Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass: ‘In my artistic work, what I am doing must connect to who I am’

The actress is both picky and prolific, and tells us how she seeks to tell the stories of the citizens of the world who are considered a "danger" to others

VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01:  Actress Hiam Abbass poses during the 'May In The Summer' portrait session at the Venice Days Villa degli Autori as part of the 70th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2013 in Venice, Italy.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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Hiam Abbass answers the phone from Scotland. "It's been raining for four days, non-stop," she tells me. The Palestinian actress lives in Paris but is in the UK to shoot the second season of Succession, the HBO series about money and power struggles between the contentious heirs of an ageing media magnate. Abbass, 58, plays Marcia Roy, the third wife of the clan patriarch portrayed by Brian Cox.

Critics repeat the word "mystery" when they write of her role and performance in the show as a new member – a stranger, Abbass calls her – in a brood of schemers. And Abbass is dutifully mysterious when asked to reveal the stories of season two.  "It's all secret. I can't say anything about it, not yet," she says, making HBO policy clear.

Succession has been described as a saga built on the mythologies of Rupert Murdoch and Shakespeare's King Lear – the family name in the show, Roy, is the French word for king. Abbass disputes the oft-­cited Murdoch connection, though. "The journalists themselves saw that parallel, but we're not working on that parallel at all."

And, Succession, for all its visibility, is just one of many projects for ­Abbass. She is the star of In Vitro, a short black and white science fiction film set in post-apocalyptic Bethlehem, directed by Palestinian-born artist Larissa Sansour, which has just premiered at the Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. She is also in Ramy, a US TV series in which she plays the mother in an Egyptian-American family in New Jersey. It was recently renewed by Hulu for another season.

And the parts keep coming. "Since 9/11, I think there is some kind of artistic awareness that maybe art and cinema and TV have a responsibility to break up prejudice and make people understand the stories of those who became a danger to us."    

Abbass is clearly busy, which is perhaps why she hasn't been to Venice yet to see In Vitrowhich Sansour builds around the duo of a dying woman (Abbass) and a younger female clone (Maisa Abd Elhadi) that is reconstituted from fragments collected after an environmental disaster destroyed Bethlehem. The scenes between the two actresses were filmed in the gallery of a former school near Oxford, an enclosed space with a peaked ceiling that felt like a theatre. Not a problem, Abbass says. "Whatever I need to do as an actor, I don't judge beforehand whether a set is more cinematic or more theatrical. I learn my lines, discuss with the directors where they want to take it, and the doing of it is really the process for myself." 

Abbass says she applies that same dramatic discipline when working on comedy, Ramy for example, where she plays the mother of the show's creator, show runner, star and main character, comedian Ramy Youssef.

Americans tend to see actors on programmes like Ramy as ambassadors for the communities the shows bring to the screen. Abbass, whose credits include tales of culture clashes between Arabs and mainstream America (2007's The Visitor of and 2009's Amreeka) is not so sure. "I have no intention whatsoever to widen the eyes or the thinking of an American citizen toward meeting or getting to know an Arab family living in America. What matters to me most with a part is that I have a connection with it myself. I don't want to be ashamed of anything I'm doing. I connect with parts where this connection happens, as in Ramy," she says

She made her feature film directing debut with Inheritance in 2012, a layering of family conflicts around a father's deathbed in a Muslim village in Galilee, set against a raging war between Israel and Lebanon. And she is eager to direct again: "I'm just waiting until I have enough time to be able to do it," she says. Lebanon is the setting of one potential project for her, which will be the story of a young girl whose imaginary world is swept away by war.

Abbass also plans to work on a documentary on the French 20th century writer Georges Bernanos, who was a conservative Catholic. She has already produced a one-man play based on France Against the Robots, Bernanos's technophobic 1944 diatribe on culture and modernisation. A third planned directing project is more personal, a documentary about three generations of women in her family in Palestine, in collaboration with her daughter, filmmaker Lina Soualem. "It's a feminine point of view on women's exile in Palestinian history," she says. My grandmother is not there anymore, so my daughter and I are both going to write and gather the images that we need for it." Abbass's mother now lives in Galilee, north of Nazareth, where the actress grew up.

It's about harsh realities and people's ambitions – in art and in love. And you have, on one hand, the Hamas government, and, on the other, the occupation that is controlling the sky there.

In November, Abbass will act in a project that now has the title, The Last Chance for Love, written and directed by Arab and Tarzan Nasser, twins from Gaza who now live in Paris. The story, set in Gaza (to be shot in Jordan and other countries), begins as a fisherman, who is in love with a garment worker struggling to raise her daughter, who pulls up a statue from the sea.

Abbass will play the fisherman's love interest. "It's about harsh realities and people's ambitions – in art and in love. And you have, on one hand, the Hamas government, and, on the other, the occupation that is controlling the sky there."

“They [the Nassers] concentrate on the layers of human oppression, on the human side of the people living in Gaza, more than on the conflict itself between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” she says.   

The actress's departure from rainy Scotland is imminent. "I finish here and I go straight to my rehearsals." She's talking about a one-woman show for the theatre – she calls it a monologue – drawn from the writings of Simone Weil, a French political writer and religious mystic who died in England in 1943 after France had surrendered to the Nazis. Abbass will perform this show during the month of July in Avignon, South France. 

Before her death, Weil had restricted herself to a meagre diet in solidarity with the French, who starved under the Germans. Soon after the Second World War, Weil became a major figure for intellectuals in France and beyond, admired by some for her radical socialism and by others for her hardheaded piety. Abbass fears that a younger generation doesn't know Weil, and should.

"She died searching for the truth – the truth with a big T. Her last book, translated as 'The Need for Roots,' should be a manual for all governments and for all cultures around the world. It's the most profound way of looking at things," she says. "It's very important to me in my artistic work to make sure that the things I'm doing connect to who I am. This is my obsession right now."