Actress Karess Bashar on new series 'Stiletto' and the enduring quality of Syrian dramas

Based on a popular Turkish drama, the show airs nightly on MBC's Shahid

Karess Bashar stars in new MBC drama series 'Stiletto'. Antonie Robertson / The National
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After Karess Bashar finished her final scene for new television drama Stiletto, she needed a break.

Returning home in Syria after a year spent shooting the series in Istanbul, Turkey, it took her a month to unwind from the most gruelling role of her career.

"I have never been that exhausted because we were working intensely on the show for 11 months, and that's preparation and shooting," she tells The National.

"And then there is the intensity of the character, which meant that nearly every scene demanded a lot emotionally."

Bashar, 46, is referring to her role as Alma, a struggling psychologist caught up in a police investigation of a potential murder in the ritzy suburbs of Beirut.

Also upping the ante are Bashar’s co-stars, with an ensemble packed with leading Levantine talents including Syrian actors Dima Kandalaft and Samer Al Masry, as well as Lebanon's Nada Abou Farhat and Rita Harb.

“There was a healthy competition on set,” Bashar admits.

“But that’s really what you want. With each actor on top of their games, we were also able to share the load in what it’s a big project.”

Inspired by the hit Turkish drama Stiletto Vendetta and available to stream on MBC’s Shahid platform, the Arabic-language adaptation condensed the original story from two series to one spanning nearly 100 episodes.

The move continues pan-Arab broadcaster MBC’s push away from the standard 30-episode format to embrace those longer and open ended.

These include Saudi Arabia's Al Mirtah, dubbed the first Arabic soap opera, which has been running for more than 170 episodes since 2020.

MBC also produced Arous Beirut, a Lebanese drama that recently completed a 220-episode run.

“While such a form is long and it requires a lot of commitment, it does benefit the actor if they choose the right project,” Bashar says.

“You will have the opportunity to get into the role with much more depth and there will be more transformations in the story and characters to keep everyone focused on the role.”

Born in Damascus, Bashar began her career as a dancer in a folk group before landing some roles in local theatre productions.

In the crowd during those shows was director Bassam Al Malla, who signed her up for a supporting role in 1996 historical drama series Al Ababeed.

“It was by fate that he was there and convinced me to do a screen test for the role,” Bashar says.

“Because at that time I was very devoted to a career in dance and, really, if Damascus had a ballet school at the time, I would have been the first to be enrolled.”

That said, the transition from dance to drama wasn’t all fluid.

While racking up bigger roles, including 1998’s Maq'ad Fi Al Hadiqa and Khan Al Harir, Bashar explains it took a while to get rid of old stage habits.

“While my dance training helped me to show emotions through movement, it also gave me a few challenges,” she recalls.

“Like the way I stood or walked — the way you do it in dance is very different from television, which is more loose and natural.

“It was these smaller things that took me a long time to get over.”

What hasn’t left Bashar is her passion for bringing Syrian stories to the screen.

Her career sees her returning occasionally to take on prominent roles in Syrian dramas, such as this year’s brooding Ramadan drama Kasr Al A'dem and 2018’s historical epic Haroun Al Rasheed, and in turn revitalising a celebrated entertainment industry marred by Syria’s civil war.

"Whenever I return to Syria, I am working on sets that have the same level of equipment and personnel that you will find in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Istanbul," he says.

"The talent and the will is definitely there. The challenges come in the form of the lack of reliable electricity and fuel when it comes to producing the work.

“But when it comes to the quality and depth of the work coming from Syria, the quality continues to be high and I am so proud of that.”

Expect Bashar to return to our television screens next March, for a new Ramadan drama series produced by Beirut’s Cedars Art Production.

While not revealing the plot, Bashar says she will star alongside fellow Syrian star Abed Fahd and Lebanon's Georges Khabbaz.

“We begin filming in November and it will run throughout Ramadan,” he says.

“Until then, I plan to relax and regain my energy because there is a lot of work to do.”

'Stiletto' is available to stream on MBC's Shahid and screens nightly on MBC 4 at 10pm.

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Updated: October 13, 2022, 12:24 PM