The chances are good that you’ve seen Alexander Siddig many times before. From 24 to Syriana to Deep Space Nine, the Sudanese actor (who was raised in England) is one of the more recognizable character actors around, even if you don’t know his name. That should change with Cairo Time, a wistful and wonderful romance opening this week (think grown-up Lost in Translation). Mr. Siddig stars alongside Patricia Clarkson in the film and spoke to the Observer about what it was like to work with the luminous Ms. Clarkson, how he feels about typecasting and why Cairo Time is such a throwback.
The chemistry you have with Patricia Clarkson in the film is so incredible. Had you known her before Cairo Time?
I knew her by name – who wouldn’t? – but I didn’t know her work. I hadn’t seen The Station Agent or any of the other amazing films she had done. I don’t think she had seen anything I had ever done. We jumped right into the deep end. We filmed one of the most crucial scenes in the movie first. (Laughs) We just took off. She just takes your breath away – there’s something about her, the way she looks. It’s like she has some deep wisdom attached to her face. That immediately captivated me, I immediately knew – I think people call it old souls. But people like myself call it intelligence all over her face. [Laughs]
Were you relieved to have such an immediate connection? The movie completely relies on your relationship.
If we didn’t have that connection, the movie would have ceased to exist. It hangs by a thread as it is. It is so fragile in the sense that it is a personal document that you just can’t repeat. I just swam in Patricia’s presence. It was that free, it was that wonderful.
Once you realized the chemistry, was the script tailored to that growing bond?
Ruba Nadda [the director] was on that – she’s a very tough cookie. She doesn’t seem like it. She comes across, she’s very chatty, enthusiastic and youthful and she doesn’t parade around her intellect. She’s like a friend; someone you know. And then once on set, she’s marshalling the troops. She’s doing all the things you need to do to relax as an actor. She does say, “This scene isn’t working; can you give me an idea of what to do?” As an actor that’s great to be part of the process. OK, let’s do this. One of the very first scenes we shot was one occasion when Ruba turned and said that it wasn’t working – whether it’s the dialogue or something else. She wasn’t getting it. We took a moment and sat behind the camera and stripped all the words out of the scene, did it without words. That sort of thing very rarely happened, but it did happen the very first day. (Laughs) From that moment on, we all knew where we were and we were running.
Would you work with Ms. Clarkson away from the shoot to really hone things?
I couldn’t wait to get upstairs after shooting, where I knew Patricia would be learning her lines for the next day. I’d order some tabbouleh and talk to this fine woman to find out who she was. It was massive, ongoing improvisation off the set to learn who each were and to explore each other. She was really generous.
You’ve done a ton of varied roles, but never a romance like this. Was it something you were actively looking for?
I would have given my eyeteeth to play a romantic lead. Within ten minutes of being offered that role, I took it. I had no idea it was coming. I had massive aspirations to do that but I never thought anyone would offer it to me. I knew that I was an Arab man in a Western world. I have played all kinds of other things, but recently my identity has morphed into an Arab character. So it was a shocking and wonderful surprise – and even more shocking and humbling that Ruba had seen me before in something and written it with me in mind.
Was that difficult – knowing that it was written for you, did it put more pressure on you to perform?
She told me one thing – she gave me one piece of direction before the film: “I based this on my father.” And I knew the way she said that and in her eyes, how she felt about her father. That’s a massive tower in her life. That was a book to me – it was really all the information I needed. It’s a male fantasy: How good a father can you come up with? How can you stand up to a guy you never met? That was the challenge. Not that I felt I couldn’t do it, I just got really humbled by it.
You mentioned before that you’ve played a lot of Arab characters recently. Does that frustrate you at all? Do you feel boxed in as a performer?
I asked for work and it came. And it came in buckets. So, no: I’m very grateful for that. When people say they feel typecast, it doesn’t exist. You are who you are and take it or leave it. You play to your strengths. I’m very lucky – I do get to participate in great projects more often than not. Partly because I’m in a little niche that is being thoroughly explored right now.
But did you relish the opportunity to play something so different?
I had an opportunity to present to the world a real, refreshing person that they really haven’t seen for a very long time – even if you weren’t an Arab – since like James Stewart or something. This really dignified upright guy. I knew I had a chance to show audiences a new person they never met before. The fact that he was Arab was ginger – these are the bête noire of our society, or were – and I’m going to show them someone fabulous. It was great.
It really is a classic American male role. Very masculine and Gary Cooper-like.
Really masculine – right there: Boom, there he is. And I’m opposite Katherine Hepburn. And we’re going to do the movie. It’s just – I’m 44. These are the movies I grew up with.
Will you try to find other projects like Cairo Time going forward?
I’m not in the position to find the prey that I seek. I have to wait for it to wander across my path and I shoot it. (Laughs) I’m never going to be in a position to go to my agent and be like, “Get me this!” I’ll never hear back from her.