Spring 2021

Watching Hiam Abbass

How the rise in global TV networks sent a Palestinian-Israeli actress to international stardom.

Hiam Abbass in ‘Ramy’: 2020 Hulu, credit Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy of Yes

In the 2008 movie Lemon Tree, directed by Eran Riklis, Hiam Abbass’s character, a traditional Palestinian widow, adjusts her head scarf with small precise movements. The actress’s talent, however, is such that she infuses even these simple motions with character-revealing detail, telling a story.

This head scarf means so much to the character she portrays, Salma, a West Bank widow fighting to hang on to the lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. At first, the scarf represents her identity as a Palestinian Muslim woman. She would never think of wearing anything else; she ties it quickly, by rote. Later, it becomes like a uniform or a badge of honor, that she dons as she stands firm against the Israeli authorities who want to cut down her lemon grove—the defense minister has moved in just across the way, and the trees could shelter terrorists. In this part of the film, Salma tugs the knots into place in a way that expresses her determination, the slow release of her pent-up anger. Eventually, she finds herself drawn to Ziad, the lawyer representing her, a passion that is forbidden by the conventions of traditional Muslim society. In this section of the movie, as her relationship with her lawyer becomes the subject of gossip and her husband’s relatives warn her not to enter a relationship with this man, Salma adjusts her scarf a little more hesitantly. As she considers rebelling and having an affair with the lawyer anyway, the scarf becomes a symbol of her patriarchal society. She places it carefully, but with some reluctance, on her lovely hair. At the tragic conclusion of the movie, she wears it as a reflection of her grief, as if it were a shroud.

Abbass, as Salma, wins us over in these small moments. She can raise her voice and make noise when it is called for; but so often with her, it’s in the quiet moments that she reveals her character. When you think back on an Abbass performance, you are likely to recall her expression and presence just as much as her voice and words.

When I interviewed her for the Jerusalem Post in 2008, the Nazareth-born Abbass admitted she had had a hard time initially with the modest clothing that Salma wore in Lemon Tree—including that scarf—and recalled how she worked to become comfortable with it.

“It’s part of the work,” she said. The actress, interviewed at a Tel Aviv beachside hotel, was in clothes that reflected her own eclectic style: jeans, a low-cut T-shirt and Chuck Tayler basketball sneakers. “But I thought, who wants to wear this thing, although I knew it was my duty to wear it. I saw it not as a religious symbol, but as a symbol of tradition. I live very far from there,” she said. At the time, she was living in Paris with her then-husband, the French actor Zinedine Soualem, and their two daughters. “But Salma is a traditional woman. I recognize the codes. There are women like that in my family.” Still, she worried that she would be stifled by the scarf and attire, until she discovered that by “playing with the little details, I was able to make the scarf suit the story.” In the scene where she invites the younger lawyer, played by Ali Suliman, into her home, it is significant that Salma foregoes the scarf altogether, allowing him to see her hair. “The way she wears it in different scenes reveals so much about her,” Abbass said. The scarf took on a special meaning for her; at the end of the shoot, she gave the crew scarves inscribed with personal messages as an end-of-filming present.

Reflecting on her performance in Lemon Tree, Riklis noted “It’s hard to resist Salma, the way Hiam puts her stamp on the character.” She would go on to win an Ophir, the prize of the Israel Academy of Film and Television, in 2008 for her performance—one of just a handful of Arab actors who have won this award.

Abbass is beautiful, but what comes through more than that in her performances is her humanity. She seduces the audience into embracing her as a flesh-and-blood human: a person with whom we identify first, and then catches us off guard later with her spectacular cheekbones, glowing skin, and magnetic screen goddess presence. By then, we are caught up in the magic of her persona, as she draws us into the story.

With 92 credits to her name on the Internet Movie Database—an astounding achievement for an actress born in a small, Middle East country where she is part of a minority and where her mother tongue, Arabic, is not the dominant language—Abbass is best known at the moment for her roles in two award-winning American series. In the HBO series Succession, she plays Marcia Roy, the Lebanese-born third wife of a media magnate. In Ramy, she plays the matriarch of an Egyptian-American family and mother of the title character.

