Out and Proud Gay Arab Love Story in America

Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy in Mike Haaz Sleiman Michael Cassidy's "Break Fast," which screens October 16-27 at NewFest.
Courtesy of NewFest

Out gay actor Haaz Sleiman exudes charisma — and displays palpable comic anxiety — as Mo, a heartbroken gay Muslim living in the US in out gay writer /director Mike Mosallam’s “Breaking Fast.” This fabulous Ramadan rom-com is based on Mosallam’s 2015 short of the same name — which starred different actors. Because the Holy Month forbids impure thoughts and activities, Mo is forced to practice self-control despite his increasing attraction to the Kal (Michael Cassidy), an actor he meets cute at a party one night and who joins Mo to break his fast almost every night thereafter. (And yes, Kal is a “Superman” reference.)

Mosallam’s clever conceit allows Mo and Kal to fall in love as their relationship develops over numerous nonsexual dinners and dates. But as the guys talk over meals, alone or with friends, there are discussions about how gay Arabs reconcile their sexuality and their religion. To Mosallam’s credit, these moments are engaging and enlightening, not didactic. Moreover, they balance out the charming romance that develops as Mo and Kal slowly fall in love.

The role of Mo provides a terrific showcase for Sleiman’s comedic talents. The irresistible actor not only handles the verbal sparring and flirting well, but he performs some physical humor too, such as a slapstick scene involving a towel that won’t stay on his waist.

However, the actor — who earlier this year appeared in a dramatic role as a gay Syrian seeking asylum in Apple TV’s “Little America” — initially had some concerns about playing Mo. In a recent WhatsApp interview, he said, “This was my first romantic comedy leading role. I was worried about the comedy. The humor was very specific, and that was challenging. But I went for it. I wanted to help Mike [Mosallam] tell the story. I love the film’s heart. There’s a charm about it that brings out your inner child.”

Sleiman has a big inner child himself. He is playful but sensitive, not unlike his character Mo. The actor also gets to sing in “Breaking Fast,” performing “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music” at a pivotal point in the film.

“I love to sing,” he effused. “I’ve seen ‘The Sound of Music’ a hundred times, so to sing a tune from one of my all-time favorite films was beyond a dream.”

But what Sleiman appreciated most about making this film was that “Breaking Fast” featured gay Arab characters who were nonthreatening, not living in fear, shame, or hiding. The actor said this was “very empowering” for him.

“Mo has his shit together. He’s a doctor, he’s successful — he’s a catch!,” Sleiman said. “It was a breath of fresh air for me to play that. I don’t know if that sounds dramatic or cheesy, but it’s like being comfortable in your own skin.”

The actor even admitted, “I wanted to be Mo in real life and have his life and find that Superman. For me, it was more about living what I want in my life through performing in the film. Mo’s grounded and in control of his life.”

With a laugh, he added, “Let me live this dream that I haven’t been able to get” — an observation that showed his flair for the comedic and dramatic.

Sleiman was thrilled to give visibility to gay Arab characters, but he especially appreciates the authenticity of Mo and his best friend Sam (a scene-stealing Amin El Gamal). Whereas Mo is devout, Sam is more secular. The actor observed,

“Mike [Mosallam’s] point is that we’re all the same at the end of the day. We are universal,” Sleiman observed. “The characters don’t talk about their identity. There are a lot of different characters in the queer and Arab community. Mike is a practicing Muslim and openly gay, like Mo. I am more like Sam in real life — I believe in God, but I don’t practice Islam.”

He continued thoughtfully, “That’s what I love about our community, we struggle and suffer, but many of us excel in our lives. It’s nice to present that.”

One thing that bonds the characters is food. And Sleiman was pleased to participate in the many cooking and eating scenes in “Breaking Fast.”

“I love food,” he said. “It’s like music for me. Every culture has different music and cuisine. Food represents our culture and society. The food scenes were fun because I didn’t have to cook anything! It was food porn — the colors and the geometry of it all in the overhead shots. I showed up, I acted, I ate. But eating during filming, you end up eating a lot! After we finished filming, we could eat more, and if you were smart, you took food home.” 

BREAKING FAST | Directed by Mike Mosallam | NewFest | Available for screening Oct. 16, 10 a.m.-Oct. 27, 11:59 p.m. | Tickets are $12; $95 for a full festival pass | newfest.org/event/breaking-fast/

For Gary M. Kraemr’s curtain raiser on this year’s NewFest, visit gaycitynews.com/queer-film-bonanza-in-your-living-room/.

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