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Amin El Gamal Interview

Photo Credit: David Gabe

 

BREAK-OUT STAR! Talented Newcomer AMIN EL GAMAL Scores Critical Raves On PRISON BREAK: RESURRECTION!

 

As expected, Tuesday night has become dedicated to one thing and one thing only- and no, not Taco Tuesdays! For the past few weeks, every Tuesday night without fail has been a ratings bonanza for FOX with the return of the phenomenon known as Prison Break: Resurrection, and devoted fans are frantically tuning in each week as they remain desperate to find out what happens to Lincoln, Michael, and the rest of their favorite characters from the titanic 00’s hit. But, while audiences may be thrilled to see stars like Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller back on their screens as they try and escape one sticky situation after the next, the newly rebooted series has also brought forth a host of new talents that viewers have been raving about- particularly Amin El Gamal.

As the one-eyed ISIL member Cyclops, El Gamal was nothing short of haunting- and that is perhaps because the dedicated actor had put so much time, research and emphasis into making his deeply wounded character a fully-fleshed out human being rather than simply a caricature of the typical terrorist. It’s scary to think that in this day and age, our media so frequently presents us with terrorism that we as an audience have become so numb to it and that terrorism has somehow lost its fright-factor. Whether it be through the many media depictions, or even the news, when terrorism is shown on screen, often times it’s shown not unlike The Walking Dead, with terrorists multiplying excessively and chasing after people like thoughtless monsters- and while of course this is not a pretty picture by any means, viewers have become desensitized to it. Like anything else that is truly scary, what El Gamal has managed to do is insightfully make sure that his character is not simply just a thoughtless monster that audiences will fear for the moment, but rather a person that has many complicated psychological levels to him that leads him to do the terrifying acts that he does- which ultimately makes him ten times scarier.

And when it came to creating the chilling character, the dedicated breakout star left no stone unturned as he went through intense physical training and mountains of research to become the fear-provoking Cyclops. Not only did the committed actor go through arms and combat training, he also vehemently worked on dialogue, drove stick-shift in the desert, and faced very long, brutal days on set. But, most impressively of all, the enthusiastic performer was so gung-ho about showing an authentic fully-realized person on screen that he even dared to submerge himself in countless hours of ISIS recruitment literature and videos- a method so disciplined that it shows just how serious of an actor El Gamal truly is, not to mention what a brave actor he is.

Off screen though, it is definitely relieving to know that the kind-hearted star is nothing like his disturbing on screen persona. Beyond his fantastic work ethic and excelling talent, El Gamal is also one of the most upbeat and friendliest people that fans could hope for, delightfully referencing The Muppets as “Some of the people he one day hopes to work with!” Funny as can be, it’s quickly clear that El Gamal is not just destined for action and drama and that he could easily pull off a good comedy.

And that’s another thing that’s so great about this quickly rising star; not only is he extremely versatile, but he also has major aspirations for showing off just how wide-ranged an actor like him can be in the industry. Dead set on breaking down boundaries and giving visibility to Arab-Americans in Hollywood, El Gamal is a great example of an actor that knows how there needs to be more representation of diversity in Hollywood- and not just in stereotypical roles. While it’s all well and good that Arab-American actors are currently be utilized for topical issues, this gifted star seeks to do way more than just take on projects that tackle current events because of his ethnicity- and we can’t wait to see him do so! As The Oscars, The Golden Globes, and The Emmy’s all managed to be quite progressive last year in terms of giving more love to people of color, audiences can only hope that love continues and that last year wasn’t a one-time only event. And with that said, it would be particularly pleasing to see Prison Break: Resurrection get some attention at this year’s awards- especially Amin El Gamal.

After already wowing us this season on Prison Break, and with a ton of movies on the way, it became extremely important that Wingman sat down with Amin and found out more about what he has coming up next, what he would like to do in the future, and how on earth he managed to play such an intense character so incredibly. Oh, and of course we tried to get some spoilers out of him for the rest of the season! Read below to see what he had to say!

