Alexander Siddig Exclusive Interview; The CAIRO TIME Star Opens Up About DEEP SPACE NINE, MIRAL, His Sci-Fi Obsession, More

     August 9, 2010

Dr. Julian Bashir logged some serious travel as the chief medical officer of space station Deep Space Nine and the USS Defiant.  The man who played the good doctor for seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Alexander Siddig, has collected a huge stash of frequent flier miles on his own, lately.

Collider caught up with Siddig during his worldwide tour to promote Cairo Time which opened this past weekend in limited release to the highest per theater average ($62,250 at five frequently sold-out locations for a $12,450 per screen) of any film in release over the frame.  Hit the jump for the audio and transcript of the interview and for all things Deep Space Nine, his controversial new film Miral with Freida Pinto and director Julian Schnabel and whether he’s been approached about taking part in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek sequel.

The 44-year-old is best known to Star Trek fans for Deep Space Nine (a.k.a. DS9), but he has a remarkably varied resume.  Born in Sudan and raised in England, Siddig studied geography and anthropology for a year at University College in London before moving on to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA).  Several theater jobs followed as an actor and director before his big break alongside Ralph Fiennes in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence Of Arabia.

Star Trek guru Rick Berman (Executive Producer of the syndicated Trek series: The Next Generation, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise) saw the film and brought him in to read for DS9.  Berman said he initially wanted Siddig to play Captain Sisko, but at age 26, Siddig was considered too young for the series’ central character. As a result, the role of Dr. Julian Amoros, originally intended for a Latino actor, became Dr. Julian Bashir and Siddig found a home on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from 1993-1999.

When the series ended, Siddig moved onto the big screen, with action films like 2000’s Vertical Limit with Chris O’Donnell, 2002’s Reign Of Fire with Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Gerard Butler and Sir Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom Of Heaven with Orlando Bloom.  That same year, critical raves welcomed his portrayal of the idealistic Prince Nasir Al-Subaai in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana alongside Matt Damon, followed two years later by a recurring role as the complicated terrorist leader Hamri Al-Assad on the Fox series 24.

Following his appearance in the $490 million international success of Clash Of The Titans, Siddig takes center stage with the Oscar-nominated Patricia Clarkson (Pieces Of April and Shutter Island) in the film festival favorite Cairo Time.

The intimate romantic drama follows Juliette (Clarkson) as she arrives in Cairo, Egypt to meet her husband, only to find that he’s been held up on business out of town.  Juliette earns the name, albeit with a different spelling, of Shakespeare’s famed star-crossed lover when her husband’s friend and former security officer Tareq (Siddig) leads her around the city and a slow-burning romance threatens to bring her marriage down in flames.

Siddig’s been traveling with the film to festivals around the world for a good portion of the past year, starting with its premiere at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival.  Given ethnic sensitivities around the world, the international promotional tour with the film seemed a natural place to start the conversation.  Siddig is exceedingly smart, friendly and refreshingly frank which allowed for a fun and honest conversation.  Click here for the audio.

Collider: Now, you’ve been talking about this film for quite some time.

Alexander Siddig: Yeah.

What are the varying reactions that you get to it?

Siddig: We’ve been talking about it for about 8 months.  I mean, that’s an astonishing amount of time because it’s a very independent movie and it’s hard and slow to sell those (kinds) of movies and so we’ve been working, I mean, not every day obviously, every now and then.  We’ve done it in maybe four or five different countries: Middle East.  I accompanied it to Doha.

For the Tribeca Film Festival (in Doha), right?

Siddig: The Tribeca Film Festival in New York AND in Doha (Tribeca has another festival in Qatar).  And (I) just came back from Italy.  Obviously, Canada (The filmmakers are Canadian), Ireland.  I’ve been everywhere.  You know, as we do without studio backing.  Just to sell the movie and so far, the reaction’s been really amazing, almost unanimously.  You know, the people who really can’t bear the movie, they’re not going to come up to me and tell me (jokingly pointing a finger).  No one’s that mean-spirited (both laughing).  “Hey, I really hated your movie, by the way.  Just want to make your day!”

