Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

A Nation Engaged: A Syrian star is reborn in Hollywood

by Austin Cross | Take Two®

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Actor Jay Abdo speaks during the UN Women USNC L.A. Media Summit in support of #HeForShe at YouTube Space LA at YouTube Space LA on May 21, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Vivien Killilea

Jihad "Jay" Abdo was a star of the Syrian silver screen until a twist of fate landed him in Southern California. 

He returned to Take Two to share his story as part of the NPR collaboration titled "A Nation Engaged."

Syrian Kevin Spacey

In my country, as an actor, I was, for the American audience, like Kevin Spacey. For me, as one of the busiest actors in the Middle East, life was very comfortable. I was welcomed anywhere I went. I was in a situation that I could accept or not accept any offer for any TV show or film. 

Coming to America

I was interviewed by a lady who worked for the LA Times, and she put my full name on the article when I criticized and accused the [Syrian] army, the security service, and the president, Bashar al-Assad of all the arrests and responded to the uprising. It became a little bit fearful for me and unsafe. 

People stopped me in the streets. They went and smashed my car's window. I started receiving threatening phone calls, and I said to myself, I will leave for a while and then go back to my life, to my career, to my family. 

The Road Back

At the end of 2013, they were looking for someone to play opposite Nicole Kidman, the role of her guide in Queen of the Desert. The director, Werner Herzog, didn't find what he was looking for and someone introduced me to him, saying 'Look at this guy, he's here, he's from Syria, he's what you're looking for, he speaks Levantine Arabic, and he has a huge body of work back home.'

He saw my demo reel, and he said, 'I like this guy, I want to meet with him.' From that day, everything changed in my life. 

Dear Mr./Mrs. President

To be an American, for me, is to be safe because I wasn't safe back home: To have this freedom of speech that I didn't have back home. I can raise my voice and tell the whole world. I can spread the word around the globe about human rights. 

As a Syrian refugee who came to the United States, I would like to hear from the upcoming president that we will engage those people coming from all over the globe because they are good people, they are skilled, and they can't do what they do in the United States in their countries. America will be strong with them, and the American people will be happy with them. This is what I hope to hear from the American president and I will be proud of him or her. 

Jay Abdo's career continues to flourish. He appears alongside Tom Hanks in the movie "A Hologram for the King."

Press the blue play button to hear Jay Abdo's story. 

(Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.) 

Series: A Nation Engaged

America is changing. The crosscurrents of demographic and cultural change are upending traditional voting patterns and altering the face of the American political parties in significant ways. As part of our collaborative project with NPR called "A Nation Engaged," this week we're asking: What does it mean to you to be an American?

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.

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