A warm romantic comedy that may seem simultaneously recognizable and unfamiliar to many viewers, Breaking Fast follows Mo (played by out actor Haaz Sleiman), a practicing Muslim still reeling from heartbreak. When an All -American guy named Kal (portrayed by Michael Cassidy) offers to join him in his nightly iftars-the traditional meals eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadanthe two discover they have much in common.
Windy City Times talked with director Mike Mosallam about various aspects of the film, including a subject that's become a hot-button topic: straight actors portraying gay characters.
Windy City Times: Let me start with a couple more general questions. First, there are people who feel Hollywood is this bastion of liberalism. Do you agree with that school of thought?
Mike Mosallam: The thing I would say immediately is that Hollywood isn't any kind of monolith. But Hollywood is full of artists, and artists tend to be empathic people, and empathic people tend to be more progressive and liberal.
WCT: I know this is your feature-film debut, but you have directed numerous theater productions. What are the best and worst things about directing?
MM: The answer is the samethe actors. The actors are absolutely the reason I direct. I love working with them and getting in their minds and working things out with them. At the same time, every actor is different and approaches their craft differently. The hardest part is just speaking their language in a short amount of time.
WCT: Who are two or three actors you'd love to direct?
MM: As you mentioned, I come from a theater background so all the actors I think about tend to come from a theater space. I think about working with Celia Keenan-Bolger, a tremendous Tony Award-winning actress [for To Kill a Mockingbird]; Audra McDonald, who I revere so much; andjust because we're talking about a rom-comit would be a dream to work with Julia Roberts. You've got to reach for the stars, Andrew! [Laughs]
WCT: Yesaim high! So I understand Breaking Fast started as a short?
MM: It did. I wrote it in 2015 at the behest of a friend of mine. I didn't feel a story like thisabout the intersectionality between religion and sexualityhad been told from my perspective, so he encouraged me to write it. When I thought about writing the story, it just really poured out of me. It got the attention of a producer of an HBO show called Looking; he came on and developed the short with me.
From there, we were fortunate enough to go to Cannes and some other notable film festivals. The audiences' reactions were always, "What happens next?" We hadn't really thought about what a feature version would look like so we put pen to papereven though when I say that, I feel I'm really dating myself. Now, five-plus years later, here we are with Breaking Fast.
WCT: With Windy City Times being an LGBTQ media outlet, I feel that I'd be remiss if I didn't get into the topic of straight actors portraying gay roles, as Michael Cassidy (as far as I know) identifies as straight. What would you say to people who say that having gay actors lends more authenticity to gay roles?
MM: I would speak for Michael Cassidy, but he's very articulate when he talks about this and where he falls on the spectrum. He certainly identifies as straight and is in a long-term heterosexual relationship but, in terms of his ability to fall in love with someone of the same gender, I'll leave that to him to discuss.
For me, I think there's absolute validity in the desire for authentic and representative storytelling. I think it might be a little bit dangerous, however, to say gay actors should only play gay roles because then you could say that straight actors should only play straight roles. That's a bit of a slippery slope that is not really the point of what that movement is calling for. I would say that when it comes to our casting of this film, we were very, very intentional about the people we saw. We made sure that people were authentically Arab who were playing Arab roles. We were fortunate who have actors who come from Muslim [backgrounds] who understood the nuances of the world we live inbut it wasn't for me to sit in a casting session and ask someone who they took into a bedroom.
WCT: It could, indeed, launch a slippery slope. For example, would you have hired non-Muslim actors for the Muslim roles?
MM: Like sexual identity, religiosity is often very fluid. People of the Muslim faith are not a monolith, and it's different to speak of them than to, say, hire an Indian actor to play an Arab role or an Iranian actor to play a Pakistani role. That type of specific ethnicity is something we should be very conscious of and intentional about because the experiences are so different. Religiosity is different than that. What does playing a Muslim mean? Again, Islam and its followers are not a monolith, as evidenced by the vast intersectionality within the Muslim community across the globe.
WCT: And one of the things I appreciated about this film is that it shows the spectrum of Muslim thought. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the Muslim community about the movie?
MM: Yeah. I will just qualify, if I may, by saying the Muslim community is a collection of communities. I can speak directly to the various Muslims that I've had the pleasure of speaking withall of whom can appreciate that there isn't a singular lens in this film and who can appreciate that there isn't a blanket version of Islam in it. There are Muslims who will love this film and there are Muslims who will hate it. But, ultimately, it's a story about humanity so I'd much rather reveal the individual human than I would a blanket community.
WCT: By the way, I told someone that, if I were an actor in this film, the easiest scenes would be the eating ones and the hardest ones would be the exercise classes.
MM: [Laughs] You want to know something about those exercise scenes? I went with two of the lead actors, Haaz and Amin [El Gamal, who plays Mo's best friend, Sam], to one of the classes so they'd get accustomed to what they'd have to go through while filming. It was a bonding experiencebut it was hilarious to watch and to participate in. The class is based on a [dance cardio workout] routine called 305 Fitness. We were thrilled to support them and have their support in the making of this film.
WCT: And the fact that Veronica Cartwright is in this film!
MM: Ohwhat a blessing, an honor and a treat! Can you imagine? She signed up for this roleone scene and a half-day of work. And the actors were fangirling over her! She was awesome. I remembered her from Alien, but I forgot that she was the mom in Flight of the Navigator as well.
WCT: And could you talk about Amin? He's amazing as Samalthough I do know some people who might find his character as over-the-top.
MM: I would say that anybody who cringes at Amin's role would have to reflect on their internalized homophobia. I think we can say that we know people who are as over-the-topif not more over-the-topthan Amin's portrayal.
But I wish we could spend the entirety of this interview and this day talking about Aminand it would not be enough time for me to express my love for him as a human being and for his talent. He's an incredible actorand, believe it or not, he's nothing like his characterand such a wonderful soul. He's a delight to work with and I'm proud to call him my friend. He was so gentle and warm on set, and he was up to every challenge.
WCT: Lastly, what do you want viewers to take away from this film?
MM: I think, primarily, that the experience of being gay and/or being Arab and/or being Muslim is not a monolithic one; it runs the spectrum. But mostly, let this film serve as an ideal should and can look like for gay Arab Muslims and their families. The movie is about family, blood and chosen. Let us believe that we all deserve that kind of love in a family structure.
Breaking Fast is available On Demand.