Some stories can only be told by the people who lived them. Netflix's Stateless is one such story.
Fayssal Bazzi stars with Cate Blanchett, Jai Courtney, Yvonne Strahovski and Dominic West in the six-episode Netflix drama series centered on a refugee detention center in the Australian outback.
Inspired by real events, each detainee's background and story is different, yet they share the struggles and setbacks inherent in navigating an imperfect and often unforgiving immigration system.
Bazzi plays Ameer, a teacher who flees persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan with his wife and two young daughters. Along the way, he is separated from his family and cheated out of money by a people smuggler, circumstances which lead him to unspeakable heartbreak and anguish.
The story line is close to home for Bazzi, who emigrated as a young child to Australia with his family to escape terrorism in their native Lebanon. His emotional, raw performance in Stateless draws heavily from that background.
Fayssal Bazzi: I still remember living in Lebanon, the sounds of explosions. It's all too clear.
Though he was only three when his family fled, he says, "I still remember living in Lebanon, the sounds of explosions. It's all too clear." The early August blasts in Beirut brought those feelings back to the forefront. "I saw my dad's visceral reaction to that, remembering what happened to us. My mom's PTSD came back at that point. It's amazing how long that stays with you. It's in your DNA."
While not a father himself, Bazzi's emotional performance as Ameer mirrors what he saw in his own parents. "You don't forget things like what your parents go through to assure your safety and rebuild your life. My parents were a bit younger than I am now when we and my brother moved to Australia. The love that takes stays with you. I put that love into Ameer."
Ameer is a role that Bazzi felt a responsibility to portray. "What excited me about Ameer is that he's not a stereotype, not used to progress a white narrative. He's a real human doing what so many go through in society. We put a face on the struggles of refugees, people like you and me, doing what we would do in the same situations," he said.
Of the 17 years he's spent in theater, television and film, Bazzi stated in a recent essay that "Stateless will stay with me for the rest of my life."
The heavy impact of the series came not only from the emotions flooding through Bazzi from his past, but in part from the cast's exposure to actual immigrant refugees.
"All of the background talent came from refugee centers," he said. "Sadly, they needed no direction…we'd set the scene and it heartbreakingly came so easily for them." The set was an exact replica of a real facility nearby and it isn't pretty. "It's sad, but important to show how devastating it is to live that way."
Bazzi: The people I met because of this show have experienced the horrors of separation from family or the horrors of war. It's a real slice of life that doesn't often get told.
"The people I met because of this show have experienced the horrors of separation from family or the horrors of war. It's a real slice of life that doesn't often get told. [The background actors] were so happy that we were sharing their stories. We heard their heartache, their journeys, their struggles for survival," he said.
Guards from the detention centers were chosen as background actors for the series as well. "They were quite open about following orders [in their regular jobs] and how they felt about it," says Bazzi. This reflects the stories of the guards in leading roles, whose characters suffered deep inner conflict when they were forced to sacrifice compassion in the call of duty.
Bazzi noted that in general, there tends to be a lot of judging and fear around immigrants. "We hear about refugees, building a wall, people taking your jobs," he said. Stateless offers the human side of these stories. While many of the characters are flawed, they're driven by an overwhelming need to find a better life.
One particularly poignant scene shows an overjoyed Ameer hearing the news that his family has been located and they will be reunited at the refugee camp.
He runs to greet his oldest daughter, 12 year old Mina. Due to a communication breakdown, he is unaware that his wife and younger daughter perished in a drowning accident. Young Mina must deliver this news, replaying the horror of it while dealing with her father's anguish and shock.
Mina is played with a sadness and grit beyond her years by Soraya Heidari. She makes her professional debut in Stateless after doing a chemistry reading with Bazzi. "She had so much confidence, quite open with taking but also giving orders," he chuckled. "We got on straight away and developed an older brother/little sister kind of relationship. She's really smart, asks questions," he says of his young costar.
In the series, Ameer and Mina switch language from English to Dari told in subtitles. Heidari is a fluent Dari speaker, while Bazzi had to learn the language for the part of Ameer.
"Dari uses the same alphabet as Arabic, which I speak fluently, but I needed help with the intonation," Bazzi explained. "Once Sayara was cast, we found that her dad was a Dari speaker and interpreter. He was on set as her chaperone and became my coach."
"I was given free range on where to speak the Dari. Ameer was a teacher, he was teaching his daughter English, but when things got heated it fell into Dari because of the emotions," said Bazzi. He sometimes asked Sayara's father things like, "What language would you be speaking if you were yelling at her right now?"
As the "ethnic option" for so many roles, Bazzi says he's often called on for accents, which come easily to him. In fact, "when I talk to someone, I find myself changing my voice to their accent if they have one," he said.
While immigration laws and regulations are black and white, a refugee's circumstances rarely are. Ameer made one choice during his desperate need to flee that caused a strike against him in his plea for asylum. Near the end of the series, he feels forced to make an unthinkable decision.
The role stirred a lot of emotions in Bazzi and the rest of the cast. They regularly got together to debrief about the day. "It's important that with really heavy content that you don't let it beat you up. You can't let it affect your mental health. We shared it to make it easier to handle."
Bazzi got the acting bug while still in school, encouraged by a teacher. He started with a lot of theater and small breaks on TV. Screen came later, he said. "Early on, the only roles I was seeing were characters I didn't want to play. I absolutely walked away from opportunities to play 'the bad guy.' I won't degrade people of my background. Slowly, the better roles started coming."
His role in The Merger, a 2018 comedy film about a rogue Australian football team, earned him a nomination for the Australian Academy of Cinema Television Arts Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Most recently, he played Freddie, a WWII pilot in the Sydney Theatre Company production of The Deep Blue Sea. "My role in that is something that would have been questioned on screen," he said. "In theater, people just believe you. With screen, you have to go through so many more hands before casting. Theater has always offered more scope, more opportunities."
The veteran actor had hoped to enter the US market after wrapping Stateless. The COVID outbreak delayed that plan, but America is still in his sights once it's safe to travel here.
He hopes to find roles in the fantasy genre, comics or Star Wars. "It's an escape. I want people to watch me and go somewhere else. I loved those things as a child and I still do. It takes you into a different world."
For now, Stateless shines a spotlight on some of the harsh truths of the real world we live in. Bazzi said, "I can usually walk away from a role, shake it off after the wrap, but Ameer hasn't left me yet."
Stateless is currently available on Netflix.