Being Laith Nakli: The Hollywood actor's breakthrough role

British-Syrian star talks about reclaiming his identity and the need to keep things real

Laith Nakli on the balcony of his apartment in New York with the Empire State Building in the background, the skyscraper that set his imagination racing as an eight-year-old boy when watching the original 1933 film 'King Kong'. Photo: Laith Nakli
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The sounds emanating from Laith Nakli as a tattoo artist outlines a tiny lightning bolt on the side of his left calf are hardly befitting an actor known as one of Hollywood’s tough guys.

“Argh-ha! Ow! OK, is it over... OW,” he cries.

Worse is to come. It's hard to tell whether his laughing fellow Ms Marvel cast member, Yasmeen Fletcher, is pinning him down or holding his hand through the ordeal.

Nakli, harking back to how his younger self opted to undergo root canal treatment without anaesthetic, is at a loss to explain his increased sensitivity.

“No Novocaine,” he tells The National. “That’s how much I could tolerate pain, and now I can’t even tolerate a little buzzing tattoo machine. But I gave the cast a laugh. It was a great moment.”

Many of his anecdotes touch on the theme of suffering. During what doctors suspect was an early case of undiagnosed Covid-19, Nakli thought he was dying “and I’ve never said that in my whole life”.

While X-rays were being taken of his damaged lungs, a sizeable kidney stone — which he called his “felafel ball” — was discovered and eventually removed.

Sciatica from a herniated disc has plagued him since waking one morning in 2013, when he felt as though the nerve running down his back to his leg was being plucked like a guitar string.

Characteristically, though, Nakli can't help turning it all into a joke. “Every medical issue I’ve had in the past eight years has probably been caused by Manchester United,” he quips, in a reference to the Premier League team's long struggles.

“Terrible! And each time I’m like: ‘OK, I’m gonna find another football team, I swear to God, that’s it, I’m done. But I just love them.”

Pain translates to humour readily, he explains, and Nakli has a wellspring of the stuff.

Much of it is mental: bullying as a child; an identity crisis over his Syrian heritage; doubters casting aspersions; the bittersweet moment he earned his Screen Actors’ Guild card; and something else to be revealed in a series in the pipeline.

He plumbed the latter for a masterful performance in an episode of Hulu’s award-winning Ramy devoted to his role as the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic Uncle Naseem.

After its denouement, set to an Arabic version of Gloria Gaynor’s anthemic I Will Survive, shocked fans took to social media, many proclaiming their loathing for the character but love for the actor.

Even though Nakli disagrees with everything that comes out of his mouth when playing the fictional persona, he admires Uncle Naseem’s arc as written by Ramy Youssef, the “wonder kid” behind the groundbreaking series’ three seasons.

“He does all these bad things, says all these bad things, but there’s something about him. It comes from a deep, wounded place,” he says.

“When I did that episode, I was nervous because it’s a fine line — it could either become blah, a caricature or very stereotypical. I went to one of my mentors, Barbara Marchant at the William Esper Studio. She read it and summed it up in one word: ‘Pain.’

“You have a secret that is so painful because you can’t share it. It’s there festering, and that’s what I worked with.

"We can all relate to suffering silently rather than sharing it.”

If there is something about Naseem then the same must be said of Nakli. Notwithstanding the arduous journey to the age of 52, his barrel chest emits a gravelly laugh at regular intervals and his optimism is unfettered.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” he says. “I feel very, very blessed. Certain circumstances forced me to rethink the trajectory of my life. I chose this path, to follow my real dreams.”

Quite a store of those has built up over the years, too. “Yeah, young Laith was a dreamer, always a dreamer,” he confirms. “I think that never went away.”

He was born in 1969 in Plymouth, south-west England, to Syrian parents: Nihad, who moved for an electrical engineering scholarship, and Amira, a teacher. The family settled in Birmingham, where Nakli excelled at pulling pranks on his sisters, Maha and Mai, and friends.

Early aspirations included being a footballer but watching the original 1933 King Kong when he was 8 years old proved pivotal.

These days, the view out the window of his apartment in Manhattan transports him to the moment — more than four decades ago and 5,000 kilometres away — when he sat transfixed as a giant ape holding Fay Wray in one hand attempted to evade his captors.

But it was more about the 102-storey New York landmark being scaled while doing so. “I just couldn’t believe that the building was real,” he says. “And now I’ve been living in my apartment for 22 years, and right smack outside my window is the Empire State Building. It’s quite amazing.”

His childhood reaction to the skyscraper inspired a screenplay called King Rookie that was half-financed when the Syrian war began in 2010.

“I was in love with Rocky, and in Syria that’s how they say it: Rookie,” he says.

“I wrote a coming-of-age story with loss and grief and a lot of comedy and movie references. It’s about a boy growing up in Damascus who has a brother with a dream of going to America because he believes the Empire State Building is fake.”

The film was to showcase the Old City that provided him with solace as a teenager: a masterclass in history and art around every corner; thrumming witness to the dance battles with his fellow Damascus City Breakers; and a bounty of delights such as booza rolled in pistachios from the ice cream parlour Bakdash.

As Nakli tells it — and he concedes his account is “debatable” — the family holidayed there from the UK every other year until one time they set off in a new car and never returned.

With his long hair and lack of Arabic, it was difficult to fit in. Only the Catholic Al Asiya School in Bab Tuma would accept him, and it took four years to speak the language accent-free.

“There was a lot of bullying. It was relentless. That’s why I became a tough kid,” he says. “Nobody ever bullied me after I was 13, 14. I was ferocious.”

Though unable to confide his longing to be elsewhere, it was writ large on the walls of his bedroom through the posters of Hollywood actors such as John Travolta and Marlon Brando and bodybuilders who had made the crossover, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude van Damme.

