This week, a Canadian medical drama debuting on NBC as the lead-in for “America’s Got Talent” gave viewers a Muslim Syrian refugee doctor as, not the featured guest, but the main character. The 13-episode series, “Transplant,” has already been renewed for a second season and Pakistani Canadian actor Hamza Haq is currently on-hold waiting for COVID-19 restrictions to lift. The pilot may make you want to eat shawarma and look at a power drill differently in a definite do-not-try-this-at-home way.
During a telephone interviewl, the 29-year-old Haq was in Montreal and joked about the dramatic pilot episode. “They actually hired an extra or stand-in…that guy had the easiest workday and any set ever,” Haq recalled because on his way to becoming Dr. Bashir “Bash” Hamed, Haq worked a lot of odd jobs. “I’ve skinned a chicken before. I know how to cut vegetables; I know how to grill.” For those still under COVID-19 restrictions, seeing the casual restaurant scene might make you nostalgic for pre-COVID days–until the truck comes crashing through and makes the eatery a literal hole in the wall.
Haq worked retail, ice cream places, has done lawn care and even worked at the Canadian border for integrated cargo security. Fans of Canadian television know that Haq was in another show about a constable who attempts to catch drug smuggling at the border: “The Indian Detective.”
“I can toot some horns here, ” Haq declared. “‘Transplant’ became the number one new Canadian show just like ‘The Indian Detective.’ What those two shows had in common? They had brown leads. People just wanted to see something new, something different.” It wasn’t just a matter of showing diversity was the responsible thing to do, Haq noted, “It’s necessary for the population and on a financial level, it makes sense.”
In the four-part “The Indian Detective” (currently streaming on Netflix) Russell Peters stars as a Canadian constable who, after an embarrassing meme-producing incident, visits his retired father (Anupam Kher) in Mumbai and becomes involved in an international investigation. Haq played two of the heavies–evil twins Gopal and Amal Chandekar. The two steal drugs from other drug dealers and attempt to bring it into Canada. The Chandekars are involved in blackmail, bribery and extortion. In Canada, the twins are making deals with a seemingly legitimate businessman played by famous Canadian actor, William Shatner.
In the pilot which aired in the US on September 1, Bash is refugee who had been a doctor in Syria, but his training doesn’t initially translate into a doctor’s job in his new home country, Canada. To make ends meet, he’s slinging meat at a Middle Eastern eatery when an accident allows him to demonstrate his war-zone acquired skills to Dr. Jed Bishop (John Hannah). Bishop is the head of the emergency department at York Memorial in Toronto. Using a hand drill, Bash saves Bishop’s life, but initially the staff at York thinks Bishop operated on himself after performing emergency medical care on other victims.
Bash is actually suspected of being responsible for the accident, but his furtive actions are really fueled his family ties and a tight budget. He usually meets his younger sister, Amira (Sirena Gulamgaus) at the end of her English class and walks her home.
“On a professional level, he’s quite arrogant. He knows he’s good at what he does. He doesn’t wait around for a lot of permission. He takes what his superiors say with a grain of salt, and then does it his own way,” Haq explained.
Haq said, “I think I can relate to that because for as many insecurities as I have about the color of my skin or about how people perceive me, and my own hesitation before I go into any situation because of how people may feel about people who look like me, I’m fortunate enough that I’ve found an outlet like acting, like Bash has medicine, where I can feel very comfortable expressing who I am and my approach to life.”
Haq like Bash is a visible minorities and is Muslim. Bash is “aware of how people see him, people’s perception of him” but “he just wants to be seen as someone who can contribute” to his new homeland.
For “The Indian Detective,” Haq spoke Hindi. For “Transplant,” Haq, who was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and came to Canada at nine, must speaks English with a Syrian accent and Syrian Arabic. He joked, “I don’t do anything by myself! I have an acting coach, a personal trainer, two dialect coaches and a language coach.”
