Mostly unknown thesp makes quite an impression

Since Hiam Abbass happens to be an actress of Arab descent who grew up in Israel, the expectation might be that she plumbed the depths of her own experience to play the mother of a young Arab man imprisoned in the U.S. in the lauded indie “The Visitor.” But that isn’t how she works.

“I never like to think of a character as being mine,” she says. “For me it’s not a case of bringing ‘you’ to it. There is a truth that exists in you, but it’s not really you.”

Whatever her process, Abbass submitted a moving portrayal of Mouna, who arrives in New York from Michigan and won’t budge as long as her son is behind bars. She and Walter, an economics professor played by Richard Jenkins, form a deep and heartfelt bond in the brief time they’re thrown together.

Her strength and determination are as apparent in scenes with Jenkins as in those depicting her connection to her onscreen son, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who does not even share screen time with Abbass.

“When I work on a character, I don’t try to use similarities between the character and me,” explains Abbass, who lives in Paris and is a mother herself. “It’s just drawing upon different little moments. I knew she had a strong connection with her son. I had to create this without seeing them together. It’s a very strong situation, and whether I’m a mother or not, I had to keep that relationship in the script in mind.”

Although Abbass has been a working actress for many years and appeared in American-made films, “The Visitor” marked her first American film shot entirely in the States. She met with writer-director Tom McCarthy in Paris to discuss the project and related issues in broad terms. Then three months later, to her delight, she received a script with a character based on ideas they covered.

“It’s really about the connection with people,” Abbass says. “We all connected before we started working, at the table read. We shared our experiences, and it helped us to understand each other better and how each of us works.”

She believes it was the unity that was created among the cast that helped to make the film special.

“When I met the other actors, it pulled me very high up,” she recalls. “I said, ‘OK, the challenge here is big; I can’t let everyone down. I have to really be there with total heart, body and spirit to make this movie happen because all the actors are in the same place about it.’”

Favorite film this year

“It’s been tough on me. I’ve been working a lot, and I’ve missed a lot of movies. I tend to catch up on older movies.”

Best advice

“To be truthful, especially in acting.”

Inspiration

“From people, from human beings. I really love them.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more