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Playing a Despised Terrorist: 'United 93'


The movie United 93 is controversial and gripping. It's a real time retelling of what happened about that plane on September 11th when passengers tried to overcome four Arab hijackers. Playing the role of hijacker was an opportunity and a challenge for Omar Berdouni. He's a London based actor who, like most of us, watched the events of September 11th unfold on television. When Berdouni heard that Muslims were involved he immediately worried about the repercussions for himself and the whole Arab world. That concern nearly led him to turn down his role in United 93.

OMAR BERDOUNI: My first reaction was absolutely not. I do not want to be involved in this project because I was pretty ignorant of Paul Greengrass, our director's work beforehand. But when I first had the meeting with him, he sort of made me believe that what he wants to portray is the truth. Not only the passengers were hijacked that day. Also my religion was hijacked in a way that they were killing innocent people on the name of Islam, which couldn't be far from the truth. I mean, you cannot kill innocents on the name of Allah. It just doesn't, it just doesn't make any sense. Paul Greengrass has had the sensibility and he put me at ease of mind and he told me that this is not a movie about, we're not going to start demonizing these people. And we're going to portray them like they truly were. As these deluded, fanatical people. That they don't represent me or my society or my religion.

NORRIS: But that puts you in such an interesting position because if you do your job and portray this terrorist in an absolutely convincing why that could affect the way that people view you. That could sort of feed into that stereotype.

BERDOUNI: Well, I mean, for me it's a huge stretch to play a part like this. I mean I grew up in Morocco, a very open society. I went and had an American school education. I mean I have more in common with someone from the south of Spain then from someone from the Middle East who has his beliefs. So for me it's challenging work as an actor. It's something I can really get into and really read the script and really do some research and get into it.

NORRIS: So you had concerns as someone of Arab descent, but I'm wondering if you thought that your fortune's changed as an actor after 9/11.

BERDOUNI: Well at that time, I have to be honest, I did not expect to be in a film like this, you know, after the first year it happened. It never occurred to me films like that would be made in the first place. It just didn't occur to me.

NORRIS: There's a scene in the film where you walk forward, you get up, you reach in the overhead cabinet and you pull down a black bag and you head towards the front of the plane. And you go into one of those tiny lavatories. Tell us what you do and tell us what you had to do to get into the right frame of mind for that scene.

BERDOUNI: There was a big delay for us to take off the plane and that puts the plan in disarray and there was a miscommunication between us and we didn't really know what was going one. We didn't know whether the pilots already knew about the hijacks that were happening in other planes. So there was a lot of apprehension in when was the right time to go ahead and do it. But I think as soon as I stand up and I make my way to the toilet there was a complete sense that I am doing the right thing and I am ready to do it and come what may I'm going to do it and I'm going to die doing what I have to do in the name of God.

NORRIS: So much of that is portrayed through the emotions that we see, sort of flash across your face. You're in the little teeny room, and they way it's shot, we're looking at you in the mirror as you're looking at yourself.

BERDOUNI: I must say that that was a very, very, hard challenging thing to do. To actually look at myself in the mirror, because you're looking at yourself in the mirror and you know you're not looking at yourself as myself as Omar. I'm looking at myself as a terrorist of Flight 93 and that's what makes it such a hard and difficult part to play.

NORRIS: All this while you're putting together a bomb in that bathroom.


NORRIS: That's why you brought your bag forward.

BERDOUNI: Exactly.

NORRIS: So without dialogue there are things you use other than words. The way you breathe, the way you bite your bottom lip, things like that.

BERDOUNI: That's right.

NORRIS: What is the language that you speak if you can't use words?

BERDOUNI: At the time it was the language as a terrorist you're thinking and breathing like one. And in fact one of the research we did was one of the preparations, there was a letter written my Muhammad Ata explaining all the preparations they we'd do and that covered everything. That covered from what you should dress, what kind of blade you should be carrying. From how the way you should breathe and the way that you should clench your teeth together when you're in fear. And the certain prayers you should say when you're feeling afraid and all that. So that was completely covered by them, and I sort of remembered that, the notes that Ata left behind explaining what you should be doing at every situation.

NORRIS: How concerned are you now about being pigeonholed now that you've portrayed this role?

BERDOUNI: I'm not, because I've been very lucky and I've been playing sort of very varied roles so far. I've just done a movie directed by Philip Haas called The Situation and it's about Iraq and I play a very pro, I suppose, American Iraqi citizen who's helping out an American journalist. And for me that's, it's a completely different character. So I am going to be playing Arab roles, I mean, that's who I am, but in terms of being, playing terrorists all the time I don't think I am going to, and I don't think I will pigeonholed because I'm just not going to be playing terrorists all the time, hopefully.

NORRIS: Omar Berdouni thanks so much for talking to us.

DERDOUNI: Thank you for having me. Thanks.

NORRIS: Omar Berdouni. His latest film is United 93. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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