actorinterview 65 © Paramount Vantage KABUL Afghanistan in their bones. I’m the only slight anomaly, as I’m Egyptian. With the release of Afghanistan-centred film The Kite Runner, based on the bestselling novel, lead actor KHALID ABDALLA has shot to fame and is set to become one of Hollywood’s most talented actors. The softly-spoken British-Egyptian, who first graced the big screen with his portrayal of the lead hijacker in United 93, talks to Annabel Trew First New York then Dubai you’ve had a busy week… Yes. Actually I just flew in from Dubai. It was a very special screening; the children (who play the part of young Amir and young Hassan) came with us, so we were all together at the closing night of the Dubai Film Festival. We built a family on this film, which I can proudly say is not an exaggeration. Let’s back-track a little. You got the part and then you were sent straight to one of the least likely places in the world for a Brit to be: Afghanistan itself. What was that like? It was total immersion, I completely banished English and was learning Dari for four to five hours a day. I was eating everything written about in the book, I was going everywhere in the book. I travelled up to the north of the country through the Salang pass – which was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Lush valleys of green – I always have to say the word ‘green’ 50 times over, as many people don’t realise how green Afghanistan can be – and snowcapped mountains. At the end of my month I somehow came out speaking Dari, I guess because that had to happen. The biggest criticism of any film is that the book was much better. The Kite Runner is an unbelievably popular novel… One of the joys of going to screenings of the film has been the wealth of people who say they have read the book - and love the film. The film is faithful to the story and, crucially, as moving as the book. The one thing the film could never do was emotionally short change its audience. We also had the opportunity to give something back. About 50% of the film is in Dari, which is something you can’t have in the book. The majority of the speaking parts are from Afghanistan, bringing a wealth of experience. For example, the children – they have got But many Afghans who have watched the film can’t believe you are not Afghan… I took the responsibility of playing an Afghan very seriously in terms of my reading, my studying and my awareness, as I know what it feels like to be misrepresented, burdened by a stereotype, and treated as if how you speak is irrelevant. This film is unique, as it is the first major studio film in which the first point of contact with Afghanistan is a family story and not violence. With my background, I share with Afghans a very strong desire to be part of that cultural project. When most people think of Afghanistan, they can’t even imagine what it looks like and instead think immediately of the Taliban. Do you believe this film will change Western perceptions? This is what makes me feel so proud to be part of this film - to change things a little bit. At one point, Afghanistan had over six million refugees, but nobody associates it with that cultural trauma, or the stories that come with that experience. Instead, as with the words Arab and Muslim, Afghanistan has a long list of negative associations that block out the human stories which should replace this constant image of angry, irrational and violent people ‘over there’. This film is the first of its kind on this scale. All its characters are Muslim, and so you are not ushered into the region by a Westerner who you trust. And we have a scene, author Khaled Hosseini’s favourite, in which we empathise with a Muslim man praying. For once, a Muslim prayer is not an indication that something’s about to blow up, but a simple human act of faith. However, I don’t believe that any film is immediately transformative. I’m proud to be part of a longer process of change. Before you go, indulge us a little, tell us what we are all dying to know… what is it really like on the ‘red carpet’? It’s hard work! [laughs] I remember for United 93 turning up for my first red carpet. I didn’t know what it was, I thought it was something you walked down and led you to the cinema. It was a baptism of fire – I had about 30 interviews in the space of 45 minutes from people around the globe. What is really crazy is the photographing. You are faced with three or four tiers of about 30 photographers in a block shouting at you to look in their direction, and then you are shifted half a metre to the right and you’re faced with another block of 30 photographers. The photos and interviews continue all the way up to the end of the red carpet! The Kite Runner is in cinemas now.