As Special Agent Omar Adom 'OA' Zidan on CBS' "FBI," Zeeko Zaki has made TV history — he's believed to be the first colead on an American drama who identifies as an Arab-American. Zaki, 29, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and grew up outside of Philadelphia.
I spoke recently to Zaki about his pioneering role and about Dick Wolf-produced "FBI" — the 2018-19 season's most viewed network first-year series (the first season wraps Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Ch. 2).
So just to be clear, you are indeed the first?
I believe I am the first Arab-American playing an American as protagonist on a network series.
That's a big deal.
It feels like we're right on the cusp of this new sort of diversity — we have 'Ramy' on Hulu — and we're definitely starting to find a lot more non-typecast Arab roles that are coming out right now. That's the best part of this. And because 'FBI' is a success, I feel like we've settled another question — can you put a Muslim on a show and will people respond, especially a show like this that is so focused and geared to middle America.
"FBI" addressed the question of the typecast Muslim early on, correct?
In the second episode, me and my partner [Special Agent Maggie Bell, played by Missy Peregrym] were up against a Muslim bad guy, so you're looking at two Arabs in the narrative [and] it gave my character this credibility — that he had this area of [anti-terrorism] expertise and yet we played the story of his background softly, and weren't shoving it down anyone's throats.
The show is, in fact, a success.
[Laughs]. Yeah, it's crazy and it feels like an important job too, representing a group of people who have not been represented and doing it in a good way.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is around the corner too. Did Dick see a little bit of symbolism in casting you?
I just think Dick follows his gut. He sees a much bigger picture [and] he just knew the dominoes needed to fall in this direction, as long as we stay positive and work hard.
Did you grow up in Delaware or Pennsylvania?
Right on the [state] line. My parents own a [hair] salon, and my dad is an incredible stylist. I was the first [of his family] to fly away.
Did it blow your parents' minds that you wanted to go into acting?
My family is the extreme exception to that stereotype. My mom wanted me to act, which is crazy. She always knew school was kind of a waste of time for me, but when you're young you just sort of go the other way your mom wants you to go — until you realize she's right. I went to community college in North Carolina, and did a play that [veteran casting director] Jackie Burch saw with her friend [a manager] and got signed. But I actually did the play to make my mother happy, and [now] it's turned into this. They've [his parents] have supported me through this whole journey.
Obviously they — and you — were aware of the considerable hurdles ahead. How did you deal with that?
They were nervous and my mom definitely wanted me to play down a little bit I am a Muslim Arab-American. But it did kind of fall on me that I had to stand up for that, and it felt important enough to take a few risks and put myself out there regardless. There are people in the world that might not support [this role] and might tell you, but I've yet to hear anything negative.
I read somewhere that you said a lot of your Arab-American actor friends are 'sick and tired of playing terrorists and crying mothers.' Has "FBI" helped them in a way too?
When I said that I was talking about a friend who had booked 'Grey's Anatomy,' and I looked at her and said, 'crying mother?' She said yeah. It was a running joke. But since I booked this, seven of my friends have been on Ramy's [Youssef] show … It's been ten years since I started with my agent [and I was told] there will always be roles for bearded Arab men and that I could play a terrorist until the end of time. But I know you can't do it forever. I'm not mad about it — we were telling real stories that exist — but it's time to tell more stories through the perspective of the Arab character. There are whole bunch of stories we can tell through that perspective.