Television fanatics will recognize Amin El Gamal as Cyclops from the revival of the popular series “Prison Break,” which launched on FOX back in April. Those who follow the actor on social media will also know the California native as an outspoken critic of social injustices and an advocate for equal rights of all individuals regardless of race, creed, sexuality, or religion.
We recently sat down with El Gamal to discuss how the current social climate has inspired more people to speak out, the positives (and negatives) of the Internet, and why it’s a big deal that you can see him on your TV.
TrunkSpace: We know that you have been outspoken regarding human rights and social injustices for a long time, but do you think the current political and social climate has inspired others to speak out whereas in the past they may have remained silent?
El Gamal: Yeah. I think that’s been the silver lining of a lot of the terrifying executive orders and impending fascism… that people have come out and have begun to see that they have something at stake and are finally willing to stand up for their rights and for the rights of other people. That’s been really inspiring. I find that encouraging.
I think it’s easy when you’ve been in the activism game for awhile to be like, “Oh, you’re coming out now! Now you care!” But I don’t see it that way. I kind of see it like, “Yes! Everyone is welcome! All hands are needed on deck!” Everyone has something different to share. They have their own perspectives and different resources and different points of view that are all useful. Everyone has a place somewhere.
TrunkSpace: It also seems like the other side is just as energized and motivated, especially on the Internet where they can remain sort of hidden behind their hate.
El Gamal: The Internet is like a double-edged sword. It’s very easy to organize and mobilize people to rally over something, but it can also be used to manipulate people and misinform them. You’ve seen the rise of big social movements that I think are really positive like Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March, but on the other side of that coin… and I hate to say it… but it’s ISIS. It would not have existed without the Internet. Or it wouldn’t be as pervasive. So again, it’s a double-edged sword.
That’s sort of the double-edged sword of globalization in a certain way as well. That said, I think once you know how to deal with trolls and how to take in or not take in what they’re saying… and I think there are trolls on both side and people who don’t want to listen on both sides, which is part of the problem that our country has gotten into… but I think as long as I operate in a way that’s dignified and respectful of other people while speaking my truths and not hiding or not spewing hate in either direction or using catchphrases that become meaningless at a certain point, I feel like I’m doing my duties responsibly online.
TrunkSpace: As your profile continues to rise, do you feel like that it gives you a bigger platform to discuss the issues that you believe strongly in?
El Gamal: I hope so. I don’t have a massive social media following, but I have been really active… before Trayvon Martin, but I think Trayvon Martin was sort of the switch for me. I was just kind of completely enraged and I had nothing, no outlet, except to hit the streets and scream and support my black brothers and sisters and to take pictures and Tweet about it. And then that became… part of my role has been magnified through the voices of people who have less of a voice than I do. And that’s what I think is really cool about social media.
I’ve noticed that since my following has gotten bigger a lot of people are just concerned about my character on “Prison Break.” (Laughter) Some of them are into my social injustice stuff. There are also fans who are queer Muslims from all over the world… which has been kind of amazing to witness… who post about gaining inspiration from me sharing my story.
Yeah, I haven’t been any more vocal in the last few months while I was on “Prison Break” than I have been before. Nothing has really changed. I think I may have taken on a few projects too many and have been spread a little thing. (Laughter) But, I’m doing everything I can because honestly… acting can be a very narcissistic endeavor and it’s easy to fall into the trap of people saying great things about you and giving you attention and seeing your face on TV. So it’s good to even it out with giving back. I have to do a lot of looking inward, which can be kind of exhausting, so it’s refreshing to look outward. If I’m given a platform, especially a platform where I’m playing this somewhat stereotypical character on TV, then it’s my duty to speak out for the reality of what an Arab American, a Muslim American, and a gay person looks like in this country.
TrunkSpace: It does seem odd that, at least in the current landscape, that people don’t believe that entertainers and athletes should speak out on what they believe in. It feels like there’s a real push back on that these days. Would you agree?
El Gamal: (Laughter) Yeah. “You don’t know anything! Do your job! I want to enjoy the show and you’re ruining it for me with your opinion!”
I think that’s ridiculous. I think acting is activism, in my point of view, at least for me as a queer person of color. If I’m showing up on your TV screen, in whatever I’m playing, it’s sort of a big deal. And as a Muslim person too.
