×

‘FBI’ Star on Importance of ‘Playing an Arab American Muslim as the Hero’

Prior to his role on CBS crime procedural “FBI,” Zeeko Zaki laments, he usually found himself in parts that perpetuated stereotypes about Arab Americans and Muslims. As Special Agent Omar Adom “O.A.” Zidan on the Dick Wolf-produced series, though, he is one of the few Arab American leading men on television, let alone broadcast. As such, Zaki hopes to change audiences’ perceptions of Arabs and Muslims.

Zaki: “The role was originally Latino and my manager thought it would look good for me to at least attempt, so he had me put it on tape without telling me whether or not they asked me to audition. So it was sort of unsolicited. I was like, ‘Maybe they thought I was Latino.’ They invited me to New York and put me on ‘Law & Order: SVU’s’ set to do a screen test. I got there and was the only one testing, and they changed the guy to be an Arab American. That was the moment where I was like, ‘We might have a shot at this.’ The rest is history. It was the first Arab American Muslim playing an Arab American Muslim as the hero on network. It’s an honor to have that chance be taken on me.

“I was able to fall back on my instincts for the character. It’s been a really fun journey to find the parts of me that I want to be in the character and the ones that I don’t. There’s a freedom to take chances, and there’s no wrong move as long as we’re honest on screen.

“[‘The Armorer’s Faith’] was kind of my ‘Mission: Impossible’ episode. It made the world bigger. As an actor, it’s exciting to get a meaty episode like that, and it adds a whole new layer to O.A. down the road. It’s like getting a treasure chest of information and lets you play things differently in the moment. Getting to do an episode with a little bit of a different flavor is really fun when you’re shooting constantly.

“It’s great how we’re portraying the race and religion of this character. We’re not shoving it down your throat. It’s just something that exists because it’s the reality of the situation. Normalizing it and making it not a big deal is reverse psychology on the audience, whether it’s in America or some parts of the world that feel a certain way about Arab American Muslims. Even if it’s in a TV show, those subconscious emotions can help change the narrative. If one person changes from going, ‘All Muslims are terrorists’ to ‘All Muslims are terrorists besides O.A.,’ there’s still a long way to go, but it’s something.

“The reaction of people who are picking up on exactly what we’re doing and how we’re trying to change the narrative with the representation on TV has been incredible. Arab American families are reaching out to me, saying, ‘We’re so excited to see this character,’ and how their kids have said in the past, ‘Why do all the people that look like us play bad guys?’ Now they have someone to look up to that looks like them. It’s something you don’t really realize isn’t there, until it’s there. It shows producers and writers that it’s OK to take those chances. We’re in an era right now where we’re re-creating old shows and movies, and it just feels like if we look at it in a different way, there might be a whole world of new stories that we can tell that people will respond well to.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Ballers HBO

    'Ballers' to End After Season 5 on HBO

    “Ballers” is coming to an end after five seasons on HBO. Star and executive producer Dwayne Johnson confirmed the news via an emotional Instagram video. Related For Awards, the Divide Between U.S., Global TV Shows Is Blurred Thanks to Streaming Here's Why Your Favorite TV Shows Weren't Nominated for Emmys “My heart is full of [...]

  • Sublime Primetime

    How Emmy-Nominated Writers’ Rooms Keep Politics in Mind

    In a world filled with elections, social movements and national tragedies, how open should the doors of a writers’ room actually be? For some of this year’s Emmy-nominated shows, those doors are wide open. Before the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards air on Sept. 22, the Writers Guild of America West and Writers Guild Foundation, [...]

  • Disney Villains Series 'Book of Enchantment'

    'Book of Enchantment' Series Based on Iconic Disney Villains Shelved at Disney Plus

    Disney Plus has decided to not move forward with “Book of Enchantment,” a series based on some of Disney’s most iconic villains, Variety has learned from sources. The news comes the day before Disney is set to unveil its streaming service at the biannual D23 convention in Anaheim. Related For Awards, the Divide Between U.S., [...]

  • ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS VERAFILM 2Pictured: BRENDA

    Brenda Blethyn to Star in New ITV Sitcom 'Kate and Kolo'

    Oscar-nominated Brenda Blethyn is set to star in the new sitcom “Kate and Kolo” for ITV, the U.K. broadcaster announced at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Blethyn takes on the title role of Kate in the comedy alongside theater and film actor Jimmy Akingbola as Kolo. Blethyn is a popular star with ITV audiences after having [...]

  • Sean Spicer Emmys

    Sean Spicer's Casting Explained? Red States Love 'Dancing With the Stars'

    ABC faced backlash this week after casting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on “Dancing with the Stars.” But that outrage might actually spice up the dancing competition’s dwindling ratings — particularly in Trump Country. “Dancing with the Stars” has faced a relatively alarming decline in ratings over the past two cycles, falling 32% [...]

  • Peppa Pig

    Hasbro Acquires Entertainment One in $4 Billion All-Cash Deal

    Toymaker Hasbro is acquiring studio Entertainment One in an all-cash transaction valued at $4 billion, bringing My Little Pony and Nerf under the same umbrella as “Peppa Pig” and “PJ Masks” and furthering Hasbro’s growth goals in the infant and preschool categories. Hasbro aims to expand its operations in film and TV. Entertainment One’s production [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content