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The Mundanity of Intersectional Storytelling With Producer Mike Mosallam — FannBoy Friday
"I think what is so cool about the stuff I'm watching these days is the commonplace-ness, the sort of 'normalcy' of intersectional stories. I think people are not afraid to represent intersectional identities in a way that doesn't feel distracting from the story."
FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.
Mike Mosallam is a Tony award-winning producer, director, and writer for theater, film, and television. Through his production company, Mike Mosallam Productions, he and his team have produced several short films: “Breaking Fast” (2015), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was written and directed by Mike; “Brothers” (2021), 12-time Jury & Audience Award Winner, also written and directed by Mike; and “Ubuntu” (2019), a co-production with the Muslim Public Affairs Council. His feature film debut, “Breaking Fast” (2020), is based on the short of the same name and available now on Tubi or anywhere you can rent movies. He is the creator and co–executive producer of the 2011 critically acclaimed TLC series “All-American Muslim.” Most recently, Mike was an Executive Creative Consultant on Season 2 of Hulu's “Ramy” (2019 - ). His second feature film, a film adaptation of Heather Raffo’s “Nine Parts of Desire,” premiered on PBS in the spring of 2023. His latest script, “The Untitled Chubby Muslim Project,” was a Black List selection in 2020. Mike currently has several projects in development, including a TV series adaptation of “Breaking Fast” and a feature film based on CNN Hero Rahul Dabey. On the theater side, Mike has produced and directed more than 100 theatrical productions. Most notably, he is a co-producer on both the six-time Tony nominated revival of “Parade” (2023) starring Ben Platt and the six-time Tony nominated revival of “A Doll’s House” (2023) starring Jessica Chastain. He is a proud Muslim and Lebanese American.
Our previous guest Amin El Gamal recommended Mike as a guest for FannBoy Friday, so I’m really excited we were able to connect for this interview.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Shahjehan: What are you excited about for 2023?
Mike: I'm really excited for the [SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes] to end!
I think what is so cool about some of the stuff that I'm watching these days … [is] like the commonplace-ness, the sort of — I hate the word — “normalcy.” Just the availability and mundaneness of intersectional stories. I think people are not afraid to represent intersectional identities in a way that doesn't feel distracting from the story, like it can be very humanizing and represent very real and organic situations. And I just hope that continues. That we don't have to hang a hat on everything and call it out. [That] it can just exist in the zeitgeist and go from there.
Shahjehan: What's something that you do really well as a creative person, and how would you say that you developed that skill?
Mike: I'm so good at complimenting myself! I think my favorite thing to do, and something that I feel very strongly about, is working with actors [as a director]. I think that's one of the things that I love to do the most. I love getting down and dirty in the mud with actors and figuring [things] out and laying out a blueprint of how I think [things will go], and then just being like, “let's throw stuff against a wall and see what happens and what feels real” … I think part of that is creating a safe environment [that] an actor can drop into and feel vulnerable about [their characters] making choices that may or may not be the right choice or [even] the best choice. But that's my favorite part of the gig, working with actors.
And I think part of that is doing my own analyses on [which] learning habits work best for [a given] actor. Some actors are better at improv; others really need to stick to the script and learn how to work within a confined box. What makes every day on set different for me is figuring out what an actor needs to get to the ultimate place that I need them to get to.
Shahjehan: What do you look for in people that you collaborate with? What's an ideal sort of working environment for you?
Mike: I stole this from Shonda Rhimes, but I feel very strongly that having a “no assholes” policy is important, like, life is way too short. The days are way too long, and the stakes are way too high to have to compete with ego … We're kids on a playground, playing make believe. So it really needs to feel like everyone is respectful and everyone is showing up with the best intentions … What I really look for are people who are in it for the right reasons and are not dicks … There's no need for people to be shitty — the world is shitty enough. Let's love each other.
Shahjehan: What creative medium do you feel the most at home in and why?
Mike: Unequivocally in the theater. That's where I feel most alive. I feel most seen, most vibrant and excited. I love the theater. I love working on theatrical things. That is absolutely the easiest question you could ask me.
Shahjehan: Do you remember one of the first times that you felt really proud and validated by something that you created?
Mike: There is a core memory that I have from when I was in high school, believe it or not, which feels like 4,000 years ago. We were these little kids rehearsing a British farce, which we should not have been doing in high school — we were in Dearborn, Michigan, and nobody had ever heard a British accