Little Mosque on the Prairie, now in its 5th season on CBC, is possibly Canada’s best-known sitcom at the moment. It’s leading man is Zaib Shaikh, a charming multi-hyphenate dedicated to the Canadian performing arts landscape.
The actor-producer-writer-director got his start in the theatre before being cast as Amaar, a forward-thinking Imam who trades his Toronto life as a lawyer for religious life in small town Saskatchewan.
Taking a page out of Amaar’s passion and generosity philosophy, Zaib is spending his time off-set working with his production company Governor Films to develop new Canadian content and create jobs for dedicated artists getting their start in the industry.
He took some time off from guest hosting Q on CBC Radio to speak with me about the new season of Little Mosque, his award-winning Othello, Governor Films and why Canada is so important to him.
How’d you first get into acting?
Ive always been interested in theatre. I was fortunate enough to have a great prof in high school who encouraged me to take on the arts. And then I went to theatre school at U of T. That’s how it all started.
How did you land the role of Amaar?
The pilot had been ordered by CBC and the producers were looking for someone to play Amaar. The director who was directing the pilot, he and I had worked together, he called me up to see if I’d be interesting in coming in and meeting with the producers about this show. I got the portions of the script sent and thought that Amaar seemed like a unique character, I’d never seen that sort of character on TV before. I did little bits for the producers on camera and they appreciated it, I gather, and away we went. I didn’t go through the usual audition process because I came kind of recommended to the producers. I had done one television series and was in the midst of doing another but I’d never led, I’d never taken on that kind of a character who was so central to the storyline. I had primarily worked in the theatre up to that point.
Amaar’s such a heroic character in his own soft-spoken way, what would you say are his biggest faults?
Well he’s the nicest guy on the planet. He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met. He sees the good side in everyone. So to play that kind of person, because I am not a nice man- not like he is-, it’s a unique thing. It’s hard to play a person who’s that optimistic that the world is a good good place. Because I can be a cynic. Zaib Shaikh himself, some people say, is highly cynical. The character’s spine is so moral and centered and so optimistic and so nice. That doesn’t mean that he’s a pushover, he can come off, though, as a pushover. That’s it, if he’s got a fault, he expects that everyone has a straight and narrow moral compass, or at least is striving for one, as he is. So when someone isn’t, he gets confused. He’s not put off, but he’s challenged by it, he gets thrown off.
How do you feel about the Amaar/Rayyan romance? It seemed to not move forever and then take leaps and bounds in 2 episodes.
Culturally, that’s kind of the way things work. The culture that we’re depicting, romance is not like Romeo and Juliet in that way, actually it’s more probably like Romeo and Juliet, some people would feel that way; it’s not like Joanie and Chachi or something like that. There’s a reservation, a modesty to it. It’s about getting to know someone. And I think that’s what Amaar ad Rayyan have done over the course of the series, they’ve gotten to know each other. I think they’ve always been interested in each other but their ideals are different than their corporeal, “fleshy” desires. They’re these people who are striving for something beyond themselves. When they declare their love for each other it comes from that kind of place. They have respect for each other, so that’s where the romance has blossomed from. That being said, I think it’s clear that they have a chemistry, even in the tension there’s chemistry.
Islam prohibits Amaar and Rayyan from touching until they are married. Was it particularly difficult to sell the chemistry without the usual physicality?
It’s an acting challenge for sure. You can’t exhibit the behaviour that one typically associates with two people “falling in love”, which is why it feels like they haven’t moved forever. Hopefully, through the chemistry we’ve seen over the course of the series, they’ve moved incrementally towards each other in some way, shape or form in a glance, with a look, even though they’re not touching, they’re falling in love. So it’s a great acting challenge for sure. I think we’ve had fun trying to explore that, Sitara Hewitt and myself. Sometimes we don’t talk about it as much, as an actor you just play your throughline and hope that it’s coming across.
When’s the wedding?
