Khalid Abdalla stars in “The Kite Runner,” based on the world-wide best-seller by Khaled Hosseini. The book, the first-ever Afghan novel published in English, was a word-of-mouth sensation. It is the story of Amir, who left Afghanistan as a child following the Soviet occupation and returns during the time of Taliban control to find the son of his childhood friend. Abdalla, a Cambridge-educated actor of Egyptian heritage, plays Amir as an adult.
You have an extensive background in theater. How is it different preparing for appearing on screen?
It all came about by accident, just like my getting into acting in the first place. With acting, it was a teacher who came up to me one day and invited me to audition for a part and with [my first movie role in] “United 93” it was a case of them looking for actors of my descent in London. My background’s in theater but both mediums are about story-telling. You’re trying to find the best way to tell the story. From a director’s perspective it’s very different but for an actor it is very similar. There was a bigger difference between “United 93” and “Kite Runner” than between theater and movies. In “United 93” our average take was 20 minutes, but in “The Kite Runner” the longest one was an hour and 15 minutes. We used two cameras and variety of tricks in continuity. But the actors had to sustain the performance for a much longer time, as we do in theater.
One thing that is a huge difference is with a play you have to rehearse with a sense of the rhythm of the entire piece. That’s one reason you have to rehearse so long. With a film you have to concentrate on each scene and the majority of the rhythm is made by the editing so that in some ways frees you. But in both you find a performance essentially the same way. It always starts off badly, gets going, then slips a little bit. In film you start with a master shot, then cover it. It follows the rhythm of a rehearsal. You’ve always got to find it in a way that is sustainable relative to the whole.
You share the role of Amir with Zekeria Ebrahimi, who plays your character as a child. Did you coordinate at all in creating the character?
We didn’t go out actively to create a thruline, the “how do you hold a cup of tea” sort of thing, but we were around each other a lot. I watched the whole of that section on the set and I learned to fly a kite with him. There was the power of suggestion as well. We play the same story and that story carries both of us. You read me through the experience of one, having left my country and two, having gone through that history with Hassan. When you see me in the bar having the conversation with my father when he says, “I wish Hassan were here,” how I respond to him. You also see Amir begin to stand up to his father.
In the film, it is clear you have a strong connection with the actor who plays your father, Homayon Ershadi.
He calls me his second son and I call him my second father. He is an architect. An Iranian filmmaker was driving along and saw him stopped at a traffic light and invited him to make a screen test. The film was “Taste of Cherry, directed by Abbas Kiarostami and he played the lead. The film won the Golden Palm at Cannes.
Amir is a character who by nature and culture keeps a lot inside. How do you approach a role like that as an actor?
Amir carries a lot without saying too much. As an actor it is about never being crude, never giving a kind of simple answer. I don’t know everything going on in Amir’s head but I have to leave the possibility of all the things he might be thinking to be read in my face.
What makes the story universal?
The movie is also important for what is does that has not been done before. It is the first Hollywood film to focus on an Afghani family. For once the concentration is about the people who have been brutalized and not the people who are brutalizing. After all those losses, people hear the words Afghan Muslim, and Arab, and it’s a whole lot of negative associations before there are any positive. When you meet someone from a different culture you don’t meet them through a bomb or a list of how many people died, you meet them through going to the house, meeting their family, having dinner with them, shared stories, and through that comes an understanding. This is a filmic way of doing that.
What do you want to do next?
Anything that I can sink my teeth into. But for now, film, although I do want to return to theater. Amir is the first on that journey of characters like the cities I love and the places I grew up, where you’re not identified by your ethnicity but by the moment when you speak, a person who lives as I live, who happens to be whatever, this time a writer, next time a doctor, or an actor, whatever it is, a character first, with a story to tell. I have no problem playing a terrorist as I did in “United 93” as long as it is pitted against stereotypes and political theories and assumptions, and done responsibly. I do not want to be in a movie set in the Middle East just because it is a good place to blow things up in.