A 'Kite Runner' Conversation
Friday, November 9, 2007; 1:30 PM
"The Kite Runner," an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel, is one of the most anticipated films of the holiday season. Khalid Abdalla stars in the movie as Amir, an Afghanistan native who returns to his home country to assist a childhood friend.
Abdalla was online Friday, Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss his work in "The Kite Runner," which marks the actor's second major motion-picture role. He also appeared in "United 93," Paul Greengrass's Academy Award-nominated look at what happened on 9/11.
"The Kite Runner" opens nationwide on Dec. 14.
A transcript follows.
Rockville, Md., USA: Ahlan, ya Khalid,
Can't wait to see the movie. I was wondering how difficult it is for you, in this political climate, to find roles that are not the stereotypical bad guy. What are your upcoming film plans?
Khalid Abdalla: I've never played a stereotypical bad guy. Obviously I played the hijacker in "United 93," but that's a film that is strongly pitted against stereotypes, received ideas and conspiracy theories, and tries to look at the event an openness and without taboos.
"Kite Runner" is the first film in the history of Hollywood, I think, in which the first point of contact not only with Afghanistan but the whole region, is a human, family story and not political violence. Although obviously both those roles have an ethnic part to them, I don't think of myself as playing ethnic roles. I'm interested in the challenges that are posed for me. Both have been kind of immense challenges. Nonetheless, you can't not be aware of the stereotyping of roles. Part of what I hope I do as an actor is work against that. I will never do a film which I think is misrepresentative, because I know how much that hurts. That's not to say films about political violence shouldn't be made. They just have to be done in the right way. I think "United 93" is the right way to do it.
The starting point of "The Kite Runner" is a beautiful story that just happens to be about Afghanistan. It works because it's a beautiful story. With that comes a special eye into Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a country that at one point had over 6 million refugees, but nobody associates it with the stories that come from that. The words Afghan, Muslim, Arab are associated with a whole host of negative things before it's anything positive. There is a fight that needs to be carried out against the stereotype. But also, I'm very optimistic. I'm interested in roles in which there are characters who exist as I do in the cities I love, cosmopolitican places, places where I'm walking down the street and I'm aware of stereotypes but I don't live under their guise nor am I immediately identified with it. I'm interested in playing roles which are like how I play in the real world. Whether that person happens to be a writer or a doctor or an actor.
Washington, D.C.: I was at the advance screening last night in Georgetown, and wanted to congratulate you again on a job well done. The movie was touching and powerful, your portrayal of Amir excellent, and even more impressive was the fact that the movie stayed true to the book.
Khalid Abdalla: Thank you.
Harrisburg, Pa.: This is your second feature film. How did you get to become a film actor, and what did you do before being a movie actor?
Khalid Abdalla: I got into film through "United 93," which came as a surprise. Previous to that, all my experience had all been in theater. I never expected to be in a movie, at least not for a while and I certainly never expected my first role to be a Hollywood terrorist, if only in name. In fact, I think it's a Hollywood terrorist only because it's a Hollywood film, not because of the way the portrayal is made.
Had anyone told me that I would have done that by the end of the year, I probably would have stopped. But I'm very proud to have been involved in the film as I was and the way that it was done, as per my previous answer. From that came "The Kite Runner." Coincidentally, the call asking me to come and audition came the day after the premiere of "United 93," while I was in New York. It's carried me onward since then. It's been a surprise. Part of your job as an actor is to respond to the surprises as they come to you.
As for what comes next, I don't know yet. But I am looking forward to it.
Washington, D.C.: I read the book and loved the film! How did you prepare for the role and did you relate to the character?
Khalid Abdalla: I spent a month in Afghanistan, during which time I was having four or five hours of dialect lessons a day. I was in total immersion, voraciously so. I went everywhere referenced in the book and more. I ate everything referenced in the book and that I could find in restaurants and cafe. I traveled up north to Mazar-i-Sharif and traveled through the Salang pass, which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.
I also traveled to Bamiyan, where the Buddhas used to be before the Taliban destroyed them. Somehow at the end of that time, having banished English for that month, I came out speaking the language, too, and I like to think of that as the country's parting gift to me. But also with my own background, which is born in Scotland, brought up in London and parents Egyptian and father born in Illinois. With my British-Egyptian background, which is to say a bicultural one, I share a lot with Amir. Egypt, although it's a very different country to Afghanistan, shares a lot, whether that's in terms of certain gestures or even in terms of the vocabulary or the experience of understanding what it means to have a serving class, which is very important to the story. But also growing up in a bicultural household in London, I know what it means to be brought up with two languages. Although I am British, I have a strong relationship with Egypt.
That's another area where that helps tremendously with the language learning, because Dari, the vocabulary is 40 to 50 percent Arabic in origin. And Dari has a simple grammer. Like English you don't have gender, you don't have to agree the adjectives and adverbs. Once you're in with the grammar, you can bloom with the language. With Arabic, you have the full palette of sounds that you need for speaking Dari. Although it's surprising to say so, in some ways it's easier for someone who speaks Arabic to imitate Dari than it is for someone who speaks Iranian-Farsi, because there are certain consonants they don't have.