 

This season has been quite the thrill ride on Prison Break: Resurrection. Do you know anything else that is coming up ahead? What can fans expect?

They can expect a lot more surprises. It gets really intense, and I don’t think you can really trust anyone. That’s all I can really say, I think! [Chuckles]

 

Speaking of intense- your role definitely must have taken a severe level of dedication and concentration. What was it like getting into Cyclops’ head? How did you even go about doing that?

So, I assessed the character in many different ways. Initially, I had reservations about whether or not I should play this character. I am an Arab-American person, and my parents are Muslim immigrants, and I sort of avoided playing terrorist roles, or roles that are affiliated of some sort of narrative of terrorist storytelling that our media has become focused on. I have avoided them because I have always felt that representation has a lot of power in terms of the way we treat each other as people, but also you know it has the ability to sway public opinion, and that could maybe even effect policy, offend people, and take lives, as well as dehumanize or vilify Muslim-American people- especially if you don’t have experience with these people personally. It makes it seem like their lives don’t matter anymore. So, I had reservations on playing this character. I was excited though, because as you see there was multiple episodes for me to try to build in different layers of humanity in to him to try to see if I could approach this character in a careful, and loving sort of way which seems counterintuitive in a nonjudgmental way. And I think that’s very important to do as an actor, you have to approach characters without any judgment- at least while you’re playing them. Also, it gave me the opportunity to be doing this on a show like Prison Break, which is already known for having characters that are complex and that don’t always have the best intentions and yet, audiences still love them and relate to them. It’s that kind of odd show where nothing is what it quite seems. And then lastly I thought that if this character has to be on television, then it’s probably better to have someone playing him who has the ethnic and religious background to try to make it as accurate and responsible as possible. So, I really took my research really seriously.

 

Can you describe some of that research?

In terms of external research, I really wanted to get into the psychology of why someone would join ISIS- which I think has been explored, but not necessarily on network television. This iteration of the show is sort of based on “The Odyssey,” so, obviously there is a Cyclops in “The Odyssey” who is a monster and has no complexity whatsoever. But, the Cyclops in Prison Break is a human being and he has unique wants, needs and desires, which made it my task to do research into the psychology of why someone would join Isis- and it was terrifying. And, it was very hard to not be judgmental of these people and think of them as scary, or evil. I immersed myself in research and watched ISIS recruitment videos, and I read their literature- which is all completely bonkers, and it truly was scary, but it had to be done. I wanted to go in there and truly find out what kind of lonely person would find some hope in attaching their identity to these crazy philosophies that are being presented. A theme that I seemed to find to be the most recurring was wanting a sense of belonging and empowerment- and that was a good place for me to start. I have been bullied a lot as a kid for a variety of reasons; I was kind of over-weight, I was thought to be “the weird first generation kid,” and I was effeminate- so, I was bullied a lot. And, so, I had already spent a lot of time alone and just observing, not necessarily being in life, but just sort of just watching. And that gave me a lot to relate to- that feeling of being an outsider. And also, as a queer person, I had my masculinity questioned a lot, which became something I repeatedly had to prove. And that’s really something that’s very relatable within this character- he is constantly told that he is “not man enough,” which leads him wanting to prove his masculinity at all costs to the detriment of everything and everyone. I actually found this notebook from when I was in Morocco shooting, and I wrote down everything that I was insecure about personally and all the times I felt bullied, or I felt like I wasn’t enough. So, I sort of kept that with me to help me remind myself that I am going into a really wounded character and try and return into that head space. And coming from those wounds; both the physical wounds of his one eye, and also his psychological wounds, I decided he was an orphan whom had never been loved, and all the girls that he liked never gave him the time of day. And when I was able to connect to his yearning to belong and his confusion, that’s when I was able to find the motivation for his insanity. I want to make it clear that it’s a horrible thing that he does, and it’s not my intention to condone anything that he does, but if people at least understand how he got to that place then I think that would contribute to a more compassionate conversation on extremism. I also do a lot of physical work. I was in boxing training, and arms training to shoot guns, and I even had to learn how to drive stick shift in the desert for a big chase! And although you don’t even see it, for everything I shot I also had this very intense and elaborate piece of prosthetic make-up over my wounded eye! It was sort of like a staggering eye socket with like no eyeball in it, and it took about an hour and a half to apply! So, that presented a host of other challenges as well, giving me no peripheral vision and bad depth perception- which could be scary. But, that always reminded me of his pain since I was always in physical pain [chuckles], which is actually a little helpful. Then there was the dialogue and learning a bit of Yemeni Arabic- all that stuff helped me get out of my own head and let it stay in the truth of the scene.

