Immigrants, Stereotypes and Casting: Talking with the Actors of Three Trembling Cities

Three Trembling Cities, a new ten-part web series on New York City immigrants, is now available on Amazon.comRikaroo.comBrooklynondemand.comStareable.com and Vimeo. Click to read the previous story.

One of the most rewarding aspects of producing Three Trembling Cities was the experience of casting. The ensemble nature of the series, created to reflect the face of today’s New York immigrant community, allowed us to tap into a deep reservoir of talent, working actors many of whom have confronted the casting pitfalls of ethnic and racial stereotyping. Our intention with Three Trembling Cities, was, in fact, to cast to that stereotype. We needed our characters — from the restaurant-working refugee from Eritrea to the first-generation Iranian-American lawyer to the undocumented Somalian jewelry-maker — to visually read as type so we could upend the reductive narrative of those “stereotypes” by asserting their humanity as individuals who navigate the universal vicissitudes of love, friendship, work, family and dreams.

With the countdown to the inauguration in full swing, and the unprecedented campaign vitriol directed at immigrants still painfully raw, I thought it would be valuable to reach out to our actors and elicit their reflections on their Three Trembling Cities experience and how the issues it raises affects their lives as artists and first or second generation immigrants themselves.

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Arash Mokhtar as “Behrouz”

How unusual was it to read a script focused exclusively on the lives of NYC immigrants?

AM (Arash Mokhtar/Behrouz): It wasn’t just unusual to read a script about the daily lives of immigrants in NYC, it may have been the first script of its sort I’ve ever read. There may be stories about immigrants out there but those stories seem to hinge the character’s entire essence on the fact of their immigrant status, aka “otherness,” rather than them being immigrants simply as a circumstance among many that they find themselves having to navigate. So the script was one of a kind, truly.

PP (Pascale Piquion/Madha): It was refreshing actually. There should be nothing unusual about it but unfortunately these stories are underrepresented. However, Three Trembling Cities does a splendid job of revealing parts of the immigrant experience here in New York.

SA (Sherz Aletaha/Azin): It was refreshing! Especially the way Arthur wrote the stories; yes, these people are immigrants but they are also humans. They’re dealing with family, relationships, jobs, things that every person in the world deals with. Sometimes when you hear stories about immigrants it only focuses on that [immigrant status]and doesn’t include any of the other aspects of their lives.

PG (Peter Goitom/Dawit): It was not as unusual as it would have been ten years ago, specifically with a series. As of late, we’ve started to see the emergence of scripted series such as Master of None, The Mindy Project, and Fresh off the Boat, all focusing on immigrants or first-generation Americans. That being said, Three Trembling Cities is unique in the sense that I haven’t come across much, if anything, that covers the breadth of cultures that this series does.

YD (Yacine Djoumbaye/Babacar): It was very unusual [to get this script] especially looking at TV shows that are portraying life in the city.  Immigrants are never front and center.  They are only seen as your cab driver or local store owner.  Their lives, what they go through, their version of the American dream, that is never reflected.

TF (Tjasa Ferme/Ilona): I fell in love with the script immediately.  I thought oh thank god finally something smart and unpredictable.  I would be mad at the director for not casting me. What my character and I have in common is this unique combination of impulsiveness and wildness with the quest to turn every possible thought inside out.

How easy was it for you to find a connection to your character?

YD: Creating human beings is our job as actors, breathing life into the character, showing complexities. [For Babacar] all those were drawn from personal experiences and the things I’ve seen my fellow immigrant friends go through. Everything Babacar is going thru I have either witnessed or personally experienced.

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Sherz Aletaha as “Azin”

SA: I played Azin and I definitely connected to her because we’re both first generation Iranian American. I don’t look stereotypically Persian so it was really exciting that Arthur and Daria cast me because I felt like this was my upbringing and I could bring a lot of authenticity to the character (minus being an uptight lawyer who *spoiler alert* cheats on her husband).

ND (Nandita Chandra: Urmi): My character is an Indian woman who is completing her Ph.D. She’s got all the right boxes checked on paper (great husband, great background, great grad school) but she wants more than what seems right on paper…primarily the rediscovery of who she is at her core.

IR (Irungu Mutu/Abdul): Abdul is a complicated, loving and driven character.  He loves his new world family and has a passion for food and cooking. I worked in the food industry for many years and knew numerous cooks and chefs from different countries in Africa.  I also know that is an easy place to get a job if you don’t have paperwork.

AM: I played Behrouz, the actor who is going to visit Iran to stage a new play he has been working on. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t that much of a stretch. I’ve never been back to Iran (I was born in Tehran) since my family left. But I’m very familiar with what it is for a family to leave a “home” country to provide a better life for their children. In this way, my life dovetails very simply with Behrouz, aside from the obvious facts of my being Iranian and an actor here in NYC. There is a sense of responsibility, I think, right or wrong, that automatically gets ingrained as I watched my parents sacrifice for me and my sister. We have to live a free and meaningful life, because our parents saw fit, or were daring enough, to abandon theirs to start all over, incredibly, for us. There is a strong sense of that in Behrouz, and I understand it, even if we handle it in different ways. That was my door into the role.