No, of course not, but in the questions at Q&As afterwards.

Siddig: The Q&As have been really great.  They’ve been really intelligent.  You know, the movie goes out of its way to treat people as if they’re as intelligent as the director.  You know, without being clever.  Just saying “This is, I’m having a talk to you and I’m not gonna condescend and we’re gonna get on.  3,000 people outside in Doha, with their families, their kids, sat down quietly and watched the movie and really loved it.  I was encouraged by that and I’m encouraged by the fact that men seem to respond just as well as, as women.  I mean, I think one of the trepidations that we had before we started was that we thought men somehow wouldn’t get it.  They wouldn’t click.  It was going to be some, a kind of chick flick.  But it turns out that they’re just as articulate about the film as, as the women are and it’s ranged from deeply political things like, “How dare you do a movie about Arabs without really knowing your Arabs and without an Arab-speaking actor in your lead role to people literally weeping.  A woman reviewer came up to (the film’s writer/director) Ruba (Nadda) yesterday and just started weeping.


Siddig: Weird.


Siddig: (Laughs)  Which is wonderful.

(Wryly) Well, of course.  If you like to make people cry.

Siddig: (Jokingly) We love to make people cry.  (Smiling)  Movie business.

Maya Angelou said [“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”]

Siddig: Yeah.

And ultimately, it, it is a film so much about emotion.  It’s also definitely a film about contrasts.  The beautiful scenery with some of the ugly violence that’s discussed.

Siddig: Absolutely.

The new world values with the old school traditions.  And both characters, as much as they’re fully fleshed out characters, they’re also symbols.  And she is literally married and you are literally reaching out and so as much as symbols are:  You of Egypt, her of America, and the fact that it’s an unconsummated love.

Siddig: Yeah.

Just like America is married to its (ways)–

Siddig: To its-

— and, you know, the Middle East is reaching out.

Siddig: Yeah, yeah.

What message is the director sending?

Siddig: Well, I mean, I think that’s a tall order if I- I mean, I would love to think it had that kind of political reach, but certainly on a personal level, it’s sending out a message of great dignity and great ethical strength on the part of the Ameri- the woman who is married.  This is the perfect opportunity to betray her husband or at least, her vows to her husband and without getting into the morality of that, she chooses not to.  And he, as the great temptation, has the poise to not push her too far, to not anger her.  You can kind of extrapolate a political scenario there—

It’s pretty hard not to because they are–

Siddig: Absolutely.

— very much symbols-

Siddig: Absolutely.

-(And) so, if you look at it in a symbolic way, here it is the Middle East—

Siddig: Well, I think it is, the interesting thing from that point of view, which I think is a really interesting angle you’re, you’re bringing up is that neither of them are trying to change each other and that lack of force, that lack of friction between them allows much easier merging of each of them to each other and so, the moment you’re not pushing towards someone, imposing on them, trying to impress them, quite literally, that’s the moment you’re open enough to hear what they’re saying.  What, who they are.  Let them in.  And to extend that metaphor, the moment we try to change the Arab world and the moment the Arab world isn’t trying to change America or the West, that’s the moment you get to actually hear what each other is saying and, and “Oh right.  You have your own mind.  You have your own way of doing things.  Cool.”  I have not really thought about the movie in those terms before because I’ve been obsessed about personal, obviously as an actor.  But yeah, I think that’s right.  Quite interesting.

Did the crew have to disclose the script to the Egyptian government (since they shot on location)?

