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Fayssal Bazzi talks Netflix's 'Stateless,' more

Fayssal Bazzi attends the 2018 AACTA Awards

 Fayssal Bazzi attends the 2018 AACTA Awards Presented by Foxtel | Industry Luncheon at The Star on December 3, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Getty Images for AFI/Lisa Maree Williams

Fayssal Bazzi is on a Zoom call from Sydney, Australia. The star of "Stateless," now streaming on Netflix, is nearly clean-shaven, and wide-awake (it's early there). He speaks in a soft Aussie lilt and seems much younger than he is (37). Effortlessly charming and funny, he's every bit the charismatic and accomplished stage actor he has become Down Under. 

So this is Ameer, the Afghan refugee who ends up in a detention center in a desolate stretch of the Outback?

 Yes, of course, this is. That's why it's called "acting," and why Bazzi's stirring performance in this six-parter is of the "breakout" variety. As the father desperate to bring his family to Australia, he commands the screen, and ultimately the story. "Stateless," in fact, is the story of Ameer, and many millions just like him — a reason why it has buzz, or perhaps the better word is "resonance." 

Cate Blanchett — who has a small role, and is executive producer — worked for six years to bring "Stateless" to TV. It's loosely based on the story of Cornelia Rau, a German woman who spent a nearly year in one of Australia's secretive detention centers in 2004-5. (Yvonne Strahovski's character is loosely based on her.) 

Rau's ordeal focused media attention on thousands of other detainees — people of color, like Ameer, also desperate for a visa and a home. 

When did you get involved with "Stateless?"

Last year it came on to my radar, and at first I actually said no because I don't speak Dari [and] a lot of my dialogue is in Dari. [But] turns out the father of the girl who plays my eldest daughter, Mina [Soraya Heidari], is a translator, and was on the set the whole time. 

Concerned you'd be playing an Afghani character when you are of Lebanese descent? 

I'm half-Lebanese, half-Syrian but [agreed to audition] as long as there were Afghani people also considered for the role. I've been acting for 17 years, and when I was coming up through the ranks, every audition I'd go to there would be white actors going for the same role. I remember losing a role to a white actor and later watched the TV show — they had just darkened up his skin.

 There seem to be parallels between what's going on in "Stateless" and what's been happening here. Did that at all factor into the thinking behind the series? 

Sadly, we didn't really have to look too far. It's kind of embedded in our [own] history, and not only with refugees but our treatment of First Nation people here. That kind of discrimination cuts deep. Everything we did is true to life about the treatment of refugees in this country. 

Most Americans watching this may not realize there is a tragic past, obviously with indigenous people, while Australia's "all-white" policy officially ended in just 1973. 

We've been watching and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that's happening in America, getting behind it here, and we also have our own movement [surrounding] the deaths of indigenous people in custody. It's up to 438 deaths in custody since 1991 …. Yeah, these things need to be repaired from the bottom up. That's why 'Stateless' is getting such a good response around the world and especially in America — because these systems are in place all over the world, and they need to change. 

Tell me about your childhood. 

I was born in Lebanon, my mum's Syrian, my dad, Lebanese. We were living [near] Beirut and basically had to leave because of the [1982] war with Israel. Our house was bombed and we lost all our stuff, and my parents made the decision to leave [and] either try to go to America or Australia. Because we had some cousins in Australia, we ended up going there.

How old were you? 

I was three and half at the time, and because my birth certificate was destroyed in the war, 

my parents said I was five [so] they could put me straight into school. At the time I spoke Arabic and French, but couldn't speak English and had a lot of trouble adjusting. My first school was not a pleasant experience — my introduction to racism, and baptism by fire. [But] a wonderful teacher at the second school said to show her what I wanted to say because I could understand English but still not speak it. I'd be like miming and [she said] 'you're really good at that — You should be an actor.' [Laughs] I've never thought of doing anything else

Next? 
 I came out of acting school just as 9/11 happened, and suddenly the image of someone who looks like me — on a global scale — changed. I realized that if I wanted to pursue acting, I'd have to hold off on film and TV for a while, because basically I'd be playing the kind of role I wasn't interested in playing. I didn't want to pigeonhole myself so I started to lean heavily into theater.

Will there be a second season? 

 Because of the timeline — it's nearly set fifteen years ago — -if there was a second season Ameer would have to be sent offshore [where the detention centers are now located] or sent back to Afghanistan. There is no happy ending. Yeah, it's heart wrenching but I'm so glad our story got out, thanks to Netflix.

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