Amira and Sam: Sean Mullin & Dina Shihabi


by Joanna Orland

Amira and Sam is the story of a soldier returning home from war – the soldier is fine, but the country has lost its mind.  An intimate love story with universal implications, the film centres around Sam (Martin Starr) in his attempt to reintegrate back into American society after nearly a decade of serving in the Middle East.  His cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) is a hedge-fund manager attempting to exploit Sam’s military status and symbolism.  Dina Shihabi is Amira, the object of Sam’s affections, with a complicated backstory of her own as she struggles to avoid imminent deportation.

After speaking with actress Dina Shihabi and director Sean Mullin, it is obvious that the director has based much of this story on his own experiences.  A former soldier himself, Mullin was based in Germany in the late 90’s, and when he returned to New York, he decided to study improv theatre at the newly opened UCB (United Citizens Brigade) in 2000.  By 2001, Mullin was the plans officer for Manhattan when September 11th happened. “I was the plans officer for Manhattan, so I got put down at Ground Zero as the captain in charge of the soldiers at Ground Zero.  So I’d spend twelve hours a day at Ground Zero and then do standup comedy and improv theatre at night”, explains Sean.

Mullin went on to study filmmaking and wanted to tell a story that encompassed many complex issues including ethics, social infrastructures, classism, racism and militarism.  He decided that by packaging these issues into a love story with two outsiders at its core, these issues could be explored without preaching, and the film could be made on a relatively low budget. “I tried to do my best to wrap my brain around how can I tell a story that touches on all these big issues that I’m interested in but make it doable, and I felt like the intimacy of a love story was the best way to do that”.

Dina Shihabi brings a sensitive quality to her portrayal of Amira.  She feels that the filmmaking process was a collaborative effort, and learned much from her very experienced colleague Martin Starr.  “It was such a learning experience for me.  I learned constantly  watching him, or just being with him.  It was my first lead role in a film, I’d never been in a position where I had to spend that much time working on camera, which was a huge deal for me.  And he just, from moment one, was so supportive of me and just treated me like I’d been there all along.  He didn’t treat me like I was a newbie or green or anything, which I think really meant a lot to me and I really thank him for that”, says Dina.

Martin Starr excels in the role of Sam.  His naturalistic and modest portrayal is vastly different to his more brash comedy performances from his previous work including Freaks and Geeks, Party Down and most recently Silicon Valley.  Usually taking on the sardonic characters in outright comedies, Sam is a role that allows Martin to showcase his dramatic and leading man talents.  “I wrote the script, I knew I had to find somebody who was funny. But also… the way you get a film made, hopefully you find an actor who needs the film.  They need it for their career.  Somebody who’s kind of established a little bit… It was a mutually beneficial relationship is what I was trying to put together and I feel like he hadn’t been a lead in anything yet independent film wise, and this was something totally different from anything he’s ever done, as a romantic thing.  I’d seen him perform over the years, and he’s so fantastic in everything I’ve ever seen him in and he’s never hit a false note, that was the big thing with me… He was always true to life, authentic, grounded, real and dry – you know, the kind of comedy I’m looking for.  A lot of my veteran buddies who were coming home from war when I was writing the script, you know, he kind of fit in that same energy, that same kind of stoicism”, says Sean.

Rounding out the cast nicely is Paul Wesley, best known for his role on the hit TV series The Vampire Diaries. In spite of being best known as a vampire, Paul very much fits the Wall Street type character. “He was perfect for the role, absolutely perfect.  He has that perfect blend of, you know, he’s got that great focus.  He fit this type – I had good friends of mine who were Wall Street guys and he just fit right in there”.

Read our review of Amira and Sam

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