 

So, you attribute bullying and seeking power as being more of the reasons behind these actions?

Well, I am Muslim, that is my background, so I know the actual religion. So, the way the recruitment videos depict the religion is actually completely different- it’s bizarre, and no interpretation that I have had or seen. But, I don’t really see my character as religious. I think he has nothing, he’s a broken human who is a little psychotic and he latches onto this sort of cult– which is really what ISIS is- it’s a violent cult. And he does this to try to get a sense of belonging, purpose and power because he has none. He tries to rape Sheba multiple times, and rape is about control and power, and probably the only person who has less power in that society would be a women, so he tries to assert his power in any way that he can. But, one thing I really like about this character is that you see that the other ISIS guys don’t particularly like him either. So, he really has no one, and he is basically out for himself. For Cyclops, it’s not about ISIS or religion anymore, it’s about him trying to prove something to himself and trying to win for once in his life.  I think that what was fun about saying the line “I call the shots,”- I think that’s the first time in his life that he had any position of power, and he definitely let it get to his head! [Laughs]

 

You got to join a very beloved cast here; Dominic Purcell, Wentworth Miller, Sarah Wayne Callies, Rockmond Dunbar, Rick Yune, Augustus Prew, and Mark Feuerstein. Can you talk about your cast a little bit?

I was a little bit star-struck by Wentworth Miller, to be honest! He’s a very talented actor and writer, of course, but I also think he’s very brave in terms of bringing visibility for LGBTQ actors, and really proving that LGBTQ actors can play any part which has lead to more actors being out and proud about who they are knowing that it will not hinder their career in terms of their work, or their commercial liability. And him and I are sort of similar. We’re both kind of quiet, intellectual and a little silly, so, it was really nice to have someone that I really look up to and feel that sort of connection. We would play word games together, and he was just delighted by that.[Laughs] Then, Augustus Prew is also an out actor, so having that trifecta support system on a show that at times was very difficult and physical to shoot was just priceless and really a blessing. We all had conversations about my character too, how subversive it was that I was cast against type. When I was reading the role on paper I thought to myself that it wasn’t like me at all- this guy has nothing to do with me! [Cracks up] I was actually originally called in for Sid, which at the time made more sense. But, I think there’s some beauty in casting someone like me who brings over more vulnerability and a little bit of a yearning quality in Cyclops that makes him more human and keeps him from being a total stereotype- at least I hope so. The three of us had many conversations about how subversive that move was. Inbar Lavi who plays Sheba has become a good friend. She is a lot of fun! Rockmond is amazing. He is extremely supportive. We hung out a lot in Morocco, and he’s just a really cool guy. He’s super down to earth and really just so supportive of younger actors. I was terrified of Dom! [Cracks up again] I thought he hated me! My first scene was actually the third episode, which was a really long day. It ended with him punching me out! [Laughs] But, when I got to know him better, I found out that he was a really generous and sweet guy, he just has a very tough exterior! [Snickers]

 

And there’s no denying that Prison Break already had legions of fans before it’s return. Were you a big fan?

I was in college at the time and I wasn’t really watching tv at all at the time it was on, so I missed it. I did binge once I got onto the show and I was pleasantly surprised! I really didn’t know what to expect. It was very ground breaking in terms of the way they were telling stories on television. A lot of television at the time wasn’t that cinematic, and now that has really become the trend. Especially the first season- it was very amazing. But, it didn’t seem like it was for me when it was originally on. I honestly didn’t watch much television.

