Haaz Sleiman: Jackie's Strength

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com June 14 2009 11:00 PM ET

As the old adage goes, behind every overworked, adulterous, pill-popping nurse, there's a great Muslim gay confidant. Five years after playing a flirtatious hunk in The Ski Trip, Haaz Sleiman returns to his queer roots as Nurse Mohammed "Mo-Mo" De La Cruz in Nurse Jackie, which recently debuted as Showtime's most successful premiere this season. Also known for his dramatic turns as an immigrant squatter in The Visitor and a terrorist suspect on 24, the Lebanon-born actor shares his high hopes for Mo-Mo's love life and his newfound appreciation for George Clooney's manhood.

Advocate.com: You have terrific chemistry with costar Edie Falco. Was it intimidating to find out that most of your scenes would be opposite a three-time Emmy winner?
Haaz Sleiman: I was a big Sopranos fan and a big fan of hers, but I was more excited than intimidated. Rather than nervous, I was sort of like a little kid because I admired her. She was one of the main reasons I wanted to be on the show. The first day I met her there was just something immediate between us that I can't explain. I had a feeling that we would connect and bond as actors, and we did. A similar experience happened between me and Richard Jenkins for The Visitor, but with her it was even stronger. Our frequencies just clicked.

Would you be friends with someone like Mo-Mo?
Absolutely. I'd like to be a lot like Mo-Mo. I have a few friends in my life that are really close, but I'd love to have the friendship that Mo-Mo and Nurse Jackie have. Jackie has her issues and there are certain things she has not yet told him, but it doesn't take away from their friendship, which is universal in the sense that it's not about who they are but how they connect. They don't judge one another, they're there for each other, and they just get each other. Mo-Mo is smart, compassionate, trustworthy, works hard, great at what he does, and I don't know if you can get more honest than him. He also has some issues in his personal life, but who doesn't?

Playing a gay character, do you feel any pressure to represent the gay community respectfully?
It's definitely my responsibility not to stereotype any character, but especially a gay character because of the misperceptions people still have about gays. I really struggled in the beginning with the character because I was trying to find balance and be as authentic as possible, but the way I finally saw it is that he's just a guy. Even though he's gay and Muslim, which is a really interesting combination, that doesn't define him. It's just a part of who he is. I interviewed a lot of nurses, gay and straight, because you don't want to offend the people that you're portraying, and hopefully they'll feel proud that you're showcasing a positive but still human image. I feel lucky to be portraying this character, and it's very flattering that I'm even allowed to represent this type of person.

NURSE JACKIE EDIE FALCO Haaz Sleiman 02 X390 (SHOWTIME) | ADVOCATE.COM

Mo-Mo is pretty butch compared to Nurse Jackie's other gay male nurse, Thor, played by Stephen Wallem.
Initially, I didn't want Mo-Mo to be at all effeminate. I really wanted to focus on his qualities as a person rather than the physical. The director who directed the pilot was leaning more toward the effeminate without even realizing he was doing it, but I didn't like that, and the writers and the producers were on my side. In terms of Thor, I think the actor himself is very similar to the character, so there is a sense of authenticity there in terms of physicality.

Mo-Mo does get some sassy lines, like, "If I had to choose between George Clooney's cock and this cup of coffee, I'd say coffee."
[Laughs] That was one of the hardest lines I've ever had to say, to be honest with you. I was saying it straight, but the director of that episode, Steve Buscemi, wanted me to go further. He kept telling me, "Haaz, you want to talk about it like it's the best meal of your life." I was like, "Come on, man. Really?" Not because it's gay or anything, but some of the words I had to say were a little bit uncomfortable. Let's just say that I appreciate George Clooney more now than I did before.

Did you have any hesitations or concerns before accepting the role?
No actor wants to be typecast, so you always want to make good, careful choices. If this character were in a different show that was kitschy and wasn't written well, I would've said no. But in the right context, a role like this is challenging and fulfilling. I never had any concerns with this show, but I was interested to see how the whole Muslim thing would go over. So far I haven't gotten any response from the Muslim community, but I have gotten a lot of positive response from people in the Arab community.

We know that Mo-Mo has a boyfriend named Ricky. Will the audience meet him soon?
You're not going to meet him in the first season, and I haven't met him yet either. You will see Mo-Mo kiss another guy, though, and it's someone that you won't expect. It's funny.

If you could pick any actor to play Ricky, whom would you cast?
Oh, Daniel Day-Lewis. That's a no-brainer right there. He's so brilliant. I just want to act with him, so I would love that. I would be in heaven.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Ever since you were cast as Mo-Mo, there have been discussions in the blogosphere about your own sexuality. Have you found that people now seem more interested in whether or not you're gay in real life?
I don't really read blogs, so I don't know what's being said. That's never come up, but it's not something that would bother me if it did. It's all about doing good work, and the stuff that comes with it afterward, it is all fun.

But for the sake of satisfying curiosity once and for all, you're straight, right?
Yes.

Do you have a girlfriend?
Yes, she lives in New York. She's very supportive and can't wait to see that kiss that I told you about.

Let's talk about your first major movie, out writer-director Maurice Jamal's 2004 urban gay romantic comedy The Ski Trip.
[Laughs] I knew that was going to come up at some point. What do you want to know?

How do you look back at that experience?
It was a great experience. I was very excited to work on it, I learned a lot, and it was a lot of fun. At the time I hadn't done much acting, and the part was really something different for me, so I just threw myself in there and had a ball. But it's kind of like when you look back at outfits from the '80s or a picture of yourself when you were 13: You look back, like, "Oh, my God, what was I thinking?" [Laughs] But I'm still in touch with Maurice every now and then.

How did it feel to be that film's shirtless beefcake?
I just hated that I couldn't eat, because I had to keep my abs looking good. That was the worst part. Other than that, I was like, "C'mon, take it off!"