ABC’s Quantico is returning Sunday for its second season. The popular thriller, which follows FBI recruit Alex Parrish (played by Priyanka Chopra, for which she won a People’s Choice Award) through a web of conspiracy, features a fantastic ensemble cast, including Lebanese-born actress Yasmine Al Massri. As twin sisters Nimah and Raina Amin, Al Massri helps bring issues of race and religion to the primetime TV screen with dexterity and care.
“People love the twins!” Al Massri told Motto in a recent interview. She said that people are so “amused” that she can play two characters, and she’s often asked whether she’s a real-life twin (she isn’t).
Al Massri has earned fan praise for her portrayal of the Muslim FBI recruits, one of whom wears a hijab. Al Massri herself was raised in Beirut as the child of Palestinian refugees. However, she is wary of being typecast. “I feel that this year my mission is to prove myself as an actor beyond where I come from,” she told Motto.
Motto spoke with Al Massri ahead of the season 2 premiere of Quantico to talk politics, refugees and what to expect from the next year of the show.
Motto: Season 2 of Quantico airs on Sunday—what can we expect from your characters this season?
Yasmine Al Massri: Oh my God! It’s heartbreaking! Until now we’ve been shooting, we will start shooting episode eight very soon and the twins are separated! What’s happened with Simon and Elias in the last year really is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy and the fact that Nimah stood in the way of this relationship, well she didn’t really stand in the way, she just asked Raina and Simon, “Are you really brave enough to go against religion and culture and the world and politics, everything that separates you today and be together?” … [Raina] chose not to go with her heart, she chose her mission as an FBI agent. Nimah was directly involved in that, in making her realize that and making Simon realize that.
Simon’s death will always bring back all those memories between the two twins. In the second season they have to deal with that. Nimah becomes an agent, she’s been working on missions all around the world—she dealt with cartels in Mexico, comes back to the US because Miranda calls her for an undercover mission. I cannot tell you any more about it! Raina, you do not see her in the past yet, but in the future she works as interpreter for a big big event. You can definitely see that the twins, who have this sixth sense about each other, are now in two different places, too far away at the same time. You can see that it’s very painful for them to be that far away from each other. …
This year, the question of trust is coming back in a very smart way again, because we’re not making the question about trust about one religion and one culture. Quantico is taking you to a platform where you’re going to have to let go of everything, every cliché that you have been told about identity. You’re going to question again how do people trust each other, how do they work together. What’s the biggest good and what’s the biggest bad? How can you get people from very different parts around the world to work together to save the world? It’s very exciting. Again, I’m very lucky to be a part of the show this year.
You told the New York Times last year that portraying a veiled Muslim woman on-screen in Quantico is a “scary minefield” for you. Has that attitude changed for you at all doing this show for a year?
It’s so funny that you bring me this interview. This interview means a lot to me—this interview was my first interview and I’ve always loved that interview so much, and to go back to it means a lot for me. It reminds me of everything I have been through last year before the show became a hit.
When I did the interview, we were sure of nothing. We had no idea how people would react to Quantico, to the twins. I really had no idea if my characters were going to be terrorists or not, I just knew that I’m playing two characters. One of them is religious, she’s very attached to her beliefs and to her culture. The other one doesn’t really care about all that, but she’d die for her family and friends. She’s modern, she’s ambitious. She’s a modern woman that you’d see in any country around the world where woman have equal rights as men and would not identify themselves through their religions.
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After a year of that, I am definitely more secure and more relaxed and more confident, not only for me but also for the whole industry. You saw in the Emmys how Rami Malek got the Emmy for Best Actor on a TV show and he’s an Egyptian actor. I just see that I am a part of something great. I am realizing that the twins are not an accident. Me playing those two characters is not a gamble. I am a part of a revolution on TV and I think I’m a part of a revolution also in the social world environment. People are truly changing the way they think, and representation on TV is just an expression of that, because art has always been an expression of what society thinks. And if we have Nimah and Raina on the second season of Quantico, I think it’s sign of great great progress in thinking. Our show is sold to 200 countries around the world, so if I am a part of something like that I’m definitely not afraid anymore.
I told [Quantico’s writers], “Please, don’t make me say anything about Islam this year or Israel or Palestine. Don’t treat me as an ‘Arab’ this year.” I want to fall in love, I want to be in it, I want to betray and to lie, to be there for my friends, and I want to sing and be dumb and say a joke. Treat me as a talented actor if you think I’m talented enough to be on this show.” That’s what I hope to achieve on Quantico this year.
