Skip to main content

Trading Syria's apocalypse for role in new X-Men blockbuster

Abdulla Hamam gets a lucky call amidst his asylum in Ottawa, Canada, and earns an opportunity to act in X-Men: Apocalypse
Abdulla takes a quick photo on the set of X-Men: Apocalypse with Hollywood leading man Oscar Isaac (MEE/Abdulla Hamam)
He may only actually appear on screen in the film X-Men: Apocalypse for one, maybe two minutes, but those precious moments in what is set to be one of the biggest Hollywood smash hits of 2016, were the climax of a remarkable journey for Abdula Hamam.
The Syrian actor, who had moved to Canada to study, had gone from high hopes of studying and working in the West, to a family disaster brought on by the war in Syria, to a lucky break that saw him cast in a major Hollywood film.
In this epic blockbuster, expected to gross around $120m in its first week, immense effort went into preparing even the tiniest roles. Donning a red top, a pair of black Crocs, and a pair of Calvin Klein briefs was pretty much the extent of the Syrian asylum-seeker's minimalist outfit as he was whipped into shape for his role. The make-up and wardrobe team primped, preenedshaved, spray tanned, coiffed his locks of hair and sponged Hamam down with makeup until the perfect look was achieved.
Abdulla can't resist taking a selfie while getting prepped for his role in the new X-Men movie (MEE/Abdulla Hamam)
The role Hamam plays is that of a "lead conspiracy guard" whose backstory is that he heads up the plans to kill the villain "Apocalypse," played by Hollywood actor Oscar Isaac. His part comes in the opening scenes of the film. The scene is set in Egypt in 3500 BC and Hamam had to wear clothing appropriate to that ancient Egyptian era. “They shaved the sides of my head for the role as well as my entire body. They took me for a spray tan and spent 25 minutes putting make-up on my face and another 30 minutes trying out the best way to tie back my hair so that it wouldn't show under the cap which was meant to make me look bald." 
Once he was out of the hair and makeup prep, he was helped into his gladiator costume and the final look was complete. "When I was all set to shoot, I looked at myself in the mirror and could not believe the transformation."
Abdulla Hamam (L) crouches next to a fellow made-up cast member on the set of X-Men: Apocalypse (MEE)
Hamam describes the experience as a “lifetime opportunity”. During the 11 days of shooting, he got to meet talented stuntmen as well as star director Bryan Singer, plus the film's big-name Hollywood stars Oscar Isaac, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence. “I am a big fan of all of them, but I had to be composed and not make them feel uncomfortable while they were on set. The only person I was able to take a photo with was Oscar Isaac. He was really humble and friendly, so I couldn’t help but ask for a photo with him.”
It was an incredible experience,” says Hamam. “The film set was so big... I didn’t know where to look upon entering. There were so many things to see. I didn’t even know where to start.”

Born in Abu Dhabi, Hamam lived in the UAE, where his father worked, for 15 years. He would visit Syria three to four months a year for summer holidays. In 2010, before the war broke out in Syria, Hamam graduated from high school in the UAE. His family had invested in a pharmaceutical company in Homs, Syria, but instead of going to Syria to be with his family, Hamam wanted to try living in the West for a while, and so he and some of his friends began applying to universities in Western countries.

Accepted to Carleton University in Canada, he moved to Ottawa in September 2010 and started his studies as an international telecommunications engineering student. 

War clouds

In the summer of 2011, Hamam’s parents’ pharmaceutical company failed and today is no longer in operation. This was due firstly to the miserable economy that followed the uprising and the difficulty in importing and exporting drugs, and then later because of the physical destruction of the company when it was hit by bombs in the devastation of Homs. This was bad news for his family who was trying to help finance his studies in Ottawa.

Hamam did not want to be a burden on them, however, and said he was ready to take responsibility by covering all of his tuition fees as well as his allowance. “My family wanted to continue supporting me even after their loss, but I wanted to step up, so I started working part-time. I juggled three jobs and seven courses in one semester, while the full-load at my university was five courses per semester,” he recalls.

