'We should tell our stories': How Youssef Kerkour is knocking down Arab stereotypes, one role at a time

The Moroccan actor has been nominated for a Bafta for his role as Syrian refugee Sami Ibrahim in the British series 'Home'

Youssef Kerkour in Home. MARK JOHNSON/CHANNEL 4

A few years ago, Moroccan actor Youssef Kerkour decided he would no longer play the stereotypical Arab bad guy.

Not long after he made that resolution, the opportunity to play Sami Ibrahim in Home came along. The British series, written by and starring Hunderby actor Rufus Jones, follows the story of Ibrahim, a Syrian asylum seeker who moves in with a middle-class English family after they find him hiding in the boot of their car upon their return from a family vacation in France.

The role has netted Kerkour, 42, his first Bafta nomination for Best Male Comedy Performance, announced earlier this month. The winners of the 2020 TV Baftas will be revealed on Friday, July 17.

For the actor, who grew up in Rabat, that prestigious nod is a reflection of changing times.

"If a guy like me can get hired to play a very sweet, cuddly Syrian refugee, then it means the industry is changing a little bit – but there is so much more to do," he tells The National from his home in London.

"In many ways, my career tracks that change. I spent my life playing terrorists. That’s my USP, that's why I grew my beard. I'm a very big guy. I speak Arabic, so a big bearded Arabic man, there’s really one kind of part, traditionally," he says. "[Playing] Sami is the first time somebody has taken the chance and given me something more."

While Home, which first debuted in March 2019, hasn't yet been confirmed for a third series, Kerkour is confident about the show's future.

I'd like our stories to be told in a more authentic, humane way

Ibrahim's story is based on that of Hassan Akkad, a Syrian English teacher who filmed his journey on a boat as he fled from Damascus. He was also part of the team that made Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which won a Bafta for Best Factual Series or Strand in 2017.

"He was on set all the time and was helping us with everything," Kerkour says.

Akkad even helped Kerkour perfect his Syrian accent, specifically the dialect native to the city of Damascus. "Everyone comments on the Arabic, which I'm proud of. It's all him. It's his ear."

Today, the roles Kerkour takes on have shifted away from "terrorists", becoming more than just one-dimensional characters, he says.

This year, he also starred in new British production Baghdad Central, a police detective story set in the city following the US-led coalition's invasion of Iraq. Based on the crime novel by Elliott Colla, the six-part series stars American-Palestinian actor Waleed Zuaiter as police inspector Muhsin Khafaji, the show's main character.

Kerkour plays Karl, a taxi driver whose father was a communist in Iraq. Karl becomes Khafaji's confidant and for this role, it was the Iraqi accent that he had to work to perfect.

“Accents definitely form part of training and how to do them is a part of what you learn," says Kerkour, who attended the renowned London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (Lamda). "It’s part of your repertoire. It’s on your CV.”

But the actor, who is fluent in Arabic, French, English and Italian, has always had an affinity for languages.

"I believe if you want to learn a language you basically have to learn a thought process. You’re not learning words; you’re learning how somebody else thinks.”

Youssef Kerkour (left) in Dracula. Courtesy BBC

For a role on the Netflix Original series Dracula, Kerkour had to master a Russian accent.

“When I commit to one language, people shouldn’t be able to tell the difference," he says. “That’s the idea. That’s my job.”

While he doesn't go back to Morocco as often as his parents would like, work in the past couple of years has sporadically taken him to his home country.

Baghdad Central was shot in Morocco, where the production team recreated the Iraqi city. Kerkour also took on his first role in a Moroccan production called De Sable et de Feu, directed by Amok's Souheil Ben-Barka. The film premiered at the Arpa International Film Festival in Los Angeles last November.

The excitement in Kerkour's voice when he speaks about his home country is tangible. He strongly believes in the power of storytelling, something that he hopes Arab nations will continue to push for and develop. "I’d like our stories to be told in a more authentic, humane way," he says.

The entertainment industry "is literally your country's flag that travels all around the ether and plants itself in somebody else's brain", he says. "Who tells your story when you're Arab? It should be us."

Until then, Kerkour is taking on that mission, one role at a time.