At 20, Nakli left for America after a miserable spell studying mathematics at university, and put more than just 9,000km between himself and his ancestral home.

He often told people he was British and changed his identity after a doctor he had been sent to collect by the taxi service he was working for at the time enquired about his name.

“‘You know, all Syrians are terrorists,’ he said. It was like a dagger in my chest, and I kicked him out of the car,” he recalls.

“That was the day I started going by Leo. When your name’s Leo, nobody asks where you’re from.”

Discouraged by a string of equally unpleasant experiences as he tried to break into acting, Nakli resorted to bodybuilding and an invitation was extended for “The Ameriki” to take part in the Mr Syria competition.

He won the title but throughout it all, there was always one thought in the back of his mind: “Well, you know, Arnie did it this way.”

It took a friend pointing out that he should stop talking about acting and just do it before Nakli signed up for classes, and he was hooked.

Determined to be his own boss while learning the craft, he and a world-class Mixed Martial Arts fighter became one of the “oddest couples” in Greenwich Village after opening a shop called Enchanted Candles.

The venture seemed to work, though, and was the setting for some timely writing advice from a regular who popped in as often for a chat as to buy something.

“First, he said: ‘Don’t wait for the phone to ring.’ Then, he said: ‘If you put words on a piece of paper, you’re a writer. Just put the words down.’ So I started.”

The customer was Quentin Tarantino and the counsel was all the more valuable after 9/11, when others began to run from their Arab identities for fear of being judged.

“I did the opposite,” Nakli recalls. “I went back. I would say: ‘I’m Laith and I’m not English — I’m from Syria.

“At the beginning, I wanted to be the next big star, then the desire to act came from the pure love of it, and after 9/11 happened, I needed to have a voice to represent the millions of Arabs who did not share the terrorists’ views.”

But the shock waves reverberated through the tourism industry, the shop closed and Nakli, deep in debt, had to toil at odd jobs around the clock.

He would come out of acting class, lay carpets with a friend, sleep until 1am, learn lines while loading vegetables for distribution for seven hours, do a shift as a cleaner at the William Esper Studio, and the cycle would repeat.

As he teetered, broke and exhausted, on the brink of quitting acting studies, a gauntlet to his stubborn streak impelled him: “Laith needs to be realistic about his expectations,” his grocer boss was overheard saying. “His dreams are much bigger than he is.”

Nakli went on to amass an extensive list of credits for television and film, including The Long Road Home, 12 Strong with Chris Hemsworth, and another as the menacing voice of the mythical Iraqi sniper Juba in The Wall, as well as a clutch for writing and producing.

They were hard won and not without internal conflict. His excitement at receiving the SAG card, officially making him a professional actor, was overshadowed by the hurt of earning it as a dirty bomber on the crime drama Third Watch.

Though feedback from auditions was invariably favourable, the common lament was that Nakli didn’t look ethnic enough. “What does that even mean?” he still asks.

After growing a beard, he was advised not to go clean-shaven again, and allowed one show to paint his face darker because “I didn’t know any better”.

Cajoled by his agent, he joined the cast of 24: Legacy as an extremist fighter but was mortified when the creators wouldn't change the character’s name though it closely resembled an offensive word in Arabic.

“I was struggling emotionally, thinking: ‘What am I doing?’ That was it. I said I would never, ever do anything like this again.”

The pride he takes in playing “real people” instead of stereotypes in his roles as Uncle Naseem and Ms Marvel’s religious mentor, Sheikh Abdullah, is clear.

There is a remarkable tendency for things to come full circle in Nakli’s life, and his first words in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a case in point.

“You just hear my voice as they’re praying: ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’, and it’s so peaceful. I tell all these young actors now that they were my first words screamed on screen as a terrorist, and then look what I did,” he says.

“They have no idea how me and others of my generation, like Waleed Zuaiter and Omar Metwally, paved the way for them. I feel we’re in a better place with representation but we have to keep working at it. Change happens in the writers’ room.”

Ever generous, he has a reputation for promoting young filmmakers of colour but is name-checked regularly online for being instrumental in helping those of all backgrounds.

Even William Esper, the renowned teacher whom he called his “American Dad”, expressed his debt of gratitude to Nakli, saying without his noble efforts as administrative director, there would be no New York studio.

Now, despite being one of the most in-demand Middle Eastern actors in the US, Nakli insists: “I still dream.”

He is waiting for the right part to come along in an Arabic-speaking series and, somewhat out of left field, wants to host an episode during an annual block of programming on the Discovery Channel.

“I’m terrified of the ocean,” he explains. “It happened later in life, but I want to get over it with a cage dive on Shark Week. I think it’d be very funny and scary. Maybe if I win a couple of awards, they’ll let me.”

Success is not about money. So many actors who make so much money aren't even good

The thought prompts him to muse for a while on the subjective nature of success. While others define it by dollars, celebrity status or material possessions, Nakli is just happy to be working, prefers a simple life and uses personal interaction — whether on social media, in the supermarket or on the street — as his metric of choice.

His claim to be in the best shape of his life is hard to believe, not least because these days the average round trip to the gym involves as much lifting of smartphones as barbells.

En route, Nakli might be interrupted by an impromptu half-hour chat with a Ramy fan outside a cafe, followed by a spontaneous video call with the owner’s daughter who has just started watching Ms Marvel.

“It’s not about money,” he says, “because so many actors who make so much money aren’t even good.

“I love engaging. If it makes someone else happy, then it makes me happy. To me, that’s success. That’s what I want to keep on doing and, hopefully, the platform to reach people just gets bigger.”

Updated: December 06, 2022, 9:41 AM