Photo Credit: David Gabe

And you have quite a slew of films on the way that fans can look out for as well, right?

Yes! There is one called Message From The King, and it’s by this Belgian auteur, Fabrice Du Welz. This is his first English movie, and it’s a bit of a noir-thriller. I’m really proud of it. It premiered in Toronto last year, but I don’t know when it will be widely distributed. I also did a film called Namour that went on Netflix a couple of months ago, and it was really cool because it was the first time I played an Arab-American character that was just like “a dude.” First Love was an indie move I did when I first got off Prison Break. I also play an immigrant there, and it’s probably one of my biggest parts thus far. I play a Jordanian immigrant who works at a hotel and has an affair with a movie star. It’s pretty interesting!

You definitely have a lot on your plate! As one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood, who else would you love to work with, and what other roles would you love to play?

I actually just got to work on Transparent a couple weeks ago. That was really exciting. My part wasn’t really big, but they’re doing some really big and brave things on that show. I also love the show Atlanta– I don’t know what part I would play and I don’t know if there would even be a part for me, but that show blew my mind! First off, it’s visually stunning, but it is also so hilarious and dramatic at the same time, and I find that really exciting. And, I like how they sort of let the scene linger. In a show like Prison Break, everything moves fast and it’s difficult to get to lost in things, so, it’s exciting for me to find a project where you can stew in it a little more. Also, after seeing Moonlight, if Barry Jenkins had anything for me I would do that in a second! And on the sillier side, I wanted to be in a Muppets movie! [Laughs] I always loved The Muppets. I also had a dream in my youth to be the first male bond girl- but, I don’t know if that one is going to happen! I also went to college with Issa Rae who has the show Insecure on HBO and she really has inspired me. I don’t know if I would necessarily want to work on her show as I may not be the right fit, but working with her in any capacity would be fun.

 

And you’re getting so much critical acclaim for this role, and Prison Break: Resurrection is getting such high praise in general. Can you discuss how important it is that award shows continue to recognize people of color even after the progress they made this year, and don’t consider their job done?

Yes. It was very exciting to see Rami Malek win an Emmy, even though he was playing a white person- but I think that that’s the ultimate goal; to play whatever you’re right for. I think we are definitely advancing. Like at the Oscars, when Moonlight won at the last second I think I must have lost my mind, I was just so happy! But, there is definitely still a ways to go. In my case, I would love to see a show that has Arab-American character who has no relation to terrorism and is just a regular person. Maybe like me. I probably would have to write that show. Right now a lot of writers and producers look for Arab characters because of what is happening politically in the moment, and that’s cool, but a lot of times they are in relation to the issue to the issues that are happening and not showing the actual person. Arabs and Muslims have been part of the fabric of life and America for a long time, and not just in the narrative of terrorism, counter terrorism, or executive order. I think we’re definitely having a moment for diversity and inclusion that people have bought into, but I want to encourage Hollywood to not just let this be a moment, and have it be a movement- and I think that’s going to involve Arab and Muslim people making alliances. I think the Middle Eastern and North African region is really not well represented in terms of organizations. I am usually considered too ethnic for the roles that are slated for the parts that are for white actors, and too white for the parts that are slated for ethnicity roles- I’m not considered a diversity hire, so the studios and networks don’t get calls from the organizations that hire them.  So, we’re going to all have to follow the model that black, Asian, and other organizations have done in the past. They now have a seat at the table in terms of telling the networks and studios that they could do better- and we just don’t have a seat at that table yet. So, a few other people in the business and I are behind the scenes and trying to form a bit of a coalition of sorts to make that happen, and that’s extremely important. But, obviously I am extremely happy that a Arab-American won an award, but we can’t make it a token. It doesn’t mean the problem is solved. There is still a long way to go.

 

And if there’s any justice, El Gamal will be awarded with some gold come this fall. Either way, he can rest assured that he has definitely managed to get a seat at the table and that his phone will most certainly be ringing off the hook- and while it’s great that he is raising visibility for his ethnicity, he is earning it solely on talent.

Prison Break continues Tuesday night at 9/8c on FOX.