United 93 - Khalid Abdalla interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
KHALID Abdalla talks about the privilege and responsibility of appearing in Paul Greengrass’ United 93 – in which he plays one of the terrorists responsible for seizing the fourth plane to be hijacked on September 11, 2001…
Q. Where were you on September 11?
A. I was in Paris. My father was having a liver transplant. I first heard about the Twin Towers on the radio in French which, at the time, I spoke enough to be able to vaguely work out what had happened. Then I got home and turned on the news like everybody else.
Q. I bet you could never have imagined that five years later you’d be asked to play one of the terrorists who carried out the attacks on the day?
A. No. Even if six months before I’d been asked, I think I may have given up acting. I’d have thought: “Oh my God, I’m going to play a Hollywood terrorist.” But obviously that’s not what the film is about.
Q. How big a decision was it to take part in the film, especially bearing in mind the role you were being asked to play?
A. When I first heard about the part I was very reluctant to go to the audition. But then when I found out about Paul and the kind of film that he was making, I felt this was the right thing to do. When you say the word “Arab”, I suppose the first thing that springs into anyone’s mind is “terrorist”, suicide bomber, big scary beard, oil sheik, violence – all negative associations. I had no interest in being a part of anything that hurts me as a person when I walk down the street, hurts my family, people I know. I have no interest fundamentally in being part of promoting a stereotype. I believe that takes people backwards and not forwards.
But that’s one of the remarkable things about the film, everyone kind of feels like they’ve experienced 9/11, so why go and see a film about it? Yet the peculiar thing when you see the film is you realise how much you didn’t even know about. I think the film’s been made in the spirit that. First of all, it’s a human event and therefore there’s a responsibility to represent it in human terms, but also with as much research and as much detail and authenticity as possible. Many of those details are startling and when you re-enact them there are many surprises and many stories that have a lot to offer and tell.
Q. How did you go about researching your character because I guess it may have been more difficult in that there was no one to talk to?
A. Yeah but a lot is known about him specifically. Out of the 19 hijackers, he’s very much the odd one out. He had a secular upbringing, he went to a Christian school, he had a girlfriend in Germany, he tried to pull out of the whole operation in July 2001. He was the only one out of all the hijackers to keep in regular contact with his family – on September 9 he had called them to say that he’d see them on the 22nd for a wedding. His father is an MP in Lebanon who is also a secular man and who has no relationship essentially and totally disgrees with what his son did. It’s not the stereotype story that you’d expect – a big bearded father at home telling his son about how bad America is for the whole of his life and saying he must do something.
Crucially, as well, there are details that come from what we know about him but there’s also a lot that you can deduce from the story with the plane itself. The 40-minute delay on the ground, for instance – most of the hijacking took place within five minutes of the seat belt sign going off. With this one, there was a 26-minute delay which when you’re flying – and from the hijackers’ perspective – every minute that you’re flying is two minutes further from your destination if you’re going to have to turn around.
They started in New York going to San Francisco and had to turn back to Washington. Had that 26 minute delay not happened, the plane grounded 18 minutes flying time from Washington. Had that delay not happened, they probably would have got to their target. When you ask the question: “Why that delay?” You have to presume – from the back story and what we know about Ziad Jarrah and the fact that he’s the pilot – that there must have been some kind of uncertainty, reluctance or conscience with not knowing what to do in relation to what he was about to do.
But then you have to measure that up with what he did do – he actually went ahead and did it. Part of this is the humanity of the film. What’s very important to understand in this idea of humanising a hijacker is that portraying someone as a human is not the same as condoning what they do. They’re very different.
Q. How much does it take out of you as an actor and as a person while building a character like that?
A. A lot because you feel the responsibility. It’s an unprecedented film about an event that happened five years ago and is obviously still current in terms of its importance. To be part of that is an immense privilege but with that comes a huge responsibility that goes back to the issue of representation. The thing that I feel very strongly about – and have always felt strongly about – is that obviously the main atrocity with 9/11 is the death of the 3,000 innocent people on the day. But likewise, is the fact that 19 hijackers did it claiming to represent 1.2 billion Muslims across the world which is an incredible assault.
Q. One of the main questions surrounding the film is whether it’s too soon. Where do you stand on that? Was it another concern when considering the role?
A. Well, it’s weird because the day after 9/11, or on the day itself, people are allowed to write articles about it and no one asks “is it too soon?” Within the year, you’re allowed to publish a book or make a documentary and no one will ask “is it too soon?” The reason for that is that all those different mediums have something very valuable to offer in terms of how they can look at 9/11 and what they can say about it. I think film, likewise, has its own insights and its own incredibly valuable ways of being able to look at things and being able to look at 9/11, tell stories about it and communicate about it. These are just as valuable as the other mediums if it’s done correctly and sensitively as I think this film is done. I think this film is part of the whole process of trying to understand the event in order to react to it properly and move forward. So I think every single medium should be trying to do that. There’s no reason why film shouldn’t be. It’s just merely that film hasn’t done it before.
Normally, films take a long time to make. But the whole process for this film started in July 2005 and we’re not even in July 2006 and it’s been released.
Q. Did the fact that you were asked to improvise the dialogue help with that integrity?
A. The film in a way was an act of research. I don’t think any writer could sit down and come to the computer and imagine what 44 people on the plane felt, how information would disseminate, what they would say or would not say. There was a thing that some of the actors playing the passengers said early on: “It’s not who you are but where you sit.” Because where you sat when they were all pushed to the back formed a huge part of who received the phone calls that the World Trade Center had been hit by planes. So how does that information get passed? Who’s nearest to an air stewardess? Who are you sitting next to? Are you sitting next to someone who’s strong, who’s big, or someone who’s bawling their eyes out? Likewise, in terms of the hijackers what happened over the course of that 26-minute delay? Jarrah is sat where he would have been sat. He can’t keep turning because otherwise he would draw attention to himself, so that’s part of the story of what happened on the plane. You can’t really do all that without actually trying – and that means putting real bodies in a real space. In a way, the plane was one of the actors.
Q. So improvising was helpful to the process?
A. Absolutely, as were the long takes. Our average take was rougly 25 minutes long, although I think the longest take we did was an hour and 25 minutes. But it’s immensely helpful. The normal thing with a script is that you have a moment and you want to capture that moment but with this no one really knew what that moment was. You couldn’t really know without running it or having a sense of what it is to hijack a plane, or what it is to experience a hijack for 40 minutes. That’s the way the film’s been made. It was more like rehearsing a play but the rehearsal was being filmed. We were set up as the documentary action and the camera discovered how the story of that event should be told. That probably goes back to how Paul Greengrass started out in documentaries and World in Action and so on.
Q. Does that mean there’s an incredible amount of trust in the director?
A. [Laughs] Well, there was a joke at some point when Paul came on and said: “Believe me, I could butcher your performance if I wanted but obviously I’m not going to do that.” Out of that material you could make hundreds of films. But this was about capturing the moments that felt most right on film and then making a sequence. There were a million and one stories and I’ve had the privilege of seeing quite a lot of the rushes and there are so many different ways of being able to look at the thing. Each take was a movie and you had such a full story being told.
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- Read our interview with Khalid Abdalla
- Watch clips, featurettes and trailers of United 93
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- United 93 video featurette and teaser trailer
- United 93 Preview
- World Trade Center preview