Arts, Culture & Media

This Syrian actor went from delivering pizza to co-staring in a movie with Nicole Kidman

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Credit: Courtesy of Jay Abdo

Jay Abdo had to leave a successful career in his home country of Syria and move to the US.

Jay Abdo was a big star.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

He had played major roles in hundreds of TV episodes and dozens of movies and plays during his 30-year career. Fans would stop him to get autographs all the time. "In the personal level, my life as an actor was really good. I had everything I needed," he recalls.

But one thing was missing from Abdo's life. "I wasn't totally free," he says. That's because of where he lived: Syria. "Actually, no one ever felt free in Syria since the 1960s," he says.

As the Arab Spring sparked protests in Syria in 2011, Abdo watched as critics of the government were harrassed, arrested and put in jail. Though he knew the consequences of speaking out against the Syrian government, he couldn't keep quiet.

In 2011, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he blamed the Syrian security forces for what was happening in Syria. "After that, things took a very dramatic twist and my life was in danger," Abdo says.

At that time, Abdo's wife was living and studying in the United States. He decided to join her for a few months until things calmed down. They never did. Eventually, he sought asylum in the US.

Starting life in a new country meant lots of changes, and the first big one was Abdo's name. Originally, his first name was Jihad. It's a normal name in Arab countries, but Abdo figured it would make finding a job in Hollywood pretty tough. Soon he was Jay instead.

But even then, finding work proved harder than Abdo imagined. He applied for dozens of acting jobs and went to countless auditions, all without any success.

"I left everything back home, my success, my career, my huge name," he says. "I started to apply everywhere, volunteer, start some job — just to pay my bills because I couldn't take my money from my country."

For a time, he even delivered pizza to get by.

Abdo's big break came when a producer for a movie called Queen of the Desert agreed to show clips of Abdo to the movie's director, Werner Herzog.

Herzog liked Abdo, who landed a role alongside Nicole Kidman. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I was so lucky."

Queen of the Desert was partly filmed in Morocco. At one point, fans rushed over to get autographs — from Abdo, not his internationally famous co-star.

"Are these fans of yours?" Kidman asked Abdo. His answer? "I said 'Yes, I have millions.'"

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