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Peter Goitom as “Dawit” and Irungu Mutu as “Abdul”

PG:  As a first-generation Eritrean-American, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration to capture the struggle of an Eritrean refugee who is new to America [but] Dawit faces different barriers to his goals of a better life than my parents and extended family faced.  That being said, their goals, values, and persistence to pursue the former without sacrificing the latter were all parallels that made the role a very personal connection [for me]. It is really interesting because the first half of the series reminds me more of my life.  The relationship between Behrouz and Azin has some similarities to the relationship I have with my brother and sister, while Urmi and Ilona remind me of close friends.  I definitely know people in New York City who remind me of the characters in the second half of the series, but despite the time gap, they will always be more strongly associated with my parents’ generation.

How frustrating or not frustrating has it been for you to get cast, especially in TV/movies, in roles that don’t pigeonhole you because of the color of your skin?  

YD: It is a little frustrating at times because the immigrants we see on TV are basic caricatures. Three Trembling Cities is one of the first steps towards a “Hamilton” effect. NYC is full of immigrants.  The U.S. was built by immigrants so it is only natural to tell the immigrant story.  It is as American as apple pie.

PP: I audition for roles that I would be a good fit for and most of the time those roles are for women of color. We are in a time now where artists are creating their own content, especially in the independent world and now we are seeing more of it on our TV screens with shows like The Mindy Project, Insecure and Atlanta. Diversity in TV and film is on the rise.  I also think we will see a move to more colorless casting where casting directors are looking for the best actor for the role regardless of their racial background.

IM: It is twice as hard.  Even beyond dropping the accent, if you have an African or foreign first and last name it is also tough.  TV and film is tougher than theater because there is more freedom in the theater and more open mindedness. Creating your own content as a person of color is the best way to guarantee you will see yourself and your stories on a screen near you.

SH: I have a weird struggle when it comes to being a Middle Eastern actor because I am 100% Middle Eastern but I don’t look like what people have decided is Middle Eastern. So I get called in for these roles and I have to audition for people who have made up their mind about what my heritage is supposed to look like and judge me for it. I’m too light skinned, my eyes are green, I can’t possibly be this ethnicity even though I am. Hopefully the entertainment industry can just get to a place where talented performers of any and all backgrounds are the ones who get to tell the stories.

PG: I think we’ve started to see more diversification of content.  Studios can always take it further, and there does need to be improvement on the complexity of minority characters.  We have very recently entered an age that allows us to freely push original content.  Until we are a few more years into this age of studios picking up independent web-series, I think it’s premature to harshly criticize the industry, even if it is dragging its feet.
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Pascale Piquion as “Madha” and Yacine Djoumbaye as “Babacar”

AM: Am I frustrated? Sure. Is that frustration based on the deliberate unwillingness or the unconscious prejudice of casting/producers to see outside their limited scope? Yes. It’s all of those things, and much more. The thing is, and this may just be my own sense of survival kicking in, I have never defined myself by these terms, color, ethnicity, other, etc. I’m aware of them, of course, but I never saw myself as an immigrant or middle-eastern or an outsider. These things were facts to me, like I had black hair, not defining characteristics to be judged. It wasn’t until I was in entertainment that I started hearing the term “ethnically-ambiguous” or “ethnically-diverse” in regards to my own self as an actor. It’s been helpful, to some degree, to begin to see and accept what it is the world is pushing onto your image and how I ultimately have to decide how to navigate that, if at all. Some characters may indeed have a racial component in their “breakdown” and that’s fine but I think that is really rare, though that seems to be the modus operandi for many stories being told. Yes, it is a real thing, the idea that when people read a story, they seem to presume whiteness and male-ness in general for the central characters. The fact that I seldom, if ever, get seen for a substantial role on something that has no racial definition in regards to character is problematic and limiting and, in my opinion, just bullshit. I think not only do I suffer the indignity of not being able to show producers what I can offer, they suffer a lack of seeing fully fleshed out human beings from somewhere other than their comfortable sphere of influence, and audiences absorb that and so it affects how stories are heard and in return, told….and so on and so on. So we really need to smash open the box(es) we are told to stay in. I put no stock in it.

Although unplanned, the release of the series has coincided with a political upheaval in which being an immigrant has come under threat.  Have you felt the effects of this change in your daily life in New York?

PP: Personally I have not. I have read about some very unfortunate incidences that have taken place and that does affect me, it should affect us all. I’ve never witnessed our country so polarized but I think we each have a responsibility to not let fear and ignorance divide us. We are for the most part a nation of immigrants and making people feel unwelcome is hypocritical and total nonsense. Movements like Black Lives Matter and The Water Protectors at Standing Rock show that we still have a long way to go in this country immigrant or not. We need to do more to understand one another and a series like Three Trembling Cities does a great job in doing just that.

IM: People are more alert, aware, [feel] less free, have more conviction, more self-consciousness, less hope, [and are] unsure of future of American dream.

TF: Frightening! I wouldn’t want to be in a position of applying or waiting for a visa or green card now. It feels like the worst is now possible.

AM: Yes, the political arena is now a disaster. A total, unmitigated disaster. It reminds me of a Bukowski line from the poem “What They Want”, “A lit billboard in hell.” At any rate, yes, it’s affected me personally. I’ve had some face-offs on the streets but nothing I wouldn’t normally chalk up to NY’ers to begin with. Some dear friends of mine have certainly bore much worse attacks here in the city. What effect will we see in our daily lives, I think, remains to be seen. There is clearly a systematic design to dismantling all that we have held dear and true and pure in this country, whether that’s our air, water or rights.

Top photo: Foreground: Arash Mokhtar as “Behrouz” and Sherz Aletaha as “Azin”
Background: Nandita Chandra as “Urmi” and Tjasa Ferme as “Ilona”