The Nazareth-born Abbass, who is fluent and acts in Arabic, French, English, and Hebrew, grew up in a family of teachers in the Galilee village of Deir Hanna. As a child, she performed in a Palestinian theater group. Later, she studied photography in Haifa, which she described in an interview with France Culture as good training for her acting career.

“Photography was a very important parenthesis in my life. It allowed me to refuse to go towards something scientific as my parents wanted because I understood that my place was more in the art world. But being in a village where the opportunities are really small and where the artistic horizon is not really open to a girl like me, when I heard that there was a photo school, I jumped on it because I thought it might get me somewhere.”

But she was drawn to acting. After moving to France and working in photography and film production, she moved from behind the camera to in front of it. She spent much of her early career in France, acting in a wide variety of roles.

It was when she returned to her native Israel to team up with Eran Riklis in two films in the first decade of this century—Lemon Tree, and her first collaboration with Riklis, 2004’s The Syrian Bride—that she burst onto the world cinema scene.

The Syrian Bride was one of the first Israeli movies to become a breakout international hit, and it heralded the renaissance in Israeli movies that began about 15 years ago. Its success was in no small part due to Abbass’s performance, which garnered her a Best European Actress nomination from the European Film Academy.

One might expect that the central character in the film would be the titular bride. But Riklis and Suha Arraf, his co-screenwriter, confound expectations by turning their gaze on an entire Druze family in Majdal Shams, the largest Druze village in the Golan Heights. Clara Khoury plays the bride: a young woman in the village, engaged to marry a Syrian television actor she has never met in an arranged marriage, who must negotiate the bureaucratic and emotional problems that could prevent her from crossing the border into Syria on her wedding day. Abbass plays the role of her older sister, tellingly named Amal (“hope”). Much of the movie focuses on Amal’s efforts to support her sister and her wedding. Along the way, the movie becomes a story about Amal, a woman frustrated with her place in society, who encourages her daughters to aim for a freer, more independent life. Eventually, Amal decides to go back to school and train as a social worker, in spite of her husband’s resentment over her intellect and free spirit. What could have been a one-dimensional character, conceived solely to illustrates the oppression of women in Arab society, is elevated by Abbass’s performance into a soulful portrait of a woman with whom we come to empathize deeply. In short, she steals the movie out from under the bride.

This film, which won the audience award at nearly every festival where it was shown, introduced Abbass to international audiences—and to casting directors. Steven Spielberg cast her in a small role in his 2005 film, Munich; she also worked as a consultant and dialogue coach on the film. She went on to work as an on-set dialogue and acting coach on a number of high-profile films, including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s multilingual Babel.

But while she was undoubtedly a valuable collaborator behind the camera, her acting career continued to flourish at just the point that the careers of many actresses begin to wane.

She was cast opposite Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, the 2007 film by Tom McCarthy. In the movie, Jenkins plays a widowed economics professor who is surprised to find a young couple, a Syrian man and an African woman, squatting in his New York City apartment. The Syrian young man is arrested and faces deportation; the Jenkins character ends up hosting his mother, Mouna (played by Abbass), also an undocumented migrant and thus unable to visit her son in detention.

In an interview with Variety in 2008, Abbass spoke about how she prepared for this role: “When I work on a character, I don’t try to use similarities between the character and me. It’s just drawing upon different little moments. I knew she had a strong connection with her son. I had to create this without seeing them together. It’s a very strong situation, and whether I’m a mother or not, I had to keep that relationship in the script in mind.”

Over the last decade and a half, Abbass has woven together an extraordinarily eclectic career, moving between France, the United States, Israel and a number of other countries. Careers like hers don’t just happen. They require intelligence, planning, flexibility and talent, all of which she clearly has in abundance. These qualities have won her high-profile roles such as a small but memorable turn in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, as well as roles in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, Julian Schnabel’s Miral, and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which she portrays Bithla, Pharaoh’s daughter.

