Playing a character that not only hits close to home, but also marks a time in history when cultural conversations are needed most is a rare and powerful opportunity for any actor.
Establishing success as one of the only Kurdish actors in the industry today, LA based actor Shvan Aladdin’s Middle Eastern heritage and colossal talents have helped bring a stronger sense of multiculturalism to Hollywood.
Capitalizing on his Kurdish roots, Aladdin has landed numerous leading roles across film and television productions in stories that are fundamentally relevant to today’s society.
His creative approach to depicting stories of substance on screen have helped to ensure individuals from around the world are seen and heard in a more authentic way.
“First and foremost, it’s an honor to know that I am one of the first to represent my country in a place like Hollywood,” Aladdin proudly shares. “But I really hope there will be many more than me in the future. And I hope that by me being here, it’ll open up the doors for many more who start to believe in themselves.”
Societal issues such as racial profiling, gender equality and women’s rights continue to surge news headlines. Cultural diversity amongst the entertainment industry however is a whole conversation on its own.
With independent studios and progressive filmmakers pushing the boundaries to expose stories of truth, cultural conversations are now the storyboard for many award-winning mini series and Hollywood blockbusters.
“I want to tell stories that are not out there. I am from Kurdistan and it’s so rare we see Kurdish stories being told to the greater audience,” Aladdin shares. “I want to be one of those who brings those stories to life. Aside from that, I want to work with stories that hopefully teaches me, the actor, and the audience something new.”
Despite seeing some movement in cultural diversity across Hollywood of late, many will argue that we still have a long way to go to achieve equal rights.
Recent studies from a 2019 report shows that out of 3,895 speaking or named characters had an easily identifiable race or ethnicity. Of those, a full 63.7% were white, 16.9% Black, 5.3% Latino, 8.2% Asian– but, only 1.5% were Middle Eastern/North African.
Focusing on roles behind the camera, the report also indicates that out of the 112 directors from the 100 top films of 2018, a mere 3.6% were Middle Eastern/North African.
Evidently these stats show great room for improvement, there’s no denying that. However most recently we’ve bared witness to change as some of the industry’s most reputable sources are praising diversity.
The 2019 Korean drama “Parasite” won the award for Best Film at The Oscars earlier this year, marking Hollywood history as the first non-english film to take home the prestigious award.
Arab-American star Rami Malek earned critical acclaim for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the incredible biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Malek became the first ever Arab-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his outstanding performance in 2019.
And although Egyptian born Mena Massoud skyrocketed to Hollywood fame for his role of Aladdin in the 2019 box office smash remake, the star has struggled to land auditions ever since.
Thus leads us to question, why is there a continual lack of diversity in Hollywood? And why is there still a misrepresentation of cultures in film and television today?
Being one of the only Kurdish actors in Hollywood, Aladdin recognizes the demands for further diversity, adding, “the truth of the matter is that there aren’t any Kurdish actors out here, and it’s a pity. I hope that we will get to a place where tons of other Kurdish actors move out here and get the opportunity to work in this town.”
He continues, “It’s crazy when you think about how big this city is and yet there are no Kurdish actors in it. I really hope for a change in that section.”
So how does one man from Kurdistan implement such change in Hollywood? By moving away from the stereotypical roles which questions the accurate representation of the Middle East.
A 2018 study showed that 78 percent of all Middle Eastern and North African actors were cast in villainous roles, such as terrorists or tyrants, something that Aladdin has personally experienced.
He shares, “I used to get many auditions for stereotypical roles. But then it got to a point where I just had enough. There are only so many terrorist roles you can do before you feel drained.”
Being one of the only Kurdish actors in Hollywood has come as an advantage to the talented star, who is leaving behind the typecast roles to depict characters of substance and truth.
“There have been many times where directors have been looking really hard for Kurdish actors and it’s just impossible to get a hold of them.” Aladdin continues, “I was in a film ‘Noise’ by Michael Aloyan and it took us weeks to find a Kurdish actress. The girl we ended up finding wasn’t even an actor but it worked out.”
The final casting was flawless, and the engaging film gained widespread viewing via Amazon Prime and was nominated for Best Short Film Award at the 2018 Austin Film Festival.
Aladdin’s genuine performance as the young Kurdish immigrant in the touching film is a character that hits close to home. He reflects, “My mother immigrated from Kurdistan to Sweden in the late 90s, so growing up being a child of an immigrant, I have enormous respect for immigrants.”
He proudly continues, “I know that no mother or father immigrates just for fun. It’s all about giving your children the opportunities you didn’t have growing up. All I am today, I have my mother to thank for.”
“Noise” tells the story of two unique individuals who find love in the most unexpected form with a deaf American woman and a young Kurdish man developing a connection based on sensory touch and vibrational rhythms. Using a notebook as a translator, the characters prove that when you remove language, communication really has no limits.
Their connection becomes tested when the pair are introduced to alternative characters who, according to societal comfort appear to be more suitable. But after a brief moment of contemplation, the two trust their instincts and find their way back to each other.
The optimism shown in the final scene proves that love can exist in all forms, with Aladdin adding, “It’s beautiful. It shows that there’s no limits when it comes to love… I’m so proud to have been part of it.”
Emerging far beyond the stereotypical roles, Aladdin’s career was inspired by the comical pleasures he gained from watching sitcoms as a young child.
Describing his upbringing as “organic,” Aladdin was born and raised in Slemani, Kurdistan. Looking back on his early childhood he reflects, “It was very interesting, sometimes it feels like I’ve gotten to live two very different lives. In Kurdistan, we didn’t have water or electricity 24/7, this was in the 90’s.”
Having water and electricity for most young children is a thought barely to even be considered, however for Aladdin and his brothers this was ultimately a different story.
“I remember having a water company on my street and huge trucks would come and fill them with clean water,” he continues. “Once they drove away, water would keep running down for some minutes before it completely turned off. My brothers and I used to run and fill buckets with clean water so we’d have it for the days to come.”
Reflecting on his past, Aladdin shares, “These are things we take for granted today but there was a time where I didn’t. And it’s interesting thinking about living life then compared to now. “
After migrating to Sweden with his family at age nine, Aladdin became absorbed in the world of network television growing up on classics such as “The Nanny,” “Family Matters,” “Friends” and “The Golden Girls.”
Influenced by these sitcoms Aladdin found direction. “Naturally after a couple of years I just realized that I wanted to do what those actors that I looked up to were doing,“ he shares. “The TV was my best friend for many years…it also taught me Swedish and English.”
Profiting from his Middle Eastern background, Aladdin scored one of the lead roles in 2018’s “Akeda” directed by Dan Bronfeld. The award-winning film tells the story of a young orphan boy who, whilst filming a movie has his humanity tested when the director pressures him to give a violent performance that blends fiction with reality.
Aladdin plays the role of Mustapha, a filmworker who also lost his parents at a young age. Filled with empathy, Mustapha is torn between professionalism and succumbing to the relatable pressures that the young boy feels.
After reading the script Aladdin became riveted with the storyline, adding, “I think that viewing the world through a child’s perspective makes us question ourselves a lot. We forget that this crazy world we live in and witness, the children witness as well. They look up to us to reach a solution to all these problems. And at times we hand over the responsibility to them. I think that is the core of what the story [Akeda] is about.”
“Akeda” earned critical praise winning Best Film and Best Screenplay at the 2018 San Diego International Film Festival, Catalina Film Festival and Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles, as well as a further 13 nominations across global festivals.
Aladdin’s strong ability to paint a character’s depth and sorrow was proven in the 2018 drama “Martyrdom,” a dark film about a radicalised Middle Eastern man struggling to adapt to a society he sorely doesn’t fit in to.
Feelings of defeat takeover when the character’s heinous acts of crime result in the accidental murder of his wife and son, and the repercussions that follow will haunt his remaining years.
When preparing for the grieving role Aladdin shares, “It was a lot of responsibility but I worked day and night preparing for this character and making sure that I knew who he was completely. I ‘knew’ my son, my wife. I made sure to create a full background for the character so that even though I was alone in the short, I still had the life of the character out there to play around with.”
Being the starring actor in the movie, Aladdin was the driving force behind the film premiering at the Montreal Film Festival along with its nomination for Best Short Film.
Reflecting on these outstanding performances and the achievements which followed, it’s obvious that the plethora of skills Aladdin has on offer have helped establish the successful and influential career he has today.
“Thankfully, these past years I’ve gotten to play many well rounded characters that tell deep and beautiful stories.” He adds, “and that’s something that means a lot for my creativity and the vision I have of what I want to do as an actor. I’m not here to play a terrorist.”
Using his Kurdish roots as an accurate representation of the Middle East, Shvan Aladdin is turning heads and changing minds of those who drive diversity in Hollywood. Although a long way to go, multiculturalism is on the rise as more and more industry heads, much like Aladdin are paving the way for change.