The cast of Transplant
When actor Hamza Haq (Quantico) was initially asked to join the medical-drama Transplant, it was not for his current leading role as Dr. Bashir "Bash" Hamed.
"I was actually hired to be a character consultant and talk about my experiences as a brown and Muslim man in Canada," he notes.
Having previously worked with Transplant showrunner Joseph Kay, it became increasingly apparent to the 30-year-old Canadian that the story Kay and his team were developing was something he had to be a part of on-screen.
"I was probably halfway through that initial meeting when I said 'oh, by the way, I hope that you know that I'm interested [in this role].' They were very clear about the fact that it was a consultant job and were not offering an acting part."
Flash forward a couple of years and Haq's declaration paid off. He landed the role of Bash, the Syrian doctor who is forced to flee his war-torn homeland and start life over in Toronto.
This includes attempting to redo his residency despite his battle-tested skills in emergency medicine, highlighting the experiences that many refugees face when they become transplants in a foreign land. "It's an important and relevant story. It was a no-brainer for an actor that comes from a certain part of the world and looks a certain way to tell the story because it's one of a great many of us," says Haq.
After the series premiered on CTV in February of this year, it quickly became the number one new Canadian show before NBC picked up its U.S. broadcasting rights and launched the series this past September. Haq discusses the show's reception in both Canada and the U.S., the importance of telling Bashir's story and the challenges and pressure of being a lead.
Bashir's backstory and the challenges he faces are relatable to many "outsider" experiences of starting over, assimilation and perpetually having to prove otherwise lived experiences and truths. Did you have conversations on how to portray those narratives as authentically as possible?
Absolutely. As one of many consultants on the show, my initial role was consulting on a behavioral level – how would a brown guy fare in this situation?
Whereas all the backstory, all the Syrian aspects, all the doctor stuff - they had built a nice pool of about five to six Syrian refugee consultants, whom I had conversations with and was given readings and documentaries to watch. I have a dialect coach as well as a personal trainer who are refugees from Aleppo and I talk with them about their experiences.
I learned, regardless of what tragedies these people have faced, they have a positive outlook on life. They don't victimize themselves which, initially going into the role, was how I thought they were represented. Normally when we see these types of stories on television, they tell them as individuals coming from war-torn countries and the "life is so hard" aspect.
But the reality is, they're not sitting around talking about how hard their lives are. They're just trying to thrive, survive and live like everyone else. It was beautiful to get that perspective because I couldn't relate to going through anything like that.
How much of your own identity do you bring to the role and the show?
The aspect of Bash being a refugee I couldn't relate to; I was never forced to leave – my parents made a calculated decision to move to Canada, whereas Bash sort of landed there and had to figure it out. It's a difference between going skydiving or being thrown out of a plane and having to find your parachute on the way down.
I think that freefall is where I can relate to Bash – that feeling of being an outsider: trying to relate to cultures, trying to justify where I come from versus where I am now and who I'm becoming, the microaggressions you run into as a result or as a byproduct of being a person of color in North America - these are all things that were very personal, and not a lot of acting is required to express how that feels.
I have no idea what it's like to be a doctor, much to the chagrin of my parents [laughs], but the arrogance in which he (Bash) does his job, I can relate to -- through all my insecurities, between "action" and "cut" is probably the only time in my life where I feel like I know what I'm doing.
What would you say has been the most challenging part of playing this role?
Just the stamina required to be a lead on a show. Everyone wants to get there, but I didn't do any of this by myself – I had a dialect coach, an Arabic coach, a personal trainer, an acting coach and relied on the support of everyone on the Transplant team. To execute it for eight months at a time where my longest stint on a show at that point had been 17 days on a miniseries three years prior, that was probably it.
To go from that to being on 96 out of 103 shooting days where you're there all day in every scene and to continuously do emotionally-heavy scenes for that long. For the first time in my life, I understood why actors I've looked up to will do a project where they completely invest themselves and then do nothing for a year – I get that now.
I'm grateful that I had so much room to master my craft, because I saw my inexperience and lack of maturity in the profession itself.
We don't often get to see a show anchored by a male South Asian lead that isn't typecast, especially on a major broadcast network. Does that create any pressure for you?
Yes. Representation matters and diversity is important, but there's often a lack of diversity within representation - there's not a variety. It's like a beauty pageant: "Here's the delegate from Syria!" and well, that's not what all Syrians look like. On top of the fact that I'm not even Syrian! How I look, if you didn't know it, you would make the assumption.
Therefore, I understand the fact that you kind of have to be everything to everyone - be the perfect Muslim, the perfect Syrian and at the same time represent people who are struggling with religion, who are struggling with their culture, or who don't identify as solely Syrian or solely Canadian. Because you only get one shot at it, you're going to face the wrath of somebody somewhere.
I read a lot about actors like Ramy (Youssef) and Riz (Ahmed) who are at the forefront of telling stories about the diaspora. Ultimately, I'm not here to represent everyone from South Asia, the Middle East, every refugee, every Muslim -- I can't, it's physically impossible. Sometimes I feel that is the expectation because there are so few of us that are given the chance to do it on a large scale.
I believe Riz said something to the effect of ultimately the only thing that you can do is represent yourself; that's what I'm trying my best to do. Hopefully, if I do that truthfully enough, it'll become universal. People will be able to relate to it regardless of where they come from.
Transplant was originally released in Canada before coming to NBC in the States. What has the reception for the show been like between the two sets of audiences?
I try to not pay attention and then I have moments of weakness where I need to be told I'm doing good, so let's see what Twitter has to say! And then there's that one negative comment where I'm like, "Oh no why did I do that? I know better than that!"
But honestly, I love the fact that Transplant was the most-watched new original show in Canada since 2017 and has been maintaining an audience of several million over the past six-plus weeks in the States.
It's cool to hear about these things, but as far as the success of the show is considered, when you hear stories about refugees or anyone who feels marginalized say they felt seen or represented, I think for me that that speaks to the success of the show. If someone has their mind changed from seeing it, that makes it all worthwhile.
The way it's been warmly received, and will soon premiere across other parts of the world where there are refugees, I'm grateful so many countries are seeing this as a story they can promote because they know there is a market for it.
Knowing that the show is now reaching this broader audience, what do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
Hopefully, they'll see people of color, Muslims, refugees - as anybody else who just wants the same opportunities, the same level of respect, the same basic quality of life that everyone deserves, and sometimes a second chance. To have empathy for people who had everything that they knew - their home, their jobs, their families - just taken away from them.
You had quite the educational journey prior to acting. Did you have any non-industry aspirations or did you know acting was going to be it for you?
I wanted to be a doctor - I am the youngest of four, my mom has a Masters in organic chemistry, my dad is an engineer – everyone is kind of doing their own thing. I would've loved to contribute.
I started at University in neuroscience but it just didn't seem like a good fit. I wanted to do it and thought it would be cool to do, but I couldn't imagine being in school for eight years for something I wasn't passionate about. And I say this as 10 years later I'm still studying acting every week [laughs].
I don't think I'm done with academia just yet – I have my degree in Film and I'd love to get my Masters one day and maybe teach at a university level. Maybe go to Pakistan and teach film theory over there or other places that don't have as much access to art and meld my love for that and education.
Hamza Haq can be seen playing Dr. Bashir "Bash" Hamed on Transplant, which returns on Tuesday, 11/10 on NBC and is currently available to stream on Peacock.