Rayyan and Amaar are obviously looking forward to one. And there are going to be, as there have always been in Mercy, there will be challenges and they will try and overcome them. Hilarity and hijinks will ensue.
With Carlo Rota off the show all the leading man duties fall to you- does that add any pressure to this season?
It’s a unique show, because it’s an ensemble and there are so many central figures, so many known characters. Yasir really brought Amaar into Mercy. We’re all kind of leading in that way because we’re so central to the story, the story revolves totally around the characters that the audience has grown to love. But Amaar is definitely the pivot of the series. I feel like Amaar is the viewer, because he’s the one going through all these experiences through which the viewer is learning about Mercy, learning about all these characters. So on that level it’s certainly a demanding work schedule because Amaar’s in a lot of scenes in each episode.
How do you think the series has evolved over its 5 seasons and where do you think it will go from here? Will it carry on for many more seasons?
In terms of carrying on, I suppose the audience, producers, network and writers will determine that. You never want to jump the shark or peter out, you certainly want to go out on a high note. At this point it seems like in season 5 we’ll be closing some loops we opened up with the first episode. Then that will leave us the possibility or either opening new doors or, having taken the audience on a journey, ending with the closed loops. We don’t know yet where the life of the show will lead. We’re looking forward to seeing what the audience has to say.
In terms of where the show has come from. When we were first introduced we were a human interest story. The very fact that the show existed made it a human interest story in North America and the western world. And now you’ve got a show where people actually identify with the characters. People are tracking their lives and their journeys. That’s really fulfilling to hear. It means that we’ve all done our jobs, that it’s not just around because we’re a human interest story; it’s around because people have connected to the characters and their journeys. I think we’ve developed the show in that way. We started out as a topical show, a social studies show, and now we’ve become a bonafide Canadian comedy that’s going into season 5. And in this day and age surviving into season 5 is really a testament.
Changing gears, I’d like to ask you about your Othello. Why Shakespeare? Why specifically that play?
Why Shakespeare: because I come from the theatrical tradition. I went to theatre school and the reason I’m in this business is because I fell in love with theatre, with entertainment, with the idea of being entertained through Shakespeare. That’s my first recollection, my parents taking me to the Stratford festival and me sitting down and watching The Merchant of Venice way back when, and my parents saying to me that even thought I didn’t understand what was going on, I was enthralled by it. So as a new chapter in the progression of my career, having directed for the theatre and worked as an actor in the theatre- especially Shakespeare- the idea of doing a Shakespeare adaptation in a time when Shakespeare and theatre itself in Canada is in a dangerous spot (I think that culturally we’re not going to theatre as much), that idea of wanting to reignite its relevance was important to me. That passion is consistent with the mandate that CBC has of showing performing arts in the best light possible. So we talked to them about the idea. We very much wanted it to be an idea that showcased the stars of the shows that were on CBC that audiences were growing to love and showcase those talents in a different light.
Why we did Othello was that whenever you’re trying to take a 4 hour play and turn it into a 2 hour film, it seemed like it was the most cohesive story to tell. It was intercultural, which made sense to us, especially those of coming from Little Mosque. It made the best use of everyone’s talents and it was a cohesive enough story that’s not like, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream, that’s so sprawling and enthralling. And as a first time director, it felt like something you could take on. And Carlo was gonna be a masterful Othello I thought, and he was.
What were some of the biggest challenges and rewards on that piece?
The biggest reward was to have gotten so many people to actually see it and have the kind of publicity we did. We were on the covers of TV guide, we were featured in the Globe and Mail, we were one of the things to watch for that week. It really was a passion project so that was really fulfilling. We wanted to reignite the passion, the interest in Shakespeare and we seemed to do that.
You wrote and directed it yourself- are those roles you’d like to pursue or do you still consider yourself primarily an actor?