Abbass alternates these big-budget, English-language productions with indie movies made around the world. These include Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu’s The Source, a variation on Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex from men until they agree to fetch water from the well in a remote village. In Philippe Van Leeuw’s 2017 In Syria, she plays a mother who tries to keep her children safe in war-torn Syria; the film won the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the gently comic A Sense of Wonder, directed by Éric Besnard, she plays a doctor treating a high-functioning autistic man who falls in love with a single mother. Rayhana Obermeyer’s I Still Hide to Smoke, set in Algiers in 1995, features Abbass as a woman who runs a hammam, where she is a masseuse.

She has also returned to Israel and to Palestine to work on a handful of films, among them the recent Gaza Mon Amour, directed by Arab and Tarzan Nasser, a look at the unrequited love of a fisherman (played by another one of the great Arab Israeli actors, Salim Dau) for a woman who works in the market in contemporary Gaza. In 2015, she starred in Dégradé, another movie by the twin directors—the story of two hairdressers in Gaza and their customers, of various ages and backgrounds, trapped in a beauty salon while Hamas police fight a gang in the street. Abbass also features in Cherien Dabis’s Amreeka, the story of a Palestinian immigrant family to the US. She has featured in two movies by Israeli director Amos Gitai, Free Zone with Natalie Portman and Hana Laslo, and Disengagement with Juliette Binoche and Jeanne Moreau. In 2005, Abbass had a role in Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now—the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar—playing the mother of a suicide bomber. She told The Guardian that she worked with the director to add complexity to this character: “I felt I gave her an identity that was unique and different to the mass of women that we usually see. The media chooses to show you that image of the weeping Palestinian mother, almost as if she has nothing else to offer. Life’s much more complex than that, so stories and characters are far more complex.”

Like many other talented actors in recent years, Abbass has moved into working in television, hitting career highs with Succession and Ramy, the two series highlighting different aspects of her talent. In many ways, her career exemplifies the globalization of the entertainment industry, and how this globalization has given talented actors from around the world the opportunity to break out and win the audiences that their talent deserves. When she started out in acting in the late 1980s, the Israeli movie industry was in the doldrums, and would not be revived until about 2004. She worked in Arab theater in Israel, with El-Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theatre. While El-Hakawati was celebrated in Europe, it faced challenges at home. In an interview with The Guardian, Abbass recalled, “The Israeli authorities didn’t like all of the activities happening at our theatre. They would come in and close it down. Part of my work there was dealing with how, politically, we could stay open. Traveling to Europe opened my eyes a little to the possibility of breathing some different air. It was hard to work all the time to justify your being.”

While there were talented directors working in Palestine (such as Rashid Masharawi, who made the film Haifa in 1996), Palestinian directors working in their native land faced incredible obstacles in terms of getting movies made, and most headed for Europe. Abbass moved to France in the 1990s and began acting in French films. French cinema was beginning to routinely feature characters of different ethnic backgrounds, many of them Arab, and Abbass found work playing a number of Algerian, Tunisian, and Syrian characters. Zinedine Soualem, Abbass’s ex-husband, is a French actor of Algerian descent; she had small roles in some of his films, such as Cedric Klapisch’s charming comedy, When the Cat’s Away. One of her most popular French films was Tunisian director Raja Amari’s Red Satin (2002), where she plays the widowed mother of a teenage daughter whose life changes when Abbass’s character takes up belly dancing. When the time was right, Abbass headed back to Israel for her collaboration with Riklis, and then made the move to English-language movies. And now that television output has become so high quality—in part due to the prevalence of streaming options and the trend towards special-effects heavy super-hero movies—she has made that medium her own, too.

Abbass appeared in several television series, including The Red Tent, The Promise, The OA, and The State before Succession, which began running on HBO in 2018. Succession tells the story of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), ailing patriarch of a global media and hospitality empire, and the tensions and rivalries playing out between him and his children. The family is loosely based on the Murdoch media dynasty. Abbass plays Marcia, Roy’s third wife, a Lebanese woman married to a successful businessman before Roy. Like Roy, she is self-made; her presence in his life arouses suspicion among his adult children, who were born into their wealth and power. The series, mixing black comedy and drama, has won nine Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series in 2020.