I started acting, not professionally but in really small school plays, starting in preschool. I’d put on my own shows in my backyard. Feeling like I wasn’t allowed to express who I am… it was almost a protest in a way disguised through story. That’s always how I’ve seen it. I’ve always explored something in myself or would try to say something that I wanted to say in the container of the character I’m given.
And even with “Prison Break.” As much as they would allow, I really tried to make a character that, even if you hate him because he does things that are completely unforgivable, that you sort of feel like…
A lot of fans will come up to me and say, “Even though I hate you, I felt so bad for Cyclops when he gets his other eye taken out.”
So it was interesting to see how these long term “Prison Break” fans see a guy who almost kills their most beloved character getting some sympathy. I was like, “Okay, I did my job.”
TrunkSpace: With a character like Cyclops, it could have very easily gone into the stereotypical comic book villain-like area.
El Gamal: Yeah. And there’s moments where it was like that in the script and because of time and logistics, some of that got cut. There were times when I thought we lost a few physical insights into how this person is who he is, but at the same time, it’s a genre show and it’s an action/adventure about breaking out of prison. So, I needed to fulfill a certain conflict and role. It’s not about me living in the character and having lots of acting moments, which is what actors want. (Laughter) So there’s a balance of fulfilling the story and playing your own fiddle.
But in terms of the stereotypes, I actually auditioned for Kunal Sharma’s character originally. He was called Sid and was a character that I was like, “I can do this in my sleep. A gay Muslim Arab guy!” (Laughter) And then in my second round, or I guess the third round, Paul Scheuring was like, “Read this thing!” And when I saw Cyclops initially, I was like, “This is ridiculous. A, this character is absurd, and B, there’s no way in hell this is right for me.” (Laughter) But I guess I just committed to it. The way I accessed it was through someone who has never felt like they belonged and who has been bullied and who has sort of lost it because of continual abuse and exclusion. I sort of could relate to that and that was kind of my approach to it.
And I think by casting someone like me who is ethnically right and who comes from the same background and who is queer even… it added a lot of complexity there. But I think just casting it against type… I haven’t heard from anyone who was like, “Oh, you’re so offensive!” Which I was really surprised about. There were two things that terrified me. One was because I’ve been so open and because I’ve been so critical of the business, I thought there would be people who would lash out. And then the other bigger concern I had was that we haven’t seen that many ISIS-like characters that have been as fleshed out as Cyclops on a broadcast show. So I was kind of worried that I’d be on ISIS’ radar and that terrified me.
I think those fears are a little bit unfounded. (Laughter)
But, I had to explain it to my community… and not just one community. I was really grateful the Persian American comedian Maz Jobrani did a Facebook Live with me before the show. He had been in my position before early in his career and so he gave me a platform to talk to a lot of the Middle Eastern Americans and Middle Eastern people from all over and sort of explain that… this is the situation for actors like us and unfortunately it has been for a long time. Sometimes you have to make some compromises. Understand playing a terrorist is not ideal and is even harmful, but I would love to have their support so that I could do something better in the future.
And that’s a big thing. A lot of immigrants don’t want their kids going into the arts and media because it’s not stable and it’s a heartbreaking business. And they’re not wrong. (Laughter) However, at the same time, they complain about how they’re not represented or that they’re not portrayed correctly or portrayed in a harmful way and a way that puts them down. So, until we encourage our kids to do that and support them, even when they do things that they might not necessarily approve of or even if it isn’t what we want right away, we won’t get there without that support.
TrunkSpace: Has the industry made any improvements? Are you finding yourself going to auditions where the part you’re reading for doesn’t have any assigned ethnicity or religion attached to it?
El Gamal: Well, no. I was really disappointed this pilot season. I thought for sure that because I worked last year on multiple shows and in film… I have a film coming out and I did a big play… I thought that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be going out for characters that are just like me. And that hasn’t started yet.
There’s a lot of talk like, “How can we get more Arab and Muslim people in writer’s rooms.” They’re kind of patching us into stories in ways in which they think are positive. And sometimes they’re good and a lot of times they’re just sort of sainted, kind of naive characters, which are also not human. (Laughter) They’re either evil or they’re like, “I’m so holy and pure!”