Natacha Karam of ‘9-1-1: Lone Star’ on the Process of Doing Better

"I started asking myself: How best do I serve this community? Am I doing all I can do?" Karam told the Observer.

Natacha Karam as the Instagram-famous Muslim firefighter Marjan Marwani FOX

Natacha Karam distinctly remembers the day she landed her role on 9-1-1: Lone Star, the spinoff of the hit FOX procedural drama, 9-1-1. Though she’d only watched 9-1-1 once in passing, she self-taped her audition with some confidence. She’d played an elite sniper on the short-lived NBC drama The Brave and was aware that casting directors saw her as a fit for action roles. A character described as an “adrenaline junkie and badass firefighter” seemed like a good fit. 

But as days turned into weeks without so much as a callback, Karam — who was born in Saudi Arabia and has Lebanese and Northern Irish ancestry — began to have second thoughts about living in Los Angeles. She’d  decided to end the lease on her apartment, and was leaving the gym when she received a call out of the blue from her manager and talent agents, who told her she’d be staying in L.A. — she’d booked a show. 

So like any actor used to the grind of proving themselves, she asked when she’d test for the part. “And they’re like, ‘You’re not hearing us . . . You booked it. It’s yours! It’s done,’” Karam told me in an exclusive Twitter Spaces interview last week. “I was like, ‘Off of one tape?!’ I’ve never met that casting director; I’ve never worked with any of these people.’ And they were like, ‘These are people who know what they want, and when they see it, they go for it,’” Karam recalled. “I was in such shock.”

Nearly two and a half years later, Karam has begun to grow into the character of Marjan Marwani, an Instagram-famous, Muslim firefighter who relocated from Miami to join the newly rebuilt Station 126 in Austin. In the new third season, an eight-month time-jump takes place after the events of the previous season finale, which found the 126 shut down and the crew dispersed across the city. In the multi-episode opening storyline, a massive and unexpected arctic front hits the capital of Texas. As the ice storm causes widespread chaos, fire captain Owen Strand (Rob Lowe) and paramedic captain Tommy Vega (Gina Torres) must not only save the city but also find a way to resurrect and reunite the 126.

In a candid interview, Karam spoke about the importance of authentic Muslim representation and addressed the criticism that she faced for her portrayal of Marjan during the show’s freshman run. These are edited excerpts from the 50-minute conversation.

Observer: This is the longest time that you’ve ever been able to portray and develop a character, so you’ve really witnessed the impact that this show has had on fans from around the world. What does it mean to you to bring that kind of diverse representation to network television? Have you heard from any Muslim firefighters?

Natacha Karam: I haven’t personally had any interactions with female ones. I follow a few people who I know exist, and I’ve read articles about Hijab-wearing Muslim firefighters. I had done that research at the beginning to be like, “Where are they? Do they exist? Are they center stage?” I think they definitely exist—they’re just not center stage in the media. So, for me, it became less about the story of representing firefighters who are Muslim and more about telling one Muslim woman’s story and making sure to involve a lot of other Muslim women’s stories in that.

Let’s be honest: The extent of Muslim erasure in media has a cost. Riz Ahmed spearheaded an initiative to get hard data on the representation and misrepresentation of Muslims in film, but I think we can pretty much say that that stands across TV too. The study was called Missing and Maligned. It’s quite shocking to see the statistics, and one of the things is that Muslim women were primarily shown as romantic partners or family members, and a disproportionate amount of Muslims are targets of violence or perpetrators of violence.

It’s so, so important to be able to change that and depict a Muslim woman on TV who is powerful, capable, strong, not at the hands of violence, [and] not perpetuating really negative stereotypes that have really real consequences to an entire religious group. As much progress is being made, there’s still a really long way to go. Obviously, I feel really, really proud that I am contributing to the creation of a character who exists—with all the good intent in the world—for us to represent accurately. But I’m aware of some of the shortcomings that have happened in previous seasons, and I’ve tried to change that this season particularly.

The show received a lot of backlash for its portrayal of Muslim women in the first season. Many viewers took issue with the way Marjan prays and the corn silo emergency in episode 1×03. What kinds of conversations have you had with the writers and producers to address the criticism that you received?

I haven’t told this story publicly before, but it’s the truth. It was the first episode and it was one of my first days working where I had to go in and pray, and I had tried to have a conversation, as much as you can when you’re in this awkward position as an actor where you don’t know the people yet, you don’t feel necessarily valued yet. You need a roof over your head, and you move in with the best of intentions, and I think everyone else does too. However, there is this line where you feel—as is often the case when you’re in a hierarchical system—what can I say and what can I not say? I tried to have these conversations where I said, “Hey, does this woman pray five times a day? Is that something that she does? Because then she needs to do that for the rest of the show, for as long as it goes. You can’t instill something like that and then have it disappear. What country is she from? What is her Muslim identity? Is she Sunni? Is she not?” These were conversations I was trying to have whilst in between camera and hair tests.

