Hollywood role for veteran Baha'i actor

June 7, 2005
Earl Cameron acting in the movie "The Interpreter" as president of an African country who is addressing the United Nations. At left in this scene is Oscar-winning actor Nicole Kidman. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.

LONDON, England — Veteran actor Earl Cameron was taking part in a Baha'i community activity in the United Kingdom when he received a surprising phone call from his agent.

It was an offer to audition for a role in a major movie, something unexpected for Mr. Cameron, now 87 and largely retired from the movie business.

His agent told him that Sydney Pollack, director of "Tootsie" and the Oscar-winning "Out of Africa," was considering him for a part in a new political thriller.

"I had to rush to test for the role," Mr. Cameron said. "I turned up late...but they liked what I did."

Mr. Cameron was cast as Edmund Zuwanie -- the unsavory president of a fictional African country -- in "The Interpreter," starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. He had no hesitation accepting the role.

"I feel that an actor must portray life, and despotic characters need to be portrayed and shown up," he said.

The film tells the story of a translator, played by Ms. Kidman, who overhears a plot to assassinate Mr. Zuwanie as he addresses the UN General Assembly.

"The Interpreter" is the first film ever to be shot inside the United Nations building in New York.

Actor Earl Cameron playing the role of the president of an African country in "The Interpreter." Photo courtesy of Universal Studios. Slideshow
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Actor Earl Cameron playing the role of the president of an African country in "The Interpreter." Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.

When Alfred Hitchcock made "North by Northwest" in 1959, he built a replica of the UN's interiors. With "The Interpreter," officials allowed the movie to be filmed in the UN building after office hours.

At the film's climax, Mr. Zuwanie is portrayed addressing the General Assembly, a scene that reminded the actor of the Baha'i belief in the need for world unity.

"There I was," said Mr. Cameron, "standing at the lectern in front of 2,000 extras playing all the ambassadors."

"Seeing the names of all the countries on the desks in front of me, I got a real sense of the importance of the UN."

"The world is desperate for peace and there's no other way it can go but towards greater cooperation at a global level," he said.

"Solutions have to be found at a level above national interests -- and so far there isn't any other organization which can establish these first steps towards lasting peace."

The critics have unanimously praised his performance in "The Interpreter." He has been described as the "one memorable performer in the film...absolutely eerie as the dictator of Matobo." (heraldnet.com)

The "Baltimore Sun" wrote: "Earl Cameron is magnificent as the slimy old fraud of a dictator..." "Rolling Stone" described Mr. Cameron's appearance as "subtle and menacing." Philip French in "The Observer" referred to "that fine Caribbean actor Earl Cameron."

The film's UK premiere at the Empire in London's Leicester Square was a glamorous occasion. Mr. Cameron was called to the stage by Sydney Pollack to be presented to the audience along with Nicole Kidman.

"It's the first time I had been to a premiere for many years," Mr. Cameron said. "I've never experienced anything like that. There were thousands of cameras."

Earl Cameron moved from Bermuda to England during World War II and there became a pioneering black British actor. In London in 1963 he became a Baha'i.

"I never felt there was any conflict between being a Baha'i and being an actor," he said.

"From time to time I managed to get certain lines in the script changed by the director if I felt uncomfortable saying them," he said.

"Very occasionally I turned a part down. There was a period when black actors tended to get the villain parts. But I often got sympathetic character roles. Perhaps I have a sympathetic look about me."

From the 1950s to the 1970s, he appeared in many films including "Sapphire," "The Message" -- the story of the Prophet Muhammad -- and the James Bond movie, "Thunderball."

Mr. Cameron also became a familiar face on television in such popular shows as "Danger Man," "Doctor Who," and "The Prisoner."

A twelve-year career break followed when Mr. Cameron went to the Solomon Islands with his family to assist the Baha'i community there.

(Report by Rob Weinberg.)