Terry's obsession with his 'Middle Eastern-looking' neighbor is so complete that rather than look for a new job, he fills his days and nights watching his neighbor through his window, following him when he leaves for work, and contacting the FBI about his suspicions. As his obsession takes over and his personal life falls apart, Terry's prompted into taking action without help from authorities.
I’m sure you’ve done a lot of Q&As with this film and audiences probably had a lot of things to ask about this particular movie. Do you find Civic Duty brings out more questions and comments than any other project you’ve been associated with?
“Yeah. I mean Six Feet Under certainly provided a lot of conversation fodder over its five seasons, so I can’t say this is providing any more than that piece of work. And too, the world that we live in now, contemporary issues… For instances Virginia Tech, this movie addresses that sort of random act of violence as well because we are asking, questioning the audience, ‘Are we suspicious enough?’ It’s a very unfortunate and uncomfortable question. Not are we paranoid enough, but are we watchful enough, are we vigilant enough?
Certainly if we had a magic window into the future, we could see what Cho was intending at Virginia Tech. And if somebody had stopped that person, we wouldn’t have called it paranoid vigilantism. But we don’t have that magic window, so if somebody had shot him or something and said, ‘I knew he was going to snap and do something crazy,’ we’d look at that person and say, ‘What are you talking about? You just killed that guy.’ There would be no way of knowing. We’d call it paranoid vigilantism when in fact if we could look into the future, it would have been an act of very keen observation and watchful heroism.”
What do you want audiences to leave the theater thinking about after having watched Civic Duty?
“I want them to be thinking about how they could participate in our shared world so that we don’t keep spiraling downward. I think it’s a cautionary tale, you know, obviously. We can laugh away terrorist paranoia to a certain degree, but all it takes is for something like Virginia Tech to happen and suddenly it isn’t paranoia anymore, it’s justifiable fear. Even last August when nitroglycerin appeared on a plane… I guess they didn’t get it on the plane actually, but they attempted to; some people attempted to bring nitroglycerin on a plane in the U.K., and that was just last August. That obviously is what precipitated people no longer being able to take a bottle of water onto the plane with them.”
There have been a few 9/11-inspired films released. Do you think it’s too early or is it never too early?
“I don’t think it’s too early. I think that audiences are ready for this. I think they want to take a good hard look at the world we live in and how complicated it is. I think that the more we look at it, the more we’re going to be moved to get an accurate picture historically of where we’ve been so we can have a better idea of how to get to where we want to go. I don’t think we’re going to arrive at any positive or meaningful destination if we continue in the fashion that we have been.”
How do you think Civic Duty will play out with post-9/11 audiences?
“Hopefully it’s a reflection of the world we live in and the difficult questions that we face. What is the line in between justifiable suspicion and racial profiling? The line in between justifiable fear and paranoia? We also try to examine the immense responsibility that the media has to dispense accurate information to the people and that it doesn’t necessarily serve to create a type of mass paranoia, which I think was going on. The relative psychological health of the American psyche is also something that the film is questioning and addressing."
Did being involved in Civic Duty make you question how we look at things?
“Oh sure, sure. That was inherent I think in the core idea of the film. It’s not that the neighbor is or isn’t a terrorist, it’s about the suspicion. It’s also about the fact that we live in a world where people are profiled by race, and we also live in a world where terrorist attacks do happen. So we couldn’t lead the audience to either conclusion because a conclusion really is that we live in a world where both are true. If anything, we lead the audience to the question, ‘Do you really want to continue living in this world and is there something you can do to change it?’”
After watching the movie my first thought was that this must have been a very interesting character to play.
“Yes, and no. [It was] interesting to take things that far, and not so interesting in how much energy it took a lot out of me. [He was] an exhausting character to play.”
Did you take him home with you every night?
“No. No, not at all. You know, in a film it’s a little bit easier to leave those things behind, actually. And you get the beginning, middle and end right there for you.”
Your scenes with Khaled Abol Naga were so intense. Were those difficult for you to film?
“Those are tough scenes, but fortunately the director, Jeff, and writer, Andrew, and I, Khaled as well, we were all prepared to play the scenes loosely and to improvise. Andrew’s okay with that. He frequently would build on something that we had done and come in and give us suggestions as we were playing the scene. So while they were difficult, they were very energizing because we were all involved in creating them together.”