Siddig: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  They didn’t have a problem with anything in the script.  In terms of values, it was chaste.  There was no porn.  There was no particular violence.  There was no discriminatory menace in the movie about, “Egyptians are horrible or Cairo is like this.”  There are a couple of difficult truths.  Ruba couldn’t write a movie about Cairo without- you know, it would’ve been a lie of omission had she not mentioned some of the child labor, for example, that’s going on.  But that’s the truth about poverty in Africa.  Not the truth about Egyptians’ nastiness to their children, (but) about the fact that young girls need to earn money at a very early age of 10 or 12 before they can afford a dowry for when they get married, for example.  It’s how it excludes them from education.  The uncomfortable truth of the Israeli checkpoint stopping buses and treating people rather rudely.  It would’ve been just a lie to say that doesn’t happen.  She glances off of these ideas, but she doesn’t obsess on them.  She just says, “I’ve got to show you this deck of cards.  That’s the whole deck, BUT I’m gonna pick these two cards.  We’re gonna play with these ones.  And so you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.  That makes a holistic movie, at least (a) quite honest and a cool movie.

And, as we were talking about before, it deals with a deeper exploration of things that heretofore were stereotypes or taboos.  And science fiction has always been on the forefront of that and I’d be remiss not to ask about Deep Space Nine.

Siddig: Sure!

The Star Trek film (directed by J.J. Abrams) is so successful–

Siddig: Yeah.

— and it’s THAT portion of the Star Trek story.  Because they’re going to be continuing on with this story.

Siddig: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Does this put to bed any DS9 film?

Siddig: Oh.  I think almost beyond a shadow of a doubt.  And I’m very proud of DS9.  But I think that it lived and I think people quite weirdly enjoy it almost more now, that it’s not showing any more than they did at the time.

In which way?

Siddig: At the time, they were forced into making choices.  I think Paramount made a few mistakes about putting, like, two or three Star Trek shows up against each other and on different channels, so that you literally were appealing to different constituencies.  And that was probably, I think, an error of judgment.  I think it hurt the very end of The Next Generation and it hurt the beginning of Deep Space Nine and then Voyager came along and Deep Space Nine was just a kind of flailing kid in the background that was just “Ah, and we’re here too.  We’re doing another show.”  Now, people actually get a chance to stand back and actually choose which ones they like from the whole array of this vast franchise.  Deep Space has become really quite popular and people are really, really passionate or fond of it.  I’m fond of the whole franchise, really.  A couple of the later series were maybe a bit cynical, but, you know, they’ve gotta make money and-

The genetic– (Siddig recently voiced his strong objections to the storyline in the season 5 episode Dr. Bashir, I Presume which showed Dr. Bashir’s parents had him genetically modified as a child to counter learning disabilities).

Siddig: That’s totally fine.  But (Abrams’ film) definitely put Deep Space Nine to bed.  And I think that’s not a bad thing.  Otherwise, you get into territory where we’re like, “And we’re gonna remake The Dukes Of Hazzard as a movie. And we’re gonna-” Which they do, all the time and you’re like, “Oh God, yawn.  It better be really entertaining, otherwise I’m not going.”  You know.

Well, The A-Team.  You don’t really need to look further than that.

Siddig: Absolutely.  And apparently, it’s a very entertaining movie, so that’s all you’re gonna get.  But you’re not moving people here.  You’re just taking their money. (Laughs)

Yeah.  Yeah.  Why do you think science fiction is always ahead of the curve, in terms of dealing with things without skin-deep judgments?

Siddig: Yeah.  Well, the power of allegory.  Abstraction can take the most harrowing, complicated real-life situation and say, “But this is actually just two grapes talking and they’re talking to a weird sunflower.  They’ve abstracted the humanity out of it and transplanted it into something else that is much more comfortable.  Much easier to cope with and gives the writer enormous freedom.  I mean, you can do really dark, full-on stuff and take it so far away, to a spaceship somewhere miles and miles (away) on a funny little planet where the creatures are barely recognizable.  That and the fact that they work with massive archetypes that we can’t really work with.  Only Batman movies can work with those.  The characters in Cairo Time, they’re not massive archetypes.  They’re normal people.  So yes, (as in Deep Space Nine) you’ve got the strong captain; you’ve got the clever doctor.  They all have their adjectives or epithets.  THAT’s the power of sci-fi.  I love sci-fi, computer games.  I love any escapes.  Give me them all.  I’ll take all of them and, yeah, I think that’s the strength of that genre.