I’ve never considered myself primarily an actor. Even when I was in theatre, I’ve grown up to be just interested in the world of performing arts. The idea of doing something bigger than yourself and being part of something bigger, a part of a community. Hopefully saying things that matter to a community of people and learning from that community and they can learn from you, that’s something that’s always been a part of my life and my ambition I guess. I’ve always, even in theatre, I’ve always produced and directed. So I guess it’s just a natural thing. The platform may be television and film but the jobs, for me, remain the same, ultimately, the function. I’m happy to be doing whatever I can, I’m lucky enough. I think I’m one of the luckiest people in this country, if not the world, to be able to do what I love to do and be able to do it consistently. And as an artist you’re hoping you’ll effect people on a grander level but also on more than just the level of entertaining them (which is, in itself, important). On Little Mosque we’ve had the opportunity to actually change peoples’ perceptions, what a gift for an artist to be able to say.
Do you have a dream project on the back burner that you’ve always wanted to do or a part you’ve always wanted to play?
I’ve got a production company, Governor Films, and it has a wide slate of projects that are currently in development from scripted films, movies of the week to one-hour series, half hour sitcoms.We’re also toying with the factual/reality side and developing shows for that, social awareness-type shows. So that’s my dream, to be constantly, not working, that makes it seem like you’re only doing it for the work, it’s to be immersed in the world of culture and arts entertainment in Canada. To showcase Canada to the world and to go out in the world and take what I’ve learned in Canada and share it. As long as I keep doing that, that’s my dream project, to help Canada be greater than I found it. I don’t know if I’ll achieve that, but that’s the goal and whatever it takes, I’m willing to do it. I’m not going to do it in medicine because I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist. I’m not going to win a gold medal because I’m not an athlete. But this is what I do. I’m in the performing arts, and to showcase Canada to the rest of the world, that’d be a blessing.
My parents came from Pakistan, to make the sacrifice that they did so that I could have the most freedom in the world to do whatever I want. I could’ve done all those things if I’d wanted to, or if I had the aptitude, but I chose this, or it chose me. It’s just so great to be able to make their journey mean something.
So the Canadian aspect is important to you? Because oftentimes an actor who’s reached the level that you have moves to the States at this point.
I think it’s important to be here. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, it’s important to be international. And obviously the US has a big market and it would be very satisfying to be there, but I happen to think that this is one of the best countries to live in, as much as I may have my issues with it on any given day, as any good citizen does. If you just leave it, if you think some place else is cooler…well, I’d like to make this place cool enough to stay. I’d like to convince people that it’s worth it to stay here, why leave when you can be here? So that Canadian aspect is very important to me. That doesn’t mean I won’t go international to work, but I’ll never leave Canada. I don’t want to, it doesn’t seem to want me to. It’s a good relationship I have with my country.
What would you consider the highlight of your career so far?
I think it’s obvious, Little Mosque is the highlight of my career thus far. I think what Ive been able to do because I’m on Little Mosque is also the highlight of my career. It changed my life, that show, it changed my life and my culture’s life. It’s really cool to be part of something that helped change perception. We were inducted into the Museum of Radio and Television Arts in New York and LA. We’re a Canadian show, we’re not even shown in the US, but we’re in the same Museum of Television Arts that The Dick Van Dyke Show is in, that The Sopranos has been inducted into, all of the greatest shows that you’ve heard of in Western television, and Little Mosque, in its first season, was inducted into that. To be part of a show that’s done that, you can go around the world and chances are that someone will recognize you and want to talk to you about that show. They’ll tell you all about their experience of being an outsider and wanting to fit in. It doesn’t matter what they look like, they can be of any colour, creed, race, gender. It’s always fascinating, and very humbling.
What are you working on now?
Like I said, the production company Governor Films, has a lot of projects in development. We’re working with a number of writers in a lot of genres, we’ve got a full slate. I’m looking forward to Governor Films in the next year or so having quite a few projects out there nationally and internationally.
Zaib Shaikh can currently be seen playing Amaar Rashid on Little Mosque on the Prairie (Mondays at 8pm on CBC).