Lebanese-American actor Haaz Sleiman is sensitive and candid. These qualities are what make him so ingratiating on and offscreen and part of the reason why the actor will be honored at OUTShine, Fort Lauderdale’s LGBTQ+ film festival, on October 20. He is being recognized with the festival's Vanguard Award for being one of the few visible gay, Muslim, Arab-American men in Hollywood.
Sleiman’s best-known characters — Tarek, the drummer in The Visitor; Nurse Jackie’s “Mo-Mo,” TV’s first gay Muslim character; and Tim, the gay, Lebanese pianist in Those People — all showcase him as a character actor in a leading man’s body. He has also played straight roles: Cookie, in the underseen Dorfman in Love; Jesus in Killing Jesus, and Ali, a terrorist in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
But what excites Sleiman as an actor these days is the opportunity to provide honest portrayals of gay and Arab people. He says growing up in Lebanon helped him develop a thick skin and an empathy for others that has served him well in his 15-year career.
You are receiving the Vanguard Award at OUTShine. How does it feel?
It was a surprise for me. I almost feel guilty about it — do I really deserve it? Everything I did wasn’t, in my mind, to get an award. I get that I’ve played roles that people identify with and that make them feel they are not alone. That is important, especially that I can do something in my work for others that I needed in my life growing up. I had no role models, no gay family members. If I have a queer niece or nephew, I want to be there for them. I’d tell them, “Just be yourself.” I wish someone said [that] to me as a kid.
There aren’t many public faces of queer Arabs. However, Beirut is becoming a gay mecca in the Middle East. What are your thoughts on gay visibility and attitudes in the region?
Times are changing for everyone — gay marriage, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and trans people’s rights. Globally, there is something happening in our level of consciousness, not being afraid of others and having more compassion for them. In the Middle East, they are slower and a little behind. The societies are conservative in the sense that it’s harmful. Being gay, you can get damaged by that. The bigger issue is for Arabs to change their thinking about subjects like sex. We judge and shame.
In terms of the gay issue in the Middle East, like the world, they are trying to figure it out. They are changing and evolving, but they still throw gay guys in prison in Egypt. It’s a hard situation for the Middle East. I was in Lebanon in 2017, and they were going to have a gay pride parade, but they were nervous and got death threats and cancelled it. When the government is not protecting you, it becomes more challenging. There are no Arab countries that honor gay marriage. The mentality of the Arab world is not right or wrong; it just is what it is. The world needs to understand Arab culture to get a better sense of why it is the way it is, rather than judge it.
What responsibility do you feel being a role model for the queer Arab community?
I come from love. I just want to enlighten and empower and inspire, show the truth of humanity, not just gay and Arab, but bigger than all of that. There are so many things we’re ashamed about. We are not allowed the fullness to be human. For me, if you’re gay or a woman or a person of color, it’s about showing the truth of that, and making sure whoever is watching wants to embrace that.
Of course, I want to be a role model and inspire gay kids. Some of that is happening naturally. My decisions are those that a role model might make, but that’s because I care about how I represent my people. I’m not going to just play a terrorist. I need to humanize them. That’s why I did Jack Ryan. They came to me and said, “He’s a terrorist.” I said no, They came back and gave me his backstory, and they pressured me because they thought I’d do good work. That is a story of Arabs in the world that needs to be told so I get to take responsibility for it, and I was excited about that challenge.
I won’t play a gay stereotype. Even Mo-Mo, they wanted me to do the hand thing and be more effeminate. I am thoughtful, and it’s important to me to have a [positive] image of my character. With Cookie in Dorfman in Love, I showed there are straight men who are thoughtful.
You played gay roles before you came out publicly. In retrospect, I wondered if it was a way to start the conversation of telling the world who you really are.
They were unconnected. I did them because I was happy to play gay. It was a genuine, childlike enthusiasm. When I’m on a set, I’m playing pretend. I’m interested in the truth and infusing love so the audience is inspired by the truth, even when vulnerability is not pretty. I did it so people don’t feel [like] they are alone. When I saw these gay parts, I saw I could put love in them and make the LGBTQ+ community look loving. I think people don’t see what a loving community the LGBTQ+ community is. Are there racists? Yes. But we’re inclusive and empathetic because of what we have all gone through.
Can you talk about what you have gone through as a gay man?
Growing up in Lebanon, I thought I was the only gay human. I didn’t know who to talk to. I have a loving family and Arabs are very family-oriented, but I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I was bullied and I was very effeminate as a [preteen] and then I started to change. I had to “fix” it and stop being bullied. I’m Arab and the men there are very macho. I got a motorcycle and had a girlfriend [as a teenager] and that was my first “acting gig” — I had to be in control to do what I wanted. I wanted to go to America to become a singer, like Madonna. It was the desire to leave Lebanon. I couldn’t see myself living there as a gay man. It was too restrictive, claustrophobic, and isolated.
We are not nurtured to be our authentic selves as youths. We are confused and overwhelmed, and we spend our time surviving and not developing. There are exceptions, but it forces you to understand love on a deeper level. I had empathy and compassion from a young age. That’s just who I always was, and that never went away. It’s my guide and focus and in my work.
What are your thoughts on your coming out video now? I watched it again and it’s both charming and chilling.
I didn't do it to be a role model. It was genuine. This is my right to defend myself. People were killing gay people and trans people in 2017, and it was that and my frustration [at] feeling [that] I disrespected myself. I felt I was living a lie for so long. I didn’t mean it to be funny or abrasive; I was expressing what I thought. I had been living with this issue for a long time, so I had time to think about it and figure it out.
There was a lot of truth about it, [like] that I was a total bottom. Because of bottom shaming, I struggled to accept that I was. And in the gay community, we look at bottoms as weaker. Everyone thinks I’m a top. They think I’m misleading people by how I look. One of my exes was very effeminate and he was a top, and everyone in public thought the reverse. I got backlash from [the] gay community because I said, “I’m a bottom and a total bottom.” I can say whatever I want and express whatever I choose. If you felt that was inappropriate, that was the truth. I’m sorry you feel that way.
Do you feel your acting opportunities are limited because you are an out, gay Arab?
I’ve enjoyed the gay roles I’ve played because these are exciting times for the LGBTQ+ community. We’re at a time where we can change the conversation, claim our place in this world, and define how we should be perceived. I’m happy to play gay. Jesus is usually played by white, blond-haired, blue-eyed actors. I’m glad to be the Middle Eastern actor who played [him]. In Jack Ryan, I played a badass and I thought, “I could be James Bond.” It’s not fair that I’m not getting those opportunities. I get frustrated if work is slow, but I don’t think about it so much. I think playing someone from my ethnic background and gay is good, not typecasting. It’s an opportunity for me as an artist to show this side of my world.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
Little America, an anthology TV series, will be on Apple in January. I’m the lead in one episode, and I play a Syrian Muslim whose father burned his hand on the stove after seeing him kiss a guy. It was difficult, but it’s “our” story. Even if you never got your hand burned, you can find a metaphor for not feeling safe or feeling isolated. The character spends two years alone in Jordan, and that’s what I experienced in Lebanon, wondering if I could [or] couldn’t go to America. I want that show to get attention. There’s so much love in it. It made me think of the gay flamboyant kid I was.
I am also in a feature called Breaking Fast. My character is an openly gay, practicing Muslim. I was raised Muslim, but I’m not practicing. But for practicing Muslims, to be gay is taboo. This film is to honor those gay Muslims who want to keep Islam as their religion. It’s based on the director’s experience. It’s a rom-com set during Ramadan. I’m curious to see what the world is going to make of it.