Maxim Khalil in The Platform-1601463381376
Maxim Khalil in 'The Platform'. Image Credit: Supplied

‘The Platform’ is a show like you’ve never seen before. Within a week of it premiering on Netflix in September, the 12-episode first season became the streamer’s most popular Arabic series. Gone are the days when Arabic shows only premiere in Ramadan, the high season of regional TV, and are constrained to a 30-episode format.

Here, Syrian actor Maxim Khalil stars as protagonist Karam, who is struggling to keep his dysfunctional family from disintegrating. His father (Salloum Haddad) is imprisoned on terrorism charges, and his brother (Samer Ismail) is a survivor of child abuse. Karam, who founded a website to expose extremist networks, releases a book on anti-extremism while in Los Angeles; when he’s scouted by a mysterious man (Saudi actor Abdul Mohsen Al Nimer) for a high-tech mission, his life is turned upside down.

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This pan Arab Middle East drama — primarily in Arabic with sprinklings of English — is the first to be produced by an Emirati company on Netflix. It also filmed completely in Abu Dhabi, including the bits set in Los Angeles and Syria. Joining the ranks of Netflix’s foreign language productions such as ‘Dark’ (German) and ‘Le Casa De Papel’ (Spanish), which are a hit with global audiences, due to dubbing and subtitles, ‘The Platform’ can be watched among Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

Gulf News caught up with the show’s lead star Khalil while he was in France to talk about blazing a new trail with ‘The Platform’ — and what comes next.

When was the first time you heard about this project, and what was your reaction?

They called me about a year and a half ago, when the project was still in the scriptwriting stages. There was an Emirati company who wanted to create an important project, and they wanted to go in a different direction. To be honest, we hear this kind of talk a lot, and most times, unless it actually happens, we consider it to be just talk. But when they sent me the script and I read the first episodes, about four of them, it was special. A kind of thriller that is not currently available within our drama television. I was immediately excited. For a while, I’ve been thinking about the fact that people need to break away, a bit, from the 30-episode Ramadan formula, and move towards projects like ‘The Platform’, which are more intense and hold a stronger message — and it’s entertaining.

You play the role of Karam. Who is Karam, and what was your way into this character?

In the world of acting, nothing is given to you for free. You have to understand what the writer was aiming for — then you add in a back story, as an actor. What made it easier for me was that Karam’s background was clear. Karam, as a child, was dealing with abuse from his father, and he saw first-hand this religious extremism — which has nothing to do with actual religion, it’s simply extremism — and he’s always rejected it inside of him. It created a predisposition within him to always seek answers and to stand up against this stuff. Plus, his father is a carpenter, and his family is not well-off — they’re below the middle class. He’s ambitious. He also grew up with his father in prison, and he had to take care of his younger brother. So, he’s always been rebellious against what’s happening around him, but also morally decent.

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A scene from 'The Platform'.

‘The Platform’ is more than just a high-tech thriller. There’s also a focus on the family dynamics. There are layers. Did that interest you, too, as an actor?

Of course — but this also goes back to the quality of the performance. You can have a script with tons of layers, but when the performance is superficial, it gets lost … There are projects that require an extremely honest and real performance, you have to live the role. Here, you have no choice but to live inside the character, and for Karam to become a part of you.

Were you nervous or afraid before you took on this role? Or were you 100 per cent confident, ‘I want to do this’?

See, you decide to take a role on because you love the role. But, what we’re scared of is the result. In the Arab world, actors can feel defeated when they see the outcome. Because they had imagined something, and built up their expectations, through an accumulation of watching Western dramas, Western work, seeing all these platforms. So, when you come to a regional show, and there’s something that comes up short from the production company, or there’s some negligence from the director’s side, or there’s a mix-up in the montage, you end up losing something from the performance that you poured your soul into.

Thankfully, in this show, we didn’t have that. Because the production company was very aware, and wanted to put this project forward to a place like Netflix. The direction, as well, as much as possible, was about creating an image that would connect to the viewer. The montage and mixing, also, were the same — it took a lot of work and time. In the end, it’s the result that controls the actor’s decisions.

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Maxim Khalil and Salloum Haddad.

This is new for the Arab world: a show that’s not airing during Ramadan, but available to stream 24/7. Do you think this is the future of Arabic television?

