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January 17, 2019
Online Originals

No Small Parts

FBI star Zeeko Zaki worked through typecasting for a chance to create something brand new.

Melissa Byers

Zeeko Zaki knows how to build a career: take every job and just keep working.

The FBI star did just that, risking typecasting, taking tiny roles, and plugging along, building his résumé step-by-step.

Zaki says, "The journey started in the smallest possible way from high school musicals. Then I didn't even know what attacking or sort of the beginning of this journey even looked like or that it even really existed in my life, until I went to North Carolina just to get out of Philadelphia where I was going to school.

"And when I did, I always would gravitate towards acting classes in college just because I'm an outgoing person. It was always an easy credit. One thing led to another, and I did a play in Wilmington, North Carolina, where an agent and a casting director were in the audience and a few days later I got a phone call to have a meeting with my agent who's still with me now.

"She's in STW Talent and it was a small boutique, maybe 50 clients in Wilmington, North Carolina.

"She gave me a shot and we kind of were anticipating the inevitability of my type being cast in terrorist roles and war movies and stuff like that. Just trying to find a way in, I guess, and then we went for it and just literally from one liners from extra work to featured extra work to one word, one liners, one scene, two scenes, little arcs here and there. Just kind of just kept chipping away at it.

"From the smallest possible point to here and it took about eight years and the journey is my favorite part of my life at this point."

Zaki was born in Alexandria, Egypt, but raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He went from Temple University in Philadelphia to North Carolina, where his career started taking off.

Zaki says he appreciated starting in a small place. "Once we started looking at it professionally, I was very passionate or enthusiastic about the big fish small pond sort of narrative with me being one of the few Arabic speaking actors and then adding on [a height of] 6'5", an intimidating presence, for these sort of stereotypical roles.

"It was a great place to be with the way the incentives brought film and television to the East Coast. We were getting massive projects and I was getting small roles but in massive projects, so my résumé ended up looking really nice, with recognizable productions and things like that, so it was definitely a blessing, and I recommend it to everybody that asks me what's the best way to start, is to just go into the Southeast. It was a great place to begin."

Zaki also benefitted from beginning in small roles in great résumé-building projects.

He says, "You book a cashier role in a Marvel movie, and, one, you're going to be able to at least pay your rent for a little bit off the residuals. And two, it looks great on your résumé and this industry I feel like works off of such a first impression that any way of getting something to look as best as possible on a résumé is just really, it's everything at the beginning."

As an Arab man, he knew going into the business that he would be typecast. But instead of fighting it, he used it to his advantage by taking any role he was offered.

He says, "I never shied away from anything, from any audition I ever got. I said yes to absolutely everything no matter how stereotypical it was, no matter how outside of my comfort zone it was. The idea of work begets work was definitely very instilled in me from an early point from my agent. She said 'Look, I know this is six dollars, but maybe you get a bump, maybe they toss you a word, maybe this, maybe that.'

"That was the drive to justify the dive into this industry and this world because it is such a thing, even with family. They support it, with a side eye, until you get the big one, and they're like 'We always knew,' that whole thing. I grew up with an Arab family; there's definitely stereotypical pressures to make them proud, but I think that is in every culture.

"But, just in case it could work, I would try everything, and I knew that the game kind of moves in these predictable patterns of you get typecast until it's frowned upon to typecast them. Until they go 'okay, we've seen it all, we can't do this anymore.'

"I was along for the ride. I knew it would come along one day, or I had faith that it would come along one day. And, when this opportunity [FBI] happened, we were waiting after the call back, it was a fingers-crossed that they would take this chance. I knew from the beginning that someone would have to take a leap of faith with me because I'm unique enough that it's not a safe bet to try number one as an Arab.

"I hoped to change their minds and thank God Dick Wolf did it, and I will forever be indebted to him for that."

Zaki's role in FBI is anything but stereotypical. In the Dick Wolf series on CBS, Zaki plays Special Agent Omar Adom 'OA' Zidan. His character is a former DEA undercover agent recruited into the FBI. Far from being the stereotypical terrorist or foreign agent, OA is one of the good guys.

Zaki says, "It's funny because episode one was just proof of concept, incredibly action packed and when I watched it, even filming it, it didn't hit me, but when I watched it I was like 'whoa.' This hasn't been done before. This is just a new thing. Why do I feel like I haven't seen this before?

"And it played, and I was just so happy it played because that was what we wanted to play, that was the whole reason to take the risk, that it would be something more."

Zaki feels that the series was meant from the beginning to be something different from the usual procedural. "It's crazy because I don't know how you know. You feel like you're jumping into a show on season 50, but when you get onto the ground floor of it, we're really, everyone, from every angle, is trying to make something new.

"That's what so exciting about it because it's birthed from sort of this familiar, comfortable place, and then we just try to sort of make it different and kind of sculpt it a little differently. And then, again, it's working, and I can't believe it. It's incredible."

The show is still finding its way, but the characters have gelled from the beginning. Zaki says, "Well, we're still identifying, things are moving, we're still finding it. We're still fine-tuning the show, also.

"For me, my biggest thing is kind of tackling how much of Zeeko can I put into him because of the pace of the show, because of the rate that we're filming, I needed to open with Zeeko to make myself more welcome in a way, so that there was a safety net for moments of how should I tackle this without having to run to a coach or just to be able to ask sort of myself.

"I kind of opened with that and it worked, so now it's just a combination of me and a combination of the superhero that's inside of us all that I'm trying to portray and get people excited to watch and inspire Arab kids, kids of all races, everybody to be able to see somebody that they can want to emulate.

"He's [my character] just a total bad ass, and then I get to bring in this humanity, and I get to play the sensitivity and this kind of part that's always been who I am, personally. The fact that everyone was kind of open to that, it made me really excited."

FBI airs at 9:00 Tuesday on CBS.

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