Although he started university determined to study neuroscience because at the time his “pressing concerns in life were neurological disorders and degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s” because one of his grandmothers suffers from the disease. Yet his plans quickly changed. The youngest of four, Haq says the siblings were all academically inclined. His father is an electrical engineer and his mother, an organic chemist. During that first year in college, his brother, who is eight years older, was still studying biology for pharmaceuticals, a field where he now works.
“I couldn’t imagine being in school for another ten years; I just didn’t want to do it.” After three weeks, he changed to accounting and by the end of the first year, he wanted to drop out. “My dad said, “Absolutely not. We came to Canada so you could get a good education. Do whatever degree you want.” His father insisted that Haq have a plan. Haq finished a degree in film studies with a minor in law, but his plan was to become an actor.
Haq said, “They (his parents) are my biggest fans and very happy to see a softer well-rounded representative character (compared to the villains he’s played) of people that they know, people that they grew up with.” And yet, Haq added, they “inexplicably proud and unnecessarily critical.” Haq noted, with a laugh, that his mother is proud that he’s playing a doctor.
Neuroscience might have come in handy for playing Bash, but Haq said taking the Asian six to prepare for college helps, and he has a medical jargon coach. After all, he needs to pronounce medical terms with a Syrian English accent. Haq recalled that on set, “There was one day, we were all doing well. I was bragging too much about how good I was. There was one term that got me.” He doesn’t recall which episode it was, but the humbling term was something like “percutaneous emulation.”
The cast met at “a medical boot camp” where they learned “everything you need to know or fake.” The chemistry was there and the cast became friends. Haq said, “Because we were friends, we wanted to bring out the best of each other and we push each other further.” Boot camp was a three-day crash course on things like how you check somebody’s pulse, administer CPR and do chest compressions. For the show, they rehearse every procedure you see rigorously because there’s a lot of choreography involved.
For the Syrian angle, the show has medical consultant Yusra Ahmad and cultural consultants Micheline Aghlam and Khaled Almilaji. Ahmad founded the Mindfully Muslim, which is, according to its website “an anti-oppressive, trauma-informed, faith-based group therapy program that blends her interests in mindfulness, neurobiology, poetry, self-help, psychotherapy and religion.” For “Transplant, Ahmad provides advice on how to portray the mental health struggles of Bash and his sister. Khaled Almilaji is well-known for his humanitarian work in Syria, Turkey and Canada. He’s one of the people Haq consulted with when he found out he was in the running for the lead of “Transplant.” Almilaji has provided some of the jokes that come out in the script.
More serendipitous was Haq’s personal trainer. At first, Haq only thought of him as “an Arab dude” who was getting Haq into shape for the series. A month into the training, Haq told him about the show and the man was not only a Syrian refugee, but also from Aleppo. Haq has gotten some colloquialisms through this association.
The first episode of “Transplant” might remind viewers of “ER.” Growing up Haq wasn’t a fan of medical procedurals. “When I got cast, I, by choice, very deliberately stayed away. I didn’t want to be emulating anyone else.”
As a kid, Haq confessed to liking Looney Tunes and classic Tom and Jerry. “The violent ones.” Haq likes a good comedy and did watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “The Office,” “Arrested Development” and, more recently, “Brooklyn 99.” For drama he loved the first season of “True Detective” and how could he resist “The Night Of”? “Brown leads, yes, please,” he joked. “Brown leads on the show, let’s go!”
Success also brings a certain amount of responsibility during these COVID-19 times. Haq is very observant of all the COVID protocols because “I don’t want to look stupid.” He doesn’t want people saying, “‘The guy who plays the doctor: He didn’t even know how to wash his hands properly.’ It’s more to save face that I want to stay healthy.” Yet for the Syrian refugee community he has heard seasons worth of stories that could be and should be told and he is grateful for “the generosity and the bravery of everyone who’s been willing to tell their story.”
“Transplant” premiered on CTV on 26 February 2020. The first season ended on 27 May 2020. The show is set in Toronto but filmed in Montreal. For the US audience, the pilot premiered on NBC, 1 September 2020. You can stream online. “Transplant” airs on Tuesdays, 10/9c on NBC.