Does your connection with DS9 compromise any ability for your agent to say, “Can we get him into the next Star Trek film?  Have you reached out? (Jeffrey Combs, Vaughn Armstrong and Majel Barrett are among those who have played different characters in the Star Trek universe)

Siddig: No.  No, I haven’t and I don’t think I, I will and I think that’s really cool.  As an actor, I’ve got other ambitions and Deep Space Nine, although I’m deeply proud of it, is not something I’m campaigning to resurrect or that character, Bashir, or anything like that.  Yeah, all good things (must come to an end).

Now speaking of moving forward, you’ve got Miral coming up with Freida Pinto–

Siddig: Yeah!

— and Julian Schnabel (the director of Basquiat and Before Night Falls, who received a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Diving Bell And The Butterfly).

Siddig: Yeah!

You watch the trailer and it’s extremely emotional–

Siddig: Yeah.

— just in that minute and a half [actual running time is 1:56].  What do you hope that effect will be on the audience of the film?

Siddig: Primarily, I hope people don’t get offended here because I know people are very sensitive and touchy about Jewishness and Israel and Arabs and blah, blah, but I just hope it’s not a memoriam to the Palestinians and Israel.  I hope it’s not, “Oh, this film,” in 25 years or 30 years, (where people will say) “Oh, yeah there were Palestinians in Israel back then.  Yeah, but now they’ve all emigrated.  They’ve all been forced out.  I mean, it’s not gonna be that soon, but it’s quite worrying what’s going on.  And everybody, frankly, knows.  And it’s an elephant in everybody’s room.  And even Jewish friends over here are like, “We’re just so embarrassed of what’s happening.”  And some people are more belligerent and go, “No.  This is damn right.”

And likely on the other side as well.

Siddig: Of course.  And that’s gonna happen.  But (Miral) rolls back the clock and it goes, “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.  Have a look. Wait a second.  This is how it started.  And, you know what?  We’re not even gonna talk about the guys.  Screw the guys.  The guys aren’t important.  The guys just yap.  They run around, swinging their d—s.  What’s important is how the women cope with this.”  This is about three extraordinary women and they all have different reactions to what’s happening to their country where they were brought up.  It starts in 1948 (the year of the declaration of the State of Israel), so it’s really novel from that point of view.  And Rula Jebreal, in fact, who wrote the story as an autobiography and Schnabel really exploit the fact that, making it about the women is almost more powerful than making it about the men because this isn’t about the guns.  This is about the hearts and minds behind the guns.  It’s tough on the Israelis, but I think that’s ok.  I think it’s fair.  It’ll be moving and I hope- well, it’ll polarize people.  There’s people who are just gonna go, “lalalalalala” with their fingers in their ears.  Whatever they hear.  Whatever comes out.  And then, fine.  Bring it on.

Yeah.  (I’ll) Just ask another DS9 question, because there are still such passionate fans.  It’s a decade later.

Siddig: Yeah!  Yeah!  Absolutely.

How responsive were the show’s executives to fan forums and fan ideas.  Was there ever a, a storyline that you went, “Oh, this is clearly something that the fans have been asking for or that the fans lobbied for and got?”

Siddig: Yeah, I mean, to a degree.  They were very careful because there was sort of danger of their becoming kind of a, not Lord Of The Flies, but they want to keep control of the farm. (Laughs) and the fans were very powerful, are very powerful.  And “Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile” was one of the attitudes in our production office, so they were very careful and cagey about that.  But, someone like (DS9 Co-Executive Producer) Ron Moore, for example had his ear to the ground.  And they read every single thing.  They read every, you know, blog, whatever they were called back then.  They weren’t blogs, salon, forum, note (laughs).  You know.  No doubt, some of those ideas sunk in, even if they weren’t admitting to it.

(Laughter)  All right.  Well congratulations on Cairo Time.

Siddig: Thanks.  Thank you.  Really nice to meet you.

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