In an interview for the HBO website, Abbass spoke about the challenges of working in television: “It wasn’t easy for me at first. . . In a film, you know the beginning and the end, so you know where you’re going with your character. In TV, you might not. Talking with Mark Mylod and Jesse Armstrong [the series creators] through my scenes and asking lots of questions allowed me to make my own way through my material. Still, keeping things mysterious, even for me, was important to them. These are all components—ingredients that, I like to say, help me ‘make my own sauce’ for how I play Marcia.”

Describing filming an episode set at Thanksgiving, involving a great deal of banter during the holiday meal, she said, “Performing in this episode was very similar to theatrical work. You never leave character because you never know when the camera is fixed on you. So you develop the discipline of being in your role until the director says, ‘Cut.’” She spoke about how the actors work well as an ensemble, helping each other to improvise at times. “Our characters are extremely competitive, but we the actors have zero competition. We have great chemistry and push each other to give the best possible performance. Those relationships make life much easier.”

The series has been a huge hit, enjoying both audience approval and critical acclaim. The third season—delayed thanks to the pandemic—is expected to premiere in late 2021.

That Succession made room for a Lebanese character is interesting, but the Hulu series Ramy took on—and conquered—an even bigger challenge: getting American audiences to laugh at, and with, a Muslim family. Based on the life of creator and star Ramy Youssef, the series follows the eponymous American Muslim-Arab, part of an Egyptian family living in New Jersey, torn between his slacker inclinations and loyalty to his family and community. Abbass plays Maysa, his fiercely ambitious mother who also wants her children to live according to Egyptian and Muslim standards. She is not shy about telling them what to do, in many respects like the stereotype of the pushy Jewish mother who masterfully instills guilt in her offspring. Abbass played a similar character in Ghazi Albuliwi’s comedy Peace After Marriage (2013), as the mother of a porn-addicted Palestinian-American who gets married to an Israeli so that she can get a green card.

About Maysa and Ramy, Abbass told The Guardian: “I’d never played a woman that had no filter. I don’t judge her. She’s not a bad woman—obviously she has feelings and gets hurt and often she means well. When her daughter tells her that she’s said a bad thing she tries to defend herself because she thinks she’s just telling the truth. It all comes down to how she is designed from Ramy’s side. There’s a very fine line I had to follow with her: if I take her a little bit over the top you would think she’s too much, if I’m under, it wouldn’t be enough.” Youssef won a Golden Globe for his performance in 2020, and the series has been nominated for multiple Emmy Awards. It has recently been recommissioned for a third season.

In recent years, she has produced and acted in a number of plays with her partner, the French director/writer/actor Jean-Baptiste Sastre, including France Against the Robots. Based on a novel by George Bernanos, the play explores the intersection between fascism and technology. The work premiered in France and has been performed all over the world, including in Brazil.

For such an obviously intelligent actress, the question of directing inevitably comes up. Abbass told The National in 2019 that she planned to make a documentary about Bernanos. She has made several short films, and co-wrote, directed and starred in 2012’s Inheritance. An ambitious story about a wedding in the Galilee during a war, the movie features many of her co-stars from The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree, including Ali Suliman, Clara Khoury, Makram Khoury, and Ashraf Barhom. For the time being, however, she seems content with her work on Succession and Ramy.

Abbass’s work and life have given her some unique insights into cultural identity and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a 2006 interview with the website qantara.de, following the film, Munich, she noted: “As a human I do not treat other human beings differently just because their religion is different than mine. I won’t let politicians dictate what I should believe and how I should behave. I am an artist and regard art as an opportunity to mediate between people. Art offers a great opportunity to approach others. I relate what I am thinking. What I think about, I relate through films. I am fortunate to have participated in films in which I could express the humanity that I find in myself.”

It is impossible to guess how this multifaceted actress will choose to express her humanity in the future; but it will be fun watching her, wherever she appears.

 

 


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