading a hidden life that’s led them into great danger.

Khafaji feels powerless until he meets Frank Temple, an ex Police Officer played by double Olivier Award-winner Bertie Carvel (Dr Foster, Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell) who has arrived from Britain on a mission to rebuild the Iraqi Police Force from the ground up.

Temple recruits ex-cop Khafaji to give his operation some much-needed local credibility. But unbeknown to both Temple and his nemesis, upstanding American Military Police Captain John Parodi, played by Golden Globe-nominated Corey Stoll (House of Cards, First Man), Khafaji is compelled by his own, secret reasons to risk everything by collaborating with the occupying forces. Meanwhile a new threat represented by security op Douglas Evans (Neil Maskell; Humans, Utopia) provides a terrifying and sinister counterforce to his efforts.

Khafaji quickly discovers that Sawsan’s disappearance is linked to the murder of an American employee and so entwines himself in that investigation to uncover the truth about what has happened to his daughter and her friends. But, as the addictive, thrilling world of Baghdad Central unfolds, he soon finds himself embarking on a wider quest for justice in a society that’s become truly lawless.

Baghdad Central (6×60) was commissioned for Channel 4 by Beth Willis, Head of Drama with Commissioning Editor Manpreet Dosanjh and Commissioning Executive Jonny Richards. The series is produced by Euston Films (part of FremantleMedia UK).

Executive Producers Kate Harwood, Stephen Butchard and Alice Troughton.

Producer is Jonathan Curling (The Secret). FremantleMedia International will act as the global distributor for the series.

Alice Troughton (Doctor Who, Tin Star, A Discovery of Witches) is lead director and BAFTA-nominated Ben A. Williams (Humans, The Pass) will direct the second block of filming.

“LUTHER” CREATOR NEIL CROSS SIGNS OVERALL DEAL WITH FREMANTLEMEDIA

19 December 2017

EXCLUSIVE: Luther creator Neil Cross has struck an exclusive overall deal with FremantleMedia. I hear that Cross, who has just finished the first season of BBC One and Hulu “pre-apocalyptic” crime drama Hard Sun with FremantleMedia-owned Euston Films, will be focused on producing series for U.S. and UK broadcasters.

The multi-year deal will see Cross work with Euston Films, established by former BBC drama exec Kate Harwood, and FremantleMedia North America, overseen by scripted chief Dante Di Loreto. FremantleMedia International will distribute Cross-penned titles to the global market.
It is the latest high-profile drama deal signed by the RTL-owned producer and distributor following a deal with American Gods creator Neil Gaiman (I understand it was signed before the Starz series lost showrunners Michael Green and Bryan Fuller).

Cross’ Hard Sun is set to launch in the new year. The series stars Agyness Deyn as Detective Inspector Elaine Renko and Jim Sturgess Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Hicks. The show follows the pair as they investigate the death of a hacker in London before stumbling on proof that the world is ending in five years. He told Deadline that the deal came off the back of the big-budget series. “FremantleMedia trusted me to go ahead and make this strange thing,” he said.
Cross previously created NBC’s John Malkovich-fronted drama Crossbones and had a two-year deal with Universal Pictures from 2012.

Euston Films Managing Director Harwood called Cross “one of the greatest storytellers in the industry” and was looking forward to creating more “distinctive” dramas. “He has an extraordinary ability in creating engaging and ambitious ideas with complex characters that audiences around the world have come to love.”
Di Loreto, President of Scripted Entertainment at FMNA, told Deadline that Cross was “one of the most articulate and passionate creators I’ve met.”

“It’s incredibly challenging to make a TV show and if you do it right it can be a long relationship so you want to make sure you’re doing it with someone who is passionate. You want to be selective about those people you’re choosing to work with and lead them get on with their creative vision,” he said.
Di Loreto said that the pair were already working on a couple of shows that it expects to reveal in early 2018. “Some projects are original works and some are adaptations but they all feature complex characters,” he added.
The former Chernin Entertainment President of Television, who worked on series including Glee and American Horror Story, also opened up about FMNA’s drama drive. He added that it is adapting more Gaiman-penned works for the U.S. markets, while the English author and comic book writer is also understood to be adapting other people’s works for the small screen.

 

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