The day that we get to praying, they’re like, “Okay, it’s time for you to pray now.” I had watched endless videos the night before, just in preparation for myself, and the weeks upcoming, and I was so disappointed when there was no consultant there. And they kind of looked at me like, “Don’t you know?” And I was like, “There are many things that are individual choices, there are many things that we can put down to an individual’s preference, because humans are complex and everyone has their own relationship with religion. However, there are some things that are just black and white, right or wrong, and this is one of these things. I don’t want to get it wrong.” So what ended up happening was the script supervisor held a phone and watched a video of someone praying and watched me and hoped that the two matched, which is not how it’s done. I went in with all the best intentions in the world, and I knew that the specifics mattered.

There were a bunch of takes, and they cut and used the one take that they wanted to use, and they kept repeating, “It’s going to be part of the montage; it’s just a small moment.” But it’s a moment I know really matters, and I was hugely, hugely disappointed and let down. I understand why that has enormous consequences, and I understand that people see themselves in details, in storytelling. It’s all about the details that reflect you and your reality, so that was a detail that was hugely missed and a very important thing that wasn’t respected, and I wasn’t in a position where I’m in now, where I would have said, “No, I just won’t do it unless we have who we need here to guarantee that we are accurately representing.”

And then another story I haven’t told is the whole story about the grain silo. I wasn’t happy about that either. That was supposed to be later in the season, and they bumped the episode up to be sooner. So it felt quite sad for me that, within the first few episodes, you saw this woman’s hair as if that was integral to your understanding of her when, to me, it isn’t at all. There was a whole redemption scene—the whole thing was set up in order to have a scene of redemption at the end—and the redemption scene was cut, so it aired and it wasn’t a whole story. It left a really bad taste in my mouth, and it left a really bad taste in other people’s mouths.

I called one of the producers, Rashad [Raisani], whom I have a good relationship with. These things matter to him; Marjan’s a character that’s hugely important to him and his family. We had a conversation about it and discussed how bad it was. But by the time the episode had been edited and we had seen it, we were so far along in the season that we couldn’t even revisit the narrative and try and wrap it up.

This season, I spoke to Rashad, then spoke to [co-creator and showrunner] Tim Minear and said that I think we really, really need a council of Muslim advisors. We had had advisors in certain episodes. But when we did, they were mostly male scholars, which is just a very different experience than young, Hijab-wearing women. We now work with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and we’ve had some wonderful Zooms together. They got a group of different women in my age bracket, we have panels and discussions amongst each other, and they encourage the writers to go in certain directions.

Before that, I actually reached out to someone whom I hugely admire and had a lot of conversations with her—Noor Tagouri, who has her own production company called At Your Service. [We] talked a lot about the cost of misrepresentation, and she believes that storytelling is a form of service, as do I. So I started asking myself: How best do I serve this community? Am I doing all I can do? Noor and I tried to work together, but it didn’t work out schedule-wise. But I was pointed in the direction of the MPAC, and they’re doing amazing, and I feel much better about pointing out our blind spots and being like, to the writers in the room, “I don’t wear a hijab; you don’t wear a hijab. We can’t tell these women’s stories without their input.”

There seems to be this notion that, as an actor, you should just make the words work, because it isn’t your place to tell the writers what to do. What do you think is really in an actor’s control when it comes to the development of their own character? Do you think the writers are willing to have that open dialogue, or is that something that you’ve had to fight for as well?

I think they’re willing to a certain extent, [but] you have to fight to a certain extent when they’re not what you’re representing. It can sometimes matter less, through no fault of their own. I think it’s just human. I think the more you grow familiar with people, the easier it becomes. So when you have more of a relationship, more of an understanding, more of a mutual respect, it becomes easier to be like, “Hey, listen, I don’t think we did this quite right.” Or “do you see that this could be better done like so?” Or “hey, I have an idea, what do you think?”

In that study that I was talking about, 24% of [the] global population is Muslim. I don’t think that’s something that people realize, ’cause they’re not told. That’s a huge amount of this world—that’s nearly a quarter—and yet, in a lot of Western media, they’re pretty much not there. They’re kind of the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the world. There’s so much erasure of Black Muslims and of Muslim women, so one of the things that me and the MPAC kind of discussed and were going back and forth [about] in the writers’ room was Marjan having a relationship or getting to know someone who’s a Black Muslim and encountering the differences in both their religion and their culture. And now three seasons in, I feel comfortable with the MPAC and being in the writers’ room on Zoom, being able to pitch things like that.

What can you preview about Marjan’s storylines this season?

Marjan is relentless in the first few episodes. Everyone has a lot of things going on in their personal lives, [and] Marjan’s personal life is: “I will get the 126 back together.” (Laughs.) That is her be-all and end-all. She is very committed to that cause, which has both negative and positive consequences. There’s a lot of fun moments. There’s some humor—there’s always some humor.

I will say a little sneaky one is, in the first few episodes, for some reason, somehow, Captain Owen Strand and Marjan end up singing! I’m not going to fill in any more details than that—[I] don’t want to build it up too much—but that is a moment that happens somewhere.

There’s a very fun team sporting event that happens at some point—I think I’m the first one to say that. There’s a big Paul (Brian Michael Smith) and Marjan episode coming up this season, which has a lot of great friendship scenes between Brian and I. We haven’t actually finished filming it—it’s the episode we’re on right now and we go back after the break—but [we] have a lot of scenes together and I think we work really well together. It’s a great, rich episode full of friendship.

‘9-1-1: Lone Star’ airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on FOX. Natacha Karam of ‘9-1-1: Lone Star’ on the Process of Doing Better