“It was getting worse in Syria, and I wanted to do something about it. I didn’t want my family to have to worry about me too.”

Along with the issue of the financing of his tuition fees, there was the matter of the military service deferment that he had to consider as a Syrian national living abroad. “I was not yet 18 when I first came here [to Ottawa] so to request the deferment of my military service, I had to go back to Syria to do all the paperwork, but my passport was about to expire and I couldn’t leave Canada before the expiration date,” Hamam explains.

“If I did not apply within the given time period, I would have been considered to have been committing an offence.” Consequently, in 2011, Hamam became a refugee claimant which meant he had no rights in Canada, and that all his identification documents were to be kept with the Syrian government.

As an international student, he had to reapply for his study permit and his student visa after their expiration date, and without original copies of legal documentation this was not possible. “My application was in limbo for months, and at that time I had no social help, no real forms of ID, no passport. I had no official documents that had my photo on it, so I couldn’t freely move around. I had put my studies on hold.”

First acting experience

Hamam was bitten by the acting bug fairly early on in life at the age of 12 during summer camp in the UAE. “In the summer before seventh grade, I stood in for a guy in my summer camp who had the second biggest role in the play Al-Mu’tasim. The play was about an Islamic leader who was fair in his judgements and whom everyone called upon to resolve disputes. I acted the role of the guy who tried to betray him and make the other people believe that he was an unjust man,” he says.

“The director said he liked me that day, and wanted me to take on the role permanently. I fell in love with what I felt when I was on stage, but I didn’t understand what that feeling was, and I couldn’t take the role at the time because I had to travel to Syria for my summer vacation, so the director brought forward the date of the play so that I was there when it took place.”

In 2012, Hamam met Islam Balbaa, co-founder of the Ottawa-based Balmour Productions, which has produced many theatrical productions created and written by Balbaa and his co-founder, Hatem Hammour. The company also engages in event-planning such as talent shows and cultural nights.

Hamam plays the lead male role of Professor Higgins in an Arabic rendition of My Fair Lady (MEE/Abdulla Hamam)

“When I found out about Balmour Productions and its plays, I was interested in volunteering. I was a production assistant when I started with them, and so I helped backstage with the setting up and all. With time, I started understanding how the process works and I started rising up the ranks. I became a production director and later I was a board member,” recounts Hamam. His involvement with Balmour Productions led to a close friendship between Balbaa and Hamam, and as a result he started helping Balbaa shoot short films.

In 2014, Balmour made an Arabic rendition of George Bernard Shaw’s My Fair Lady  for which they hosted auditions. Hamam auditioned for the lead role and was chosen for the part. Asked why they picked Hamam to play Professor Higgins, Balbaa speaks admiringly of Hamam’s talent, saying he had great body language, a great voice for theatre, great chemistry with the female lead, and a capacity to memorise his lines. “He just fit the character very well and made it his own. I think he is a great actor, whether it’s in film or theatre, and I think this guy can go places,” Balbaa adds.

His theatrical role also gave Hamam his big break. Andrea Kenyon Casting Associates Inc contacted Balbaa because they were looking for Middle-Eastern actors. Hamam auditioned for two roles and was phoned back for one of them. “It wasn’t a big role, and I didn’t know it was for X-men at the time. They asked me to shave my hair and my beard so I thought to myself for a bit, and I decided I wouldn’t shave my hair for a minor role. So I rejected the role. But two weeks later, they called again, and the casting director said they liked me for a role that was a little bigger than the role they first offered me. But they also brought up the hair issue. I thought maybe I shouldn’t lose this one just because of my beard.”

'It was like God was smiling at me'

Following a series of misfortunate events in his life, Hamam describes his subsequent opportunities in theatre and now the movie as God’s way of smiling down on him. He has begun to have hope for the future. 

“After this experience, I started believing and accepting that maybe good things can happen, because at some point in my life, I was let down a lot, and I started thinking that it’s best to be realistic about everything,” Hamam admits.

For Hamam, an opportunity like this might open the door to many others. While he has just completed his engineering degree, acting is the real dream he wants to pursue.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.