Actor Khalid Abdalla on The Kite Runner: The RT Interview

Meet the actor who learned to speak fluent Dari for his role as Amir.

by | December 11, 2007 | Comments

Khalid Abdalla would hardly seem a candidate to star in The Kite Runner
. He hadn’t read the source novel when he auditioned for the
role of Amir (the character’s journey back to Afghanistan to atone for childhood mistakes
is the story’s main plot), didn’t speak a word of Dari, and had acted in only one
prior film.  But that film was the Oscar-nominated United 93,
and his memorable performance as Ziad Jarrah happened to grab the right people’s

In Rotten Tomatoes’ second Kite Runner interview (you can
read our interview with author Khaled Hosseini
while our interview with writer and novelist David Benioff will run later this
week), we met with Khalid Abdalla in San Francisco to discuss Afghanistan, his
relationship with the children on set, and why The Kite Runner (opening
this Friday) is quintessentially an American story.

Were you a fan of the book before auditioning for the role of Amir?

Khalid Abdalla: I always wish I could say that I read it before I was asked to audition for it, but I hadn’t. I first heard about it when I was asked to audition for it. But then I read it immediately. I went out and bought two copies, in fact. I read it in a day and thought it was an extraordinary story.

You have a strong background in theater. How does that come into play when filming a feature, like United 93 and The Kite Runner?

KA: Obviously there’s a huge difference between the mediums, but essentially you’re dealing with the same material. In some ways, it’s a different way of expressing it and you’ve got different means to do so. As an actor, it feels kind if similar. But United 93, it was a totally unorthodox filming experience. Our average take was 25 minutes and our longest take was an hour and 15 minutes, which is kind of unheard of — and it was entirely improvised. I guess a theater background helped with that because you’re running at it in long sequences, but each film comes with its own challenges. The essential thing that binds them all together is trying to tell stories for audiences, whether it’s for theater or film. Being able to share my experience with people is what I love.

Amir is such a well-known character from the novel. How did you approach portraying him on-screen?

KA: I guess it really started for me after the first audition. Marc Forster called me to tell me, “It’s you, it’s you. But first, we have to go to Afghanistan to find someone to play the younger Amir.” So they went to Afghanistan for three months to search for as many people as they could, and a month and a half later, they found the boys. During that time I didn’t want to get into the role, I was being held back like a bull. I really wanted to go at it, but I felt that if I did, I wouldn’t get the part — kind of a superstitious feeling. Then finally with six days notice I got a call saying, “We’ve found the boys. Get on the plane.” Six days later, I’m in Kabul.

I spent a month in Afghanistan and that month was absolutely extraordinary and crucial. I was born in Scotland, brought up in London, my parents are Egyptian, my father was born in Illinois. I’d never been to Afghanistan. In that month, I was in total immersion. I banished English completely, had Dari lessons five hours a day. I ate everything I had never eaten before, I went everywhere that was referenced in the book, I built my relationship of love with Afghanistan during that period. I did everything I could and the reward I got at the end was being able to speak the language, which I managed to do in a month somehow.

I’ve heard that people who are completely fluent in Dari have seen the film and think you are totally conversant.

KA: I had to take on that responsibility, it wasn’t a question. I know what it feels like to be misrepresented on-screen. This is an opportunity. This is the first film for the region, and particularly for Afghanistan, where the first point of contact is a human family story instead of what everyone’s used to with political violence and bombs. To go in and not to do that as authentically as possible would be absurd. It would be so wrong. That’s why everyone gave as much as they could to it. That was part of my responsibility. I could never forgive myself if at the end of the film, Afghans would walk out feeling misrepresented.

Marc Forster has a beautiful phrase that this film is “a love letter to Afghanistan.” If I didn’t commit myself completely I would feel like I had destroyed it. It hurts to be misrepresented, that’s why I gave everything that I could. It’s really beautiful to be part of something which is, as well as being a great story, a cultural project. It’s giving in so many directions, which is part of the pride. Hopefully that’s what translates onto film. The film is made by people who love the book. People came from 26 different countries and we had 46 languages on average to translate from on the set each day. It was about people, not borders, and it’s that spirit that’s in the approach.

Do you think the film will help some people’s preconceived notions about Afghanistan?

KA: I certainly hope so. That is definitely what the book is about. So many people say that in reading the book, they thought of Afghanistan in a totally different way. I hope that when people see the film, they feel like they traveled to Afghanistan. When you have a meeting with someone you’ve never met before from a different country, you never meet them through a bomb. You meet them through their own stories and hopefully that’s what the film does.

A lot of the appeal of the book has to do with the fact that this friendship could take place anywhere. Many readers can relate to the story, no matter where they come from.

KA: It’s a quintessentially American story, just 100 years late. It’s a story of leaving your homeland to come and make a life in America. It is a story that so many immigrants in this country have lived through. With my background, and this opportunity to travel to Afghanistan, I like to think of myself as a person who is not so interested in borders. I’m interested in people and their stories.

One of the things that struck me about The Kite Runner is how many Afghan refugees live in this country.

KA: Absolutely. Afghanistan is a country that had at one point over six million refugees. When you think of the traumas that means for a whole country, the journeys they’ve had to make, the family members who have died along the way, a story like The Kite Runner becomes a drop in a nation. Most people don’t associate that with Afghanistan, they think of the people that brutalized the country rather than the people who were brutalized.

The friendship between young Amir and Hassan plays an integral part in the story, but as the adult Amir, you don’t have any scenes with them. Did you watch their scenes being filmed?

KA: I was there every day. I think there were only ten shots that I missed. I met the boys for the first time in Kabul. We learned how to fly kites together. I was there each day supporting them and they came to support me as well. We developed a special relationship.

The children in the film were incredible.

KA: They were extraordinary. It’s a really special age as well. It’s an incredible act of casting of well. It’s kind of there in the book, that final moment of childhood. A year-and-a-half later, they start becoming teenagers. And that’s a very different age.

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