Haaz Sleiman left his homeland of Lebanon at the age of 21 to live his life openly, and he’s found freedom and family in Hollywood—specifically in one of its hottest commodities: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, before he earns a new legion of fans playing the husband of the MCU’s first gay superhero in November’s The Eternals, you can catch him in “The Son,” a standout episode from the acclaimed Apple TV+ anthology series Little America, which chronicles the immigrant experience in the United States (the show was greenlit for a second season in December, a month before the first season premiered).
In the episode, directed by Closet Monster’s Stephen Dunn and co-written by queer nonbinary Iraqi-Brit Amrou Al-Kadhi, Sleiman stars as Rafiq, a closeted Syrian residing in the village of Qardha. After his father catches him with another man and scalds his arm on a blazing stove as punishment, Rafiq flees to Damascus, where he befriends a younger, more confident queer man, Zain (Adam Ali), and eventually applies for asylum in the U.S to escape being killed. The fact that the tale is based on a true story makes it all the more heartbreaking and vital.
Sleiman—who has already had roles in Nurse Jackie, 24, Veronica Mars, The Good Wife, and Jack Ryan—will next star in writer-director Mike Mosallam’s Breaking Fast, a rom-com about a gay Muslim Arab living in West Hollywood that will screen this March at Philadelphia’s QFlix and Silicon Valley’s Cinequest
NewNowNext caught up with the actor to chat about the real Rafiq, freaking out Madonna, bottom empowerment, and The Eternals, which he says will feature an honest-to-god same-sex kiss.
“The Son” was absolutely incredible. I cried!
Thank you so much. It’s my favorite thing I ever shot. It was very special, important, and magical, and it was the gayest set! I felt like a kid in a candy store. Unicorns were flying. Rainbows!
Have you spoken with the real Rafiq? We see his photo at the end of the episode.
I met him for the first time at the premiere. I chose not to talk to him before because it was clear to me what the story was about, and I could really relate. I didn’t get my arm burned on a stovetop, but I’m from Lebanon, I’m Arab, I’m Muslim, and I’m from a small village. He’s Arab, Muslim, and from a small village. And I had to flee—I left my country and came here because I would’ve killed myself or died in Lebanon if I’d stayed there. I couldn’t be myself. Seeing him at the premiere was profound. He told me he relived everything through the episode and that he was shaking and cried while watching it. He was like, “How could you guys get it so perfect?” That made me very happy.
He’s living the dream today.
Yeah! He’s married! I was like, “Damn, I’m not married!” I met his husband at the premiere, and they were adorable. I think he’s happy and free to be himself, and apparently has his own chosen family now.
If your father had tried to burn your arm on a stove, would you have cratered his skull with a cast-iron pan?
Now I would beat the shit out of him and rip him apart, but in my 20s I think I’d be more vulnerable and feel a sense of loss and confusion. I’m 43 now. In my 20s, I didn’t have a strong sense of self or self-worth. That’s another thing Rafiq and I have in common: Like, “This is my father and home, and now it’s the most dangerous place for me. I have so much empathy for him for that.
I heard the Little America shoot was moved to Canada over concerns that actors from countries on the U.S. travel ban wouldn’t able to enter the U.S., including Adam Ali, a U.K. citizen who was born in Libya.
Yes. Oh my god, I loved Adam. He was in the closet before we shot the episode! When we filmed, he explained to me that it was his way of coming out, so it was a big deal for him. He was afraid how his family would react, so it was really special for me and Stephen Dunn to hold his hand throughout the process, because we saw ourselves in him. His character Zain is more comfortable in his own skin than Rafiq. When we shot it, he was 21 and I was 42, and it’s so much better for young people now with social media, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and these big blockbuster movies about gay people. I just shot a Marvel film with the first openly gay superhero, The Eternals. I’m married to the gay superhero Phastos, played by Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, and we represent a gay family and have a child.
So we’ll also get a gay kiss in The Eternals?
Oh, yeah, absolutely, and it’s a beautiful, very moving kiss. Everyone cried on set. For me it’s very important to show how loving and beautiful a queer family can be. Brian Tyree Henry is such a tremendous actor and brought so much beauty into this part, and at one point I saw a child in his eyes, and I think it’s important for the world to be reminded that we in the queer community were all children at one point. We forget that because we’re always depicted as sexual or rebellious. We forget to connect on that human part.
Totally. Back to “The Son.” I searched “kills gay child” before we spoke, and some of the first results that came up were a guy from Nevada who shot his 14-year-old, a Brazilian woman who murdered her 17-year-old, and a Latina woman in California who tortured and killed her 8-year-old. So are those with Christian and Catholic backgrounds—and those in the West—any different from homophobes who practice Islam?
I’m so glad you said that. There’s no difference. And there are even more horrifying stories you can hear from Arab Christians about what they went through! There’s a gay Christian Lebanese guy whose uncle found out he was gay and made him stand in the middle of the highway waiting for a car to hit him. Then there are a lot of Muslims, more than the world can imagine, who are fine with homosexuality. My mother told me, “I know you were born that way and love you the way you are.” So it’s not black-and-white, and people would be surprised to see even worse storylines in Christianity or Judaism, and even secular cultures. Even in Middle America it’s still pretty bad, and we forget that.
Your episode has been banned in 10 Arab countries and in Russia.
I’m not surprised they wanted to censor our episode. We’re pushing buttons and forcing them to create a dialogue. Russia is a powerful country, and look how backwards they are. It’s a little scary, but it’s important to know the truth and the state of the world today.
In “The Son,” Zain worships Kelly Clarkson, who helps serve as a bridge to queer culture and the West. I read that you consider Madonna a role model. Have you met her?
I got really close to her. It was my birthday, and it was her Confessions tour, and I wanted to treat myself and bought a concert ticket for, like, $1,600, and was right at the runway where she goes through the crowd. She pointed at me, and at the end when singing “Hung Up” she got down on her knees and gave me her microphone to sing “time goes by.” I lost my mind. I channelled my inner Arab, and the way I was chanting it was a little scary, so I think I freaked her out a little bit! But that was the closest I got to her.
Sleiman and his Little America co-star Adam Ali.
Thank you for coming out as a “total bottom,” by the way. I think we need to change the power dynamic so that topping isn’t a sign of domination or power, and that bottoming can be just as empowering.
That’s why I did it that way. It’s connected to bottom shaming and sexism. It’s okay for a woman to dress up like a man, but for a man to dress up like a girl is degrading, right? Like in Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” Being a bottom you’re taking the position of a woman sexually, and I think what happens is the one who becomes or is the bottom is shamed for it, because they’re considered weaker and less-than, less powerful. I was making a point: Enough is enough. I wanted to show how powerful I am. I got an award from HRC, and that to me was the validation I needed—HRC backing me up.
Would you like to be the first openly bottom Hollywood action movie star or romantic lead?
[Laughs] Either-or? It’s one aspect of who I am. Some people thought I said that because I was looking for a total top! I was like, “I don’t need help in that department!”
Speaking of romantic leads, what can you tell us about your movie Breaking Fast, which is based on a 2018 short film of the same name?
I play Mo, the lead character, and I think it’s the first project that shows an openly gay practicing Muslim—a guy who respects and follows and is devoted to his religion but is still openly gay. It’s controversial because to some Muslims that will be offensive. All the more reason it should be made.