International actresses find their place on American TV, movie sets

Ahd Kamel in dark dress standing on red carpet (© Neilson Barnard/Getty Images/DIFF)
Ahd Kamel at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2015 (© Neilson Barnard/Getty Images/DIFF)

Like many international students at U.S. colleges and universities, Ahd Kamel came to America with a distinct career goal in mind — in her case, to become a lawyer.

But today the dual Saudi-American citizen from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is playing a leading role in a forthcoming Netflix and BBC miniseries, Collateral. The thriller also stars the British actress and Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan. It is Kamel’s first English-speaking role.

Kamel joins a group of international actresses from places as far-flung as India, Iran and Mexico, all successful in American television or cinema.

When she was still a 17-year-old undergraduate, Kamel realized that it was the courtroom dramas she’d watched on television, not the practice of law, that attracted her.

“I wanted to be a lawyer because being an actor was not an option for me growing up,” recalls Kamel, who during her college studies transferred from Columbia University to Parsons School of Design, a prestigious arts school in New York. After graduating, she became the first Saudi to earn a filmmaking degree at the New York Film Academy. Then she “caught the acting bug.”

Kamel has gone on to international success as a film writer, director and actress in Arabic-language productions.

Pushing boundaries

Kamel’s short films, including Sanctity — about a pregnant, boundary-pushing, Saudi widow — have won plaudits at festivals around the world. Kamel also appeared in Haifaa Al Mansour’s acclaimed Wadjda, the first full-length film shot in Saudi Arabia, about a bold girl’s determination to buy a bicycle.

Kamel in 2016 told IndieWire, a website devoted to the independent film industry, “My existence is proof that change is happening, and I’m not the only one. We want to tell our stories, our full stories.”

“Making films for me is a spiritual process,” added Kamel, who hopes to complete a coming-of-age movie she’s written, My Driver and I, about the influence in her life of the family’s chauffeur.

Lupita Nyong'o in white dress holding microphone (© Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
The Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o, like Ahd Kamel, came to the U.S. for college. (© Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Other actresses of note

Lupita Nyong’o, born in Mexico to Kenyan parents and raised in Kenya, is another actress who first came to the United States as an international student (Hampshire College and Yale School of Drama). Nyong’o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave.

Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, born in Tehran, in 2004 became the first woman from the Middle East nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in House of Sand and Fog. She won an Emmy playing Saddam Hussein’s wife in the HBO and BBC miniseries House of Saddam.

Another trailblazer is India’s Priyanka Chopra, the Bollywood movie star and a former Miss World, who stars as an FBI trainee on the CBS television drama Quantico. Chopra made her Hollywood debut as the villain in the movie Baywatch.