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From an extra who blends into the background to the lead character in the new CTV medical drama Transplant, Hamza Haq has slowly and steadily worked his way up in an industry known for its fickleness. There were tough moments in between, especially when he decided not to play characters simply labelled as “terrorist,” turning down gigs that came with substantial paycheques.
As an actor, he’s most interested in storytelling that goes beyond the facade, where fiction is based on a dose of reality. In Transplant, Haq plays Bashir “Bash” Hamed, a Syrian doctor with experience working in a war zone, now trying to make a new life for himself and his young sister in Canada. Although he starts off as an immigrant working in a Lebanese restaurant, circumstances soon see him get a residency in the ER at Toronto’s fictional York Memorial Hospital.
In some ways, the story mirrors Haq’s own family history. His parents – an engineer father and organic chemist mother – moved from Pakistan to Canada via Saudi Arabia to provide a better future for their kids, and still work in jobs that don’t account for their educational training.
The Globe and Mail caught up with Haq, 29, on the phone, shortly before he stepped onto the red carpet at the 70th Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) for the opening night film, My Salinger Year. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau, the film stars Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver, as well as Haq.
How is Berlin treating you?
It’s cool. The hotel is great. I came in yesterday on an overnight flight, and I couldn’t sleep. My childhood buddy from Ottawa happens to be in Amsterdam. He just met me here, we ordered room service and fell asleep by 7:30 p.m. So, really livin’ it up!
I was reading an article about you, and it said that as the youngest of four siblings, you were often the entertainer for the family. How so?
My role in the family has been comic relief for a very long time. At family weddings or anything like that, when everyone else was a little shy, it would be like, “Hamza, get up and dance.” And I always enjoyed that. We grew up on Bollywood, mimicking that choreography. For a cousin’s wedding, I memorized a whole dance routine. That was my first gig. I was seven.
Then you ended up studying neuroscience at Carleton University before switching to accounting. You graduated with a degree in film studies and law. Why neuroscience to start?
You know – doctor, lawyer, engineer. To become one of those things, sure, was expected. But I just needed context. I wanted to understand degenerative brain disease more. As first-generation immigrants, our parents are living longer than their parents, but as a result they are having to deal with things people in their family never had to deal with – like dementia and Alzheimer’s. And I thought neuroscience gave the correct context to me as to why I would spend my life studying this thing. But I ended up taking up acting to study for life instead.
Now that you’ve ended up playing a doctor on a TV series, how did your family react?
Everybody made that joke. It was inevitable, really. You’re a brown actor. You’re going to play a doctor eventually. It was cool to do it in this capacity, with the narrative that we have.
Another role that brown actors often end up auditioning for is that of a terrorist. After a while you decided to turn down those roles. Why?
Terrorism in the Muslim world does exist, but the way it’s portrayed, there’s no truth behind the character. If I were approached to do somebody who was being radicalized, or had any more context than, “Oh yeah, he’s Muslim” – if I were given an opportunity to tell that story of how one becomes that way, and the dangers of things that lead people that way, I’d be happy to tell that story.
I had played Arab bad guys, and I was tired of getting the note that, “Yeah, but a little bit more angry, a little bit more Arab. You know, more Arab!”
For the role of Bash, or Dr. Bashir Hamed, you had to learn Arabic, speak in a dialect. Tell me about rounding out this character.
[Transplant’s creator and writer] Joseph Kay and I have done this before for another role, trusting the information that I bring to the table, and also doing an insane amount of research. We had so many great consultants on the show, from Syrian refugees to doctors.
I even had a personal trainer, and he turned out to be a Syrian refugee. I love that, I love being involved and bringing forth characters that are based on truth. Before we add a layer of fiction, if there isn’t a foundation of truth, there’s no point in telling the story. I only hope I am fortunate enough to find other roles that allow me the same process.
How else did you prepare for this role?
We had many great medical consultants, like Dr. Zachary Levine at Montreal General. We went to boot camp to learn how to hold instruments properly, how best to look competent. I thought it was a lot of fun. I’ve always had an aptitude for science, and a base level interest. It was really cool for me to have that hands-on experience. And to see a life that could have been! And who knows, could still be.
You started off as an extra, and now you’re the lead actor in a medical drama. Do you feel like you’ve made it?
I’ll give myself some credit, for working hard, and not listening to those uncles and aunties who said, “Maybe you should get a real job.” But I’ll give most of the credit to my immigrant parents, who came to Canada to provide opportunities to their kids that they never had.
Transplant debuts on CTV on Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. EST.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.