The time I spent in Afghanistan was absolutely crucial to me. It gave me that sense of familiarity, love and nostalgia that orient you in making your choices as an actor, as to how just or true to life something is or isn't. And also, I learned to fly a kite in Afghanistan, in Kabul, which I think should come with a passport.
Silver Spring, Md.: Hello, Khalid:
I recently read the book -- wow, powerful!
I can't wait to see the movie.
I find it easier to picture Amir as a boy than as a young man, in particular his height, build, posture, eye contact, amount of self-confidence, etc.
Can you toss out some adjectives about the physical appearance and body language you tried to give Amir at age 20, or on important wedding or funeral days, or in the final scenes of the story?
Khalid Abdalla: Physically, he's awkward. And I think has to carry a little bit of guilt in his manner. One of the challenges of the role was to carry him as someone who remains sympathetic even though some of his actions aren't praise-worthy. As Amir in his twenties, he's got a certain lightness, on account of his youth, I think.
As he gets older, maybe he's a bit more pensive. I don't know, it's up to people who see the film and story always affects how people read body language, I think. That has a great power of suggestion, too.
Bethesda, Md.: Most people have probably heard that the release date of "Kite Runner" was postposed until December because of concern about the welfare of the two young actors in the film. How do you feel about this situation? Do you believe the boys are safe and will continue to be, even after the movie comes out? One would hope so, but the fact that the date was changed makes me think that the dangers could be legitimate.
Khalid Abdalla: The most important thing about the children is quite rightly the studio has taken a decision to take them out of Afghanistan during the period of the release of the film so that, if there are any adverse reactions in Afghanistan, we know that they're safe. That is an if, and we have people on the ground, some of whom say there could be adverse reactions, some of whom say they don't anticipate adverse reactions. There are other films that have been made, notably "Osama," in which the issues raised are just as sensitive if not moreso than "The Kite Runner." The important thing to emphasize is the care and love that we have for these children. I learned to fly a kite with them in Kabul and I spent four months with them on set.
The situation when they were cast was slightly different than it is now. The biggest measure is that their parents thought it was a good thing for them to be involved in this film. I'm very hopeful there won't be an adverse reaction. The film is being screened for Afghans here and elsewhere and reaction has been very positive. One woman in particular, stood up in a screening and said, "Thank you. I feel like I've been represented. I feel like you've represented my culture in a way I recognize and in a way I'm proud to share." What the immediate aftermath will be in Afghanistan is hard to predict. I'm certain the long-term aftermath will be immensely positive. Marc Forster and Khaled Hosseini have a repartee between them and Marc says in making the film, the most he could hope for was to make a companion piece to Khaled's novel. Khaled feels Marc has produced a love letter to Afghanistan, and hopefully that will be the legacy of the film.
Charlottesville, VA: Having spent a year in Afghanistan in '04-'05 and learning much more about the Afghan culture, I'm interested to see the portrayal of the Hazara. Do you feel that there will be a true sense for the average Westerner to understand the difference -- despite the fact most of us think of all Afghans as the same?
Khalid Abdalla: Yes, Afghanistan has 19 different ethnicities many of whom habve cross-border allegiances. Obviously the film can't go into the detail and history of all of that.
And yet, there is a strong and implicit understanding presented in the film about the fact that the Hazara have historically been second-class citizens in Afghanistan. Indeed, that animates a big part of the story. That's why it's strange for Amir to have a best friend who is a Hazaran who is also his servant. That's also why it's strange for Amir to have a father who seems to love the servant/Hazaran more than he loves him. But yes, I agree. People don't know enough about the ethnic differences and tensions of Afghanistan, and indeed I feel that would be a very helpful thing to know in trying to understand the situation in Afghanistan now. That's why the situation in Kabul is very different to the situation in the south, which is very different from the situation in the north. But it's always hard, I find, to generalize about Afghans, whether they're Hazara, Pashtu, Uzbek ... This film, I think, is an introduction to Afghanistan, in a way as open-hearted as a first meeting with someone from a different culture in their household. You never meet someone from another culture through a bomb or a list of how many people died in their country, or for that matter a list of the different ethnicities they have. You meet them through sharing or a handshake or sharing stories, through having dinner. And from that builds an understanding and it's a long journey to go. But hopefully this film and this book is a good start.
DC: That book was so extraordinarily depressing; I found myself having to -recover- from reading it. (Excellent book, just heartbreaking).
How difficult (if at all?) was filming certain portions of the film?
Khalid Abdalla: The whole experience was immensely pleasurable. We were a group of people from 26 different countries with four to six languages to translate between on-set. We all come from our various different countries to tell a story about a place that very few people knew much about, but everyone discovered was important to them.
In the face of that, and in the face of this beautiful story, everything becomes a privilege. And I agree, it is a sad story, but it's a hopeful one, too. And it's a story with themes that give everyone an open heart. I had so much fun on this film, I had so much fun reading the book even though it moved me to tears. I think people who see the film tend to have the same experience.
Thank you for sharing with me my first live online interview. Sorry I didn't get to answer everyone's questions. Hopefully there will be other opportunities.
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