When Zeeko Zaki first starts talking, his voice catches in a growl. "Sorry my voice is a little raspy now," he says. "I was just screaming at a bad guy for an hour and a half." Zaki stars in FBI, the newest drama from TV's long-reigning procedural king Dick Wolf, appearing alongside co-star Missy Peregrym as two agents who fight terrorism, serial killers, snipers, and traffickers on a week-to-week basis. As the show's central duo, Zaki and Peregrym have been pulling down 13-hour shoot days, and I'm able to catch him on his lunch break, presumably before he yells at a new bad guy for another hour and a half.
The role marks Zaki's first lead role in a series; a career milestone, but also a rare opportunity for an Arab-American to lead a primetime television show not just as a hero, but as a law enforcement officer protecting American values. The visibility of the role is not lost on Zaki. He was born in Egypt and raised in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and at 6'5" with dark facial hair, he's the dictionary definition of tall, dark, and handsome. But to casting agents, he was too often the screenplay definition of "Terrorist" or "Menacing Bad Guy #3." Now, as Special Agent Omar Adom "O.A." Zidan, he's the one saving the day—an on-screen narrative for an Arab-American that he didn't see a lot of as a kid who fell in love with acting during a high school production of Seussical.
Here, Zaki talks about his breakout role, how the show is another step in normalizing the representation of Middle Eastern characters, and why real FBI agents aren't what you'd expect.
You've talked about the importance of this particular role for you. What did your path in Hollywood look like before FBI?
About eight years ago, when I started out, I met with an agent after I did a play in North Carolina. I told her, "You know, in five years, my look—the beard, everything—is going to be aggressively type-cast as the bad guy." But at that point in my career, I just needed money. I just needed to survive. So I was very willing and enthusiastic to take those roles. I never turned down an audition for any reason. Work begets work, as they say. And for me, I was okay with it. I was playing terrorists, I was playing bad guys, with some non-terrorist roles sprinkled in here and there. But if an intimidating Arab character came across my agent's desk, it was pretty much a no-brainer. And so we went for it. I knew that there are a lot of steps along the way in a person's career path, and for me there were about five to six years of paying dues and playing those roles. I figured, "The industry will type-cast you until they ethically can't do it anymore. There needs to be a cultural change."
Ultimately, I think there was a difference between a personal breaking point and a financial breaking point. So for me, things changed as I reached a point where I could allow myself to turn down roles. When I got this job, I was down to $300 and contemplating taking real estate classes. But my last two roles before this were soldiers, and they were good guys. I got the chance to recur on a few shows. It was definitely time to start really going for newer, bigger roles. But I still stand by never turning down an audition. You never know where a path will take you. So I just went for all of them, and that worked for me. It got me here.
"For me there were about five to six years of paying dues. I figured, 'The industry will type-cast you until they ethically can't do it anymore. There needs to be a cultural change.'"
The part wasn't initially written as someone with Middle Eastern heritage. How did you come up for the role?
The role was initially written as Latino and when I was sent in to audition by my manager, I was like, "Alright here's another thing I'm not gonna get. Do they think I'm Latino? I'm not. Is this guy undercover in cartels? There's no chance." Turned out he had sent me in unsolicited. They never asked me to audition, he just took it from another client and dropped it into the drop box of the casting director. Yet they brought me in knowing that I was Egyptian, which kind of was a surprise to me. I was born in Egypt, but was brought up here my entire life. And I still have a very strong connection to Egypt—I go there every summer, half my family is there. So Dick Wolf asked me how this role would change my life if I went back to Egypt, and I said, "I'd probably need less security if everyone thought I was in the FBI." And that kind of got a laugh from him. I realized later that he'd made a documentary on the FBI and that there was a half-Egyptian agent in it. So for Dick, it wasn't a question of "Could this character work as Egyptian?" He know that it was an absolute reality.
Dick Wolf and the show's writers invited you to have input on the character, using your background and experience as a means of making the character more authentic. How did that change the process for you?
That's why I'm so excited about this role. Because we get to open up this entire new part of the spectrum, of the types of character you can play on a network. And it's so topical. Allowing my character's expertise, his familiarity with the Middle East, his language, his identity [to] come into play when he saves the day, it gave my character a lot of credibility right away. Those first impressions are everything with audiences. And in those moments, the audience had to trust the Muslim, the Arab-American. And maybe that influences audiences through subconscious thought. A lot of people get so much of their understanding of the world through television, so it became very apparent to me that this was an opportunity to change people's perspectives in a positive way.
"First impressions are everything with audiences. And in those moments, the audience had to trust the Muslim, the Arab-American. And maybe that influences audiences through subconscious thought."
Did you meet with real FBI agents before shooting the show?
Yeah, we got to sit down with five agents in counterterrorism. I got to actually meet the half-Egyptian one, and we met the first openly gay agent at the New York office. In meeting them, I realized, "Oh, this is not what I expected you guys to be, which means this is not what most of America thinks you guys are." So I want to open some eyes to who these people really are, these people who are sacrificing an outrageous amount to protect us, no matter what colour, race, creed. So it's very cool to go behind the curtain and try to represent these people as who they really are—on a show literally called FBI.
FBI airs Tuesdays at 9 PM EST on CBS.