What has been the response from viewers to your characters? Have any reactions really stood out to you, and why?
I was so surprised to see that people received Nimah and Raina with so much love, so much love. I get messages from Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon or Syria or even in Argentina and Brazil, even in France. I can list all the countries. Italy! People saying, “Thank you so much for portraying a positive image of women from this part of the world. Thank you so much for not being another cliché, for not settling for a cheap representation of this culture.” People are really tired of being made fun of. I truly believe people are smart, people aren’t stupid. I don’t think we need to educate them, I think we need to tell them the truth the way it is.
You have spoken out about the current refugee crisis—why is it so important to you?
It’s beyond important to me. It’s me. It’s me. I left Lebanon when I was 19, and I said I would never go back there again because I was so hurt. I was so hurt and angry about how my right to grow up as a human being, and have rights to choose who I want to be was taken away from me. I was so angry that I had to grow up in a civil war for 14 years, that I couldn’t play the part like every child does around the world and just eat ice cream and walk back home. I was angry that when I graduated from school, people were telling me, “You don’t have the right to ask for a scholarship because you are a Palestinian refugee.” I was angry that when I decided to study law, people told me, “You cannot be a lawyer, you have no right to be a lawyer.” …I was very angry at many things and I went to Paris and I said, “No more going back to where I come from, I’m gonna be French, I’m going to be an artist and dance, not talk politics.” I tried to be someone else when I lived in Paris, and it kept hunting me back.
France is this country that allows you to think freely and question everything, and I could not be more thankful to have lived in France for 10 years and learned the freedom to think and to question everything. So I learned that you cannot run away from who you are, or where you come from. You don’t have to wear it, you don’t have to think it in the streets, you don’t have to make people love you or feel pity for you or hate you for that, but we cannot run away from who we are and where we come from.
I am just learning, especially since I became a mother that if I do not do something about my story, it will hunt me like a nightmare all my life. The only way I can go to bed at night and feel like I am participating in making this world better for a child is by me telling my story. It’s by me giving my voice to another child like me to tell their story … When you’re an artist, this is what you do. And now that I’m a part of a great show like Quantico, my voice is becoming more important to people. Two years ago, nobody would have cared about my opinion! But now people want to know what I think and what I feel. It’s a great honor and I have to accept the responsibility.
I don’t think talking about organic greens for the face is going to change the world as much as if you give a child a chance to choose who they want to be. If you give them food and honor and the right care, they can be great, successful human beings. That means a lot for me. If I can be a part of the group of artists around the world like Angelina Jolie… Artists can help create awareness in the international community with those who make decisions and who can change the world. I want to be a part of those people. This is why I am acting, this is actually why I want to be an artist. I want to feel that I can change the world, that my voice can matter doing something good.
Both immigration and the refugee crisis have become hot-button issues this election. As an advocate of Syrian refugees, how do you think the upcoming presidential election will affect these two issues?
I consider that America’s international relation to the world can be more important. Their position from what’s happening around the world, and their involvement in what’s happening in Syria—I’m gonna give Syria as an example because this will get too general and too wide—for example, America’s solution about what’s happening in Syria and their involvement in what’s going on there affects the refugees, it affects the Syrian people becoming refugees more than dealing with, are we going to take a few more thousand Syrians in America or not.
Whether Trump wants to integrate more immigrants into the the American identity or the American flag or not, that for me does not represent the American people. Because I know that the American people—I’ve learned this in America and I’m so proud of it—is people get together in this country. They raise money, they do fundraising, there are doctors who volunteer! …For Trump or even Hillary, they will have their agendas, and I cannot predict their agendas because they’re politicians for me and I’m very bad at predicting politicians’ agendas, but I know what the American people are and I trust that. I just became American a few months ago, and I had to swear the oath with like 1500 people in one room, and I had to learn about the values and the ethics of what being American is. I trust that. I trust that sense, that very strong sense of democracy, that loyalty to your freedom of expression above all. I think that whatever comes out of the election, the American people will not change. They will never be changed, they will never go back on their rights and who they are. I can only trust that.
I voted for Bernie Sanders and now I’m going to be voting for Hillary Clinton of course, because I believe in democracy and I don’t feel that Donald Trump, I don’t see that I can relate to him as a woman or as a human being. But I do not, I’m not going to hate people who are going to go for him, because I cannot blame people for feeling left out or for being disappointed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.