The problem is that we’re still controlled by the idea of the market is during the month of Ramadan. As long as we think that way, then we’re going to be restricted by rules and red tape that you can’t cross, because this holy month is a month of family, and so on. At the end of the day, people want to sit and watch something that won’t hurt their heart or brain, or require them to think too much, or doesn’t have scenes that are slightly inappropriate … When we create a separate market, which is the platform market … the censorship is less, the capacity of the imagination is larger.

You can be more open to different points of view, thoughts and important issues. At the same time, you have new competition. You’re not competing with a Ramadan series. You’re competing with large titles, innumerable shows, that are available on a platform that the whole world is watching. Even the production company will now tell you — I’m not going to hire just any director, or just any actor, or pick just any scripts. These 12, 10 or 8 episodes will require certain conditions out of you that you can’t override.

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A scene from the show.

The show also has English subtitles, and even at times, English dialogue. This is something new and that could lead to non-Arabs tuning in, as well…

Completely. You’re in a whole new world of competition. There are Arabic shows that have come up on Netflix before, but this project, conceptually, was more similar to what this platform offers. I’ve gotten reactions from outside the region, too — there are people watching with their American, English and German friends. And they are impressed that we have content like this.

It’s not a small step, to be able to have English subtitles, and share a show with the world.

It’s a very important step. But that doesn’t mean that we’re well on our way. We have a lot of work in front of us. Any project that you accomplish, no matter how successful or significant, you have to delve back into it and look for any bumps … We have season two, maybe even three coming. This is the real challenge. Because now, you’re looking at a work that reached a certain level [of success] on Netflix, and people are waiting for the result of the suspense that we built up. The second season of a series, even English series, tend to have bigger obstacles, because the momentum is highest in the first season. The real test is what comes next.

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Salloum Haddad.

Of course, Salloum Haddad plays your father. What was that experience like?

Salloum and I have worked together on several projects, so we know the keys that are between us. He is a great actor who does not need my testament. But when we get together for work, the most important thing is the seriousness we take in the work we do. We need the dynamic between characters to be real. There is a very thin line between acting and non-acting. A lot of people can act on screen, but to be able to achieve a level of non-acting is extremely hard — it’s the hardest thing. We try, to the best of our abilities, to do that.

Do you consider yourself an actor who likes to take risks?

Of course. I always go for projects that are difficult or unexpected. I did a show called ‘Sare’e al Ahlam’, about a character with bipolar [disorder]. At the time when we did it, it was new. With ‘The Platform’, it’s high tech, and just to think that we’re doing something in the Arab world around the topic of hacking and computers, this is new in our world. Any actor could say, ‘What if tomorrow the scenes came out, and they’re silly and the audience laughs at us?’ We always have that fear. But for me, I throw myself into a place where I don’t know 100 per cent what the outcome will be.

Do you receive criticism from viewers, or is it mostly support?

Of course there’s criticism — and criticism is a great thing. It makes me happy, so long as it is constructive. The great thing about ‘The Platform’ is any criticism we might receive will be from people who watch streaming platforms and content that is high quality. To get a reaction from that audience already means that you’re getting a reaction from a high level.

Shooting 'The Platform' in Abu Dhabi

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Producer Mansoor Al Dhaheri.

Producer Mansoor Al Dhaheri, behind two Abu Dhabi production companies, Filmgate and Al Kalema, said ‘The Platform’ shoot took nearly two months to complete — and it was a scorcher.

“Imagine, we tried to make Syria in the middle of the desert,” said Al Dhaheri, with a laugh. “It was insanely hot. We had really complicated cameras; it was really hard to keep it cool enough just for the equipment to operate. Literally, we had 40 tonne of AC and around 400 fans.”

Al Dhaheri doesn’t plan to stop here. He also spoke about transforming the UAE desert into Los Angeles for the upcoming Hollywood film ‘Misfits’ (2021), which shot here in 2019.

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The cast of ‘Misfits’.

“In a couple of months, we’ll announce about a Hollywood project that we produced and we did here in Abu Dhabi with big Hollywood stars. We have Pierce Brosnan and Tim Roth. It’s beautifully shot. Renny Harlin is an amazing director,” said Al Dhaheri.

“Plus, since we did well with this show, we’re working now on a huge project to shoot here in Abu Dhabi, another TV miniseries, but this is the biggest thing that’s been done here in the region, with also very well known names.” Watch this space.