I realized I could be an Arab actor seeing Salma Hayek in Spy Kids. Now we're in the same TIFF film
Ryan Ali never thought his big screen dreams would come true — until one movie unexpectedly changed everything
My life has led me through an unusual and — at times — unexpected path. Growing up, I followed my parents back and forth across the world: Syria, then Montreal, then Syria, then Montreal again.
That's when the story begins: five years ago, when I moved back to Canada for the second time. Leaving family and friends behind was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I left Syria at a time where people thought life was a privilege — not a right. A time where they were told that they weren't allowed to dream. I, on the other hand, was the lucky one. The one that got away. I had the golden ticket and I was gonna use it to pursue a career in engineering; a dream I inherited from my father, a reputable Syrian engineer who never quite made it in the Western world.
This is why when I chose to drop out of school and commit to my acting career, the decision carried more weight than I thought it would. I wasn't only throwing away any sense of financial stability — I was throwing away a chance that most Syrian young adults my age would die for; a chance that most of them didn't have. I was also throwing away my parents' vision and the only reason they immigrated in the first place. But in that pool of uncertainty and underneath all those layers of reasons not to go through with it was a young Syrian boy with a dream.
When I was 12 years old, sitting in that tiny living room in Montreal with my mom and my sisters, I saw the movie Spy Kids 3-D for the first time. After we watched it, I told my mom that I wanted to be an actor. I told her that I really wanted to be like those kids in the movie — but that I was concerned I couldn't because I was Arab.
I don't remember what it was exactly that made me believe that Arabs didn't have a place in film. It could've been my name or my accent, maybe my Muslim background or just the political climate at the time. I thought it was impossible until that night when my mom taught me the greatest lesson of them all: "You can do anything you put your mind to". She then proceeded to point out an actress in that same film, Salma Hayek, was of Lebanese descent.
Just knowing that there was an actor in that American movie that was of Arab descent — something as simple as that — made me think that maybe, just maybe, it would be possible for me to become an actor too.- Ryan Ali
Hearing that lit a fire in me. I had wanted to be an actor ever since I had watched Harry Potter come to life on the big screen. The magic of making movies fascinated me; I would watch every movie attentively and think about the process and people involved in making it happen.
Just knowing that there was an actor in that American movie that was of Arab descent — something as simple as that — made me think that maybe, just maybe, it would be possible for me to become an actor too.
But my dream would have to wait. Being immigrants, my parents didn't know the first thing about the film industry. They didn't have the money, nor did they have the time. In fact, I barely even saw my dad growing up; it seemed like he was always working endless hours. So, for a long time, that fire was buried away.
My mom taught me another valuable lesson over the years: "All in due time". She was so right. The time finally came five years ago when I was back in Montreal. I knew that, if I was ever going to do this, it had to be now. I really didn't think it was realistic for me to pursue a career in film at that point, but I promised myself that I would use any time I had to at least get to know the industry.
Within a year, I had booked my first professional gig on television. This was also the first time I had to choose between my acting career and my engineering degree. I had a final exam that day — thermodynamics — and I decided to go film a scene in space for the Syfy miniseries Ascension instead.
Eventually I dropped out because, as frightening as it was to make that decision, the joy I felt from being on a set had no match. I had no expectations of the industry, just very high expectations of myself, and I knew that if I wanted to accomplish everything I had dreamed of over the years, I needed to commit fully. So, I did.
Fast forward to today; dozens of auditions, countless hours of diction training and oh-so-many Montreal-Toronto roundtrips later, I find myself acting opposite of none other than Salma Hayek herself in The Hummingbird Project; which is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend.
Receiving the news that I had booked the part was incredible. I had tears of joy. I was jumping in excitement. The role wasn't huge — and quite far from being a breakthrough in the industry — but it still felt like such an achievement. It's something, only a few years back, I had thought would be impossible. Unimaginable, even.
And the cherry on top? I'm not playing a terrorist, nor a wealthy Saudi Prince or any of those stereotypical Middle Eastern characters. I'm playing a math and physics genius quantitative analyst who works for one of the biggest high frequency trading companies in the heart of New York City. His name is Elias, and he's Middle Eastern.
Moving back to Canada reminded me how important diversity and representation in the media is. As a kid, I couldn't see what the problem was with me. But the truth is there was no problem with me. I just hadn't seen anyone like me star in a film before.
It was seeing Salma Hayek in a movie that made me realize I could become an actor. The last few years, it was seeing names like Rami Malek, Jade Hassouné, Mena Massoud, and all the other successful actors of Arab backgrounds that kept me going. And I have high hopes for the future of representation in this industry. I hope that my visibility can eventually inspire the younger generations.
And to them I say: "Don't wait for someone else to accomplish your dreams for you. Be the change you want to see in the world. Draw the path like that little Syrian boy who just wouldn't give up — and whose face is gonna be on the big screen at a TIFF world premiere this year."
The Hummingbird Project world premieres Saturday, Sept. 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival. www.tiff.net