For his first movie appearance, 27-year-old Khalid Abdalla took a role that wouldn't exactly endear him to audiences: Ziad Jarrah, the Sept. 11 terrorist who piloted the plane in 2005's gripping real-time drama United 93. Critics applauded his subtle performance as a zealot who might have had last-minute doubts about his mission. For a follow-up, the London-based actor appears in The Kite Runner, an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's beloved novel about the childhood friendship of two Afghan boys and their divergent adult lives. (The film opened in December.) Abdalla plays the grown-up Amir, who journeys back to his homeland from the U.S. Tom Beer spoke with Abdalla in Manhattan.
Had you ever been to Afghanistan before you began shooting The Kite Runner?
With six days' notice, I was called and told, "We need to get you on a plane." I got an Afghan visa, flew to Kabul and spent a month there. I went to Bamiyan, where the Buddhas used to be. I traveled up north, to Mazar-e Sharif and Band-e Amir, and through the Salang Pass, which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. You've got these lush valleys of green with arid mountainscape, and snowcapped peaks in the distance.
Was it safe to be wandering around the country like that?
It was safe enough to be worth the risk. On my last night, a bomb went off about a mile from where I was, but on the whole, Kabul was "secured." It's a country still without an infrastructure. People don't have electricity. Or if they do, they've got it six hours a day. Most people don't have running water, they have to get it from a pump -- if they're lucky.
The Kite Runner is also about an immigrant family that comes to America. Was the immigrant story familiar to you?
I was born in Scotland and brought up in London. But I've been going to Egypt once or twice a year since I was 2. Egypt's in my heart. It's where all my extended family are. What's familiar is the bicultural household, dropping in and out of two languages. And then there's the fact that, frankly, my father's a lot like Baba. He's a big, imposing, loud-voiced, charismatic man. The story's really about looking for that moment where you feel like your father's proud of you. That's a story that's familiar to everyone.
You've been in two very high-profile projects in as many years. Has it changed your life?
I don't know yet! Everyone's telling me it's just about to happen. I get recognized from United 93 from time to time, but not so much -- if only because people don't expect to meet me or see me. I don't wear the glasses; they hear this [English] accent.
Are actors of Middle Eastern descent still offered a lot of stereotyped roles?
I still get sent scripts where I'm asked to play the [kind of] terrorist I would never do. Not because there aren't really important and urgent things to be said about terrorists, but because the idea of playing a stereotype is absurd to me. It's against nature to do something that hurts me, my family, everyone who looks like me. That hurts everyone who doesn't look like me, as far as I'm concerned. But I think it's changing, it's really changing.
Tom Beer writes for Newsday.