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From Syria to Hollywood: Jay Abdo's rough road to repeat stardom

Actor Jay Abdo joins Take Two.
Actor Jay Abdo joins Take Two.
Fadia Afashe
Actor Jay Abdo joins Take Two.
Take Two host Alex Cohen (left) with actor Jay Abdo (right).
Fadia Afashe

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For three decades, Syrian actor Jihad ‘Jay’ Abdo was a star of the Middle Eastern silver screen. He had appeared in over 40 films and was center stage in more than 20 plays, but in 2011 Abdo gave an interview to the LA Times that would alter the trajectory of his career. He shared his story with Take Two's Alex Cohen. 

"This lady went online and I had some profiles on some movie websites. She saw my name and she emailed me saying, 'I would like to have an interview with you regarding the entertainment business,'" Abdo said.

He accepted the invitation and soon found himself speaking to the reporter. When the conversation turned to the political climate in Syria, a frightened Abdo asked the reporter to stop the recorder. 

"And then I started telling [her] the army and the security service are in charge of [arrests] and killings and all this military approach," Abdo said. "My friends at that time,  actors, professors, doctors ... they were arrested and tortured because they marched in the street."

Abdo says he asked the reporter not to write about what he just told her. 

"And the very next day, everything I [said] was in the article with my full name on it," Abdo said. 

Abdo says he felt pressure from the government immediately. The next day, a producer called and demanded he appear on television to apologize and declare allegiance for President Bashir al-Assad. When Abdo didn't show up, the threats mounted. After his car window was smashed, Abdo knew it was time to leave. 

Abdo went to live with his wife, who had been studying in America. The couple soon moved to Los Angeles, but Abdo struggled to get his career started again. 

"When we went out, you couldn't move your assets from a country like Syria," Abdo said. "I think I applied everywhere: Macy's, Starbucks, Costco, everywhere, [but] it was just a waste of time."

Abdo eventually found work delivering flowers and pizza.

"It wasn't very good money," Abdo said. "But still, you know?"

Abdo's big break came when a friend recommended him to director Werner Herzog, who was looking for an Arabic-speaking actor to co-star with Nicole Kidman in the upcoming film, "Queen of the Desert."

Press the play button above to hear what happened next.

To hear the interview in its entirety, click the link under "Bonus Audio."