I had to change my Arabic name to make it as an actor. Now, I'm reclaiming it
Fuad Ahmed couldn't book gigs until he changed his name to Gabe Grey. But after 15 years, he's taking it back
My name is Fuad Ahmed. I work in the laboratory supply sales industry while trying to act on the side. I take a long lunch at my office job in Mississauga and trek into downtown Toronto for an audition. The AC in my 1996 Ford Taurus station wagon has decided to quit. I fight traffic the whole way. It's hot. I'm sweaty. I arrive at the audition, sign in and collect myself in the waiting room.
The casting assistant walks in. "Fod Akhmed?" she asks.
I smile, cringing internally. "Uh, it's Fu-Ad ... F, U — "
"Right this way. Just down the hall."
I walk into the casting room. The director and producer are sitting at a table across from a black backdrop. The assistant introduces me to the director and producer and hands them my headshot. "This is Few-ad."
"Hello! Thanks for seeing me." I smile at them.
They stare at me. They look at my headshot. They look at my name on my headshot. Silence. Awkward silence. They look at each other, toss my headshot to the side and start a conversation with each other. The assistant watches this happen. She smiles at me and tries to run the session. The director and producer talk over me. Their backs are turned the whole time. The assistant notices. How could anyone not notice? I want to throw up. I smile. She smiles back at me.
"Thank you for coming in," she says.
I smile. I try to thank the producer and director. They ignore me. I leave.
I sit in my car. I'm shaking. I look at the time. I have to fight rush hour traffic heading back to Mississauga. I'll be late getting back to the office. HR will ask why I was away for so long.
What am I doing with my life? I've been at this for two years and risking my job at the same time. I want to act. I don't want my name to be an issue. I just want to walk into an audition room and act.
I change my name.
My name is Gabe Grey. I am a successful, full-time actor, working regularly in film and TV.
When I walk into an audition room, no one asks me where I am from. No one asks me how to pronounce my name. I am allowed to audition without explaining my existence first. In interviews, I'm asked why I changed my name. I'm very cavalier about the whole thing. "This is show business. I'm a product and I need to sell myself." I have zero regrets.
Then, the work dwindles and eventually stops. I get close on big projects, but I don't book. My LA manager tells me to be clean-shaven for auditions because I look "terroristy" with facial hair. He tells me to not play things so leading, so dominant, so alpha. When I see breakdowns for romantic leads, I ask if I can audition for them, but he tells me those roles are "going white" and casting wants to see me for the supporting best friend instead.
"Do it with an accent," he says. "It'll be funny." I do it. I hate myself. I don't book. He drops me.
Something doesn't feel right in my gut. I ignore it. My Canadian agent, Shari Quallenberg at AMI, supports me through this dry spell. "I'm with you for the long haul," she says. I'm frustrated. I start doing theatre.
My first major theatre gig is in the Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced by Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar. I play the role of Hussein Malik, an immigrant of Pakistani heritage who changes his name to Abe Jensen to hide his Muslim heritage and fit into American culture.
My name is Gabe Grey. My acting career has rebooted and I have been working consistently since the fall of 2019. I am playing leading men, romantic leads, and characters outside of "charming doctor." Something still doesn't feel right in my gut.
Earlier this month, a Muslim family was killed in London, Ontario, because of their faith. In May, defending the idea that Palestinians are deserving of equal human rights was equated with support for Hamas. Since 9/11, I have been subject to different rules, written and unwritten, in how I am allowed to go about my daily life. I have spent my life being told I am less than, not equal to, and different.
"You're ugly. Look at your skin. What are you?" - a middle school classmate in Atlanta.
"You're Muslim? But you're so ... normal." - a coworker.
"I thought you might be Pakistani, but you're not like one of them." - a woman at a bar, after relentlessly asking me where I was originally from.
"That's not a name, that's a noise." - a friend's mother, upon meeting me for the first time.
My skin, my faith, my nationality, my name — a sin.
On June 10, 2021, I wake up and upload several audition tapes. The files keep crashing and seeing the name — Gabe Grey, Gabe Grey, GabeGreyGabeGreyGabeGrey — feels empty. I feel empty.
Mahershala Ali won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor in 2016 and 2018.
Riz Ahmed was nominated for Best Actor in 2020.
Ramy Youssef won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy in 2020.
Hamza Haq won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Lead Actor in 2021.
I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been thinking about going back to my real name for a while now. But I always stopped myself. I built a career around this name. 15 years is a long time. Everyone knows me this way.
But today, I don't care anymore. It's not a big emotional moment. I am taking my name back. I'm walking back into my own home.
My name is Fuad Ahmed. My name is Fuad Ahmed. It's pronounced Fu-'Ad. It is an Arabic name meaning "heart," or more specifically, "The place in your heart where God resides." My name is Fuad Ahmed.