As the titular son, Rafiq, in the first season finale episode of “Little America,” Haaz Sleiman delivered a journey of heartbreak and hope in the tight half-hour story. When the audience meets him, he is living with his family in Syria but quickly forced out of his home after his father learns he is gay. He finds solace in a new friend and in applying for asylum in the United States. The role was close to Sleiman’s heart as a gay man who grew up in Lebanon, and he will continue to represent the LGBTQ community with his next big role in Marvel’s “Eternals.”
Sleiman: I got the audition just like any other audition — through my agents. And as I was reading, it really interested me because I’ve never worked on an anthology series and I didn’t know much about anthology series prior to me doing “Little America.” And honestly, I feel very lucky because it is such a genuine show and it was my first experience with something like this. And to me, the icing on the cake is the fact that it’s all based on true stories — real people, real immigrants.
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What stood out to me about my episode was it was the only one that took place mostly outside of America. I was surprised and almost a little confused in the beginning, but once I digested it all, I was excited because the only other character that I’ve portrayed that’s based on a real person, maybe I could argue, is Jesus in “Killing Jesus” — and he’s not alive.
I met the real person at the premiere, and of course I was nervous to see if I made him happy with my portrayal. I basically made him cry because he said he felt like he was really reliving his story. That really meant a lot. It was one of the highlights of my career as an actor.
I could relate a lot to his journey. I’ve never been physically violated or abused like he was, but I went through that mental, emotional abuse and isolated childhood. I really lived a very solitary childhood, so his journey feeling isolated, alone and disconnected from his family — that fear of being rejected by his family — all of that I lived. And I actually escaped Lebanon, not because I was escaping persecution, but because I thought I couldn’t survive living there — that I would die if I had to stay there. It was the same reason, but obviously different circumstances.
It was a very emotional shoot, and I didn’t even realize how emotional it would be until we started rehearsing. What he went through was a lot, and my dad passed away in June before I had to go to Montreal and film. That, in a way, ignited a fire in me because it’s called “The Son,” and obviously a big, big part of the story is the relationship between the father and the son and how that changes when the father finds out his son is gay. There was a parallel with that between me and my dad. Two months prior to him dying, my dad actually was telling me over the phone that he accepts me for who I am and he’d stand with me [and] he’d fight for me against any family member — which is something I never dreamed of. My father was very machismo and it was a very patriarchal society. And so for me, I had a very bad relationship with my dad for so many decades, but then having him tell me that and then him passing away, it made me want to dedicate the episode to him. It kicked it off in the right place in the sense of almost overwhelming loss.
When you lose a parent for the first time, you don’t know how you’re going to feel, and as maybe bad as this is going to sound, it was really perfect for the journey of Rafiq. That sense of loss and confusion, it set me up in the right away for the show.
I sat down with the director on the first day. They were all very thoughtful and sent my mom flowers, but they were also worried about if I’d be able to do this. I said, “Well listen, I’m a very sensitive person, which is good for me as an actor. However, I don’t know how that’s going to translate on set.” And sometimes we’d be filming and I would start crying and not be able to stop myself, and Stephen would say, “We should pull that back a bit.” And I would be like, “Sure, of course.” But it was challenging to find the way not to let my father’s death get in the way but be useful for the journey.
I feel like my dad’s death reopened an old wound, and having that old wound reopened helped me tap into the moments where Rafiq’s father burned his arm on the stovetop, for example. I had never had that happen to me, but it’s my job as an actor to find how to play it.
The story itself was very emotional, and it really moved me from the first time I read it. And that’s probably one of the most important parts of the whole process: if I have a character and a script I really care about and think is important for me to tell, that’s really all I need. Everything else helps, but the fundamental thing is having a strong, solid script that I believe is important.
I feel like as artists we all have a responsibility to spread light, truth and power, and to inspire. That is my focus and that is why I am an artist. But of course I gladly go back to those times that are very dark; I feel like it’s my job if I want to move the audience and inspire the audience all around the world for them to feel for this character and relate to this person. Maybe they’re not gay, maybe they’ve never met a queer person, but my job is to make them relate to them as a human being, and the only way I can do that is to show the depth of the truth of it all. Believe it or not, people say, “Actors lie,” but the funny thing — the ironic part — is if you’re going to be a really excellent actor, your job is to show the truth and not to lie.
The show is about humanizing these immigrant stories so that Americans and the world can basically become smaller somehow, and we can actually be less judgmental and understand each other better. The country is so divisive today in a shocking away, thanks to the Trump era — that’s also adding to that. This show goes the opposite way and reminds us, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re all human beings and we all want the same thing. And we all come from somewhere as American immigrants.” I think the show does a great job of reminding us of that.
[In “Eternals”] my character and Brian’s really represent humanity, in a way, so it’s really nice they chose to do that via a queer family. That was really courageous on their end, so for me it was really the excitement to share that.
Really my power as an artist is to be able to do that. If I couldn’t, it would be like losing oxygen and I would shrivel and die as an artist. It goes back, again, to the truth. I feel like any time I can be part of something that is helping put the world in more of a place of light, there’s nothing better than that for me.
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