On the Hollywood Walk of Fame, somewhere between Jack Nicholson and The Backstreet Boys, Jay Abdo is focused on the sidewalk, looking for his favourite stars.
“The names,” he says, “the beautiful names.” He stops and points.
“Johnny Depp! He’s awesome. Love the guy! Jack Sparrow …” Abdo says. Then, a few feet later: “Glenn Close! I love her!” He gestures at her star with two hands, as though he could reach out and grasp her.
“When I came to Los Angeles, the first thing … I came here to walk and to see names and to read the names. To feel the resonance,” Abdo says.
If there were a Walk of Fame in the Middle East, Abdo would be on it. You need proof? I’m walking with Abdo for one minute and 44 seconds when a passerby, Algerian Hidouche Walid, recognizes him and demands a selfie. When I ask Walid how he knows Abdo, he seems incredulous.
“Of course!” he says. “Bab al-Hara! Bab al-Hara, the most famous TV show!”
Consequences of speaking out
Abdo says since he started acting in 1992 he’s been in 23 plays, 43 movies, and more than 1,000 TV episodes. Because he bears a passing resemblance to the American actor, he was known as the Syrian Kevin Spacey.
“I used to live a good life,” Abdo says. “Somehow lavish, a little bit.”
But even for the relatively well-off, living under the Assad regime, he says, was like living in North Korea. He says everyone knew the consequences of speaking out.
“You disappear and you disappear forever,” Abdo says.
Then in 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria.
“When the uprising happened, everyone was happy,” Abdo says. “And we were whispering ‘finally!’ The relief! And that’s why people marched in the streets. They burst out in the streets, and they marched in the streets. Because it was the end of the tunnel.”
But during the protests, friends, fellow actors, even his cousin‚ were all arrested.
“Our friends, actors, we still don’t know anything about their destiny. For four years.”
One day he got a call from an L.A. Times reporter who wanted to interview him about freedom of speech in the Syrian entertainment industry.
“Then she asked me this question, what’s happening on the ground now,” Abdo says. “I couldn’t say ‘stop the recorder.'”
Instead, he says, he gestured at the machine. “So she smiles, ‘OK let’s stop it.’ So she stopped the recorder.”
And he opened up to her. The next day he was shocked to see the article said he ‘openly accuses the security forces of torture and corruption.’
That’s when the threats began. Soon after the interview he got a call from the head of a major Syrian movie studio.
“He called me and told me, ‘Tomorrow you appear on TV and you say sorry to the people, you tell them I believe in my president, I believe in my army,’ and so on and so on. And I told him I think I have shooting tomorrow, I have filming. And he said, ‘You have nothing.'”
Abdo says his wife Fadia Afashe convinced him not to give in to the pressure. But when Assad supporters started confronting him in the streets, he knew he had to leave.
His wife was studying in the U.S., so he left Syria to join her‚ but the threats followed online. He was being pursued by what he calls Syria’s ‘electronic army.’
“All people with fake profiles taking care of activists around the world,” Abdo says. “The hardest part was that my wife and I, we still have family there. Whenever they can’t reach out to you, they caught your beloved.”
After he arrived in Los Angeles, he hoped to resurrect his acting career. He says he went to more than 100 auditions.
“I emailed every manager and agent in town telling them my credentials, my body of work in Syria and around the world, and my languages, everything. All ignored. All ignored!”
Part of the problem: his real name. It’s not Jay.
“When I came here and introduced myself to someone‚ ‘Hi, my name is Jihad.’ And he stopped and he looked at me. My name is Jihad? I said ‘yes.’ Oh! Oh my God!” Abdo laughs. “I said to myself I have to find another one.”
But even after he re-cast himself as ‘Jay,’ Abdo couldn’t even get a job making coffee.
“I kept applying everywhere,” Abdo says. “Macy’s. Costco. Nordstrom. Everywhere. Starbucks. McDonald’s. Everywhere. Nothing.”
So he ended up delivering pizzas for Domino’s.
It was agonizing, he says. He could see the Hollywood studios but he couldn’t get in. Until his big break in 2013.
He met a Syrian-born producer who was working with acclaimed director Werner Herzog on the film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman. Herzog was looking for someone to play her character’s guide, so he agreed to meet with Abdo.
“When Werner came back and told me ‘welcome aboard,’ I felt that big old thick portal was opening and the sound,” Abdo imitates the slow grinding of a heavy door opening, “and the light is coming from inside!”
Soon, he’ll appear in another Hollywood film alongside Tom Hanks.
Now, a year after he was turned down for a job at McDonald’s, he’s at the North American premiere of his new movie Queen of the Desert at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.
“I’m so excited, a little bit nervous,” Abdo says, after his wife straightens the sweater draped around his shoulders.
“It’s not just the success of being part of this movie, but also a very big success of getting out of the dark situation in Syria, and being a survivor and making it here in one of the biggest productions in Hollywood.”
But of course, Hollywood has a way of humbling newcomers. The security guards at the VIP line wouldn’t let him in to the screening of his own film — I had to tell them Abdo was in the movie. If the guards had just turned around they would have seen a Queen of the Desert poster with Abdo pictured riding a camel.
Soon these misunderstandings may be a thing of the past. His publicist Cheryl McLean says Abdo’s inspiring comeback story is beginning to resonate in the American media. At a meeting with Abdo at her house, she announces she’s secured profiles in Vanity Fair and People Magazine.
“This is the best story that I’ve ever been able to bring to the media,'” McLean says. “It’s the most unusual story I’ve ever worked with and that’s what makes it so special. You can’t write this stuff.”
It is the stuff of a Hollywood script‚ and Abdo knows it. He has actually started writing the screenplay for a movie or TV series based on his improbable, amazing life.
“Whenever everything happened in my country and I had to flee and I came to this country, this wonderful country, to Tinseltown, it happened!” Abdo says as we finish our stroll down the Walk of Fame. “In my mind, in my body this was my dream forever. I never expected to be here one day.”
And how does his screenplay end? With ‘Jihad Abdo’ on the Walk of Fame? Probably not.
“I hope so! Why not?” Abdo says. “It’s not impossible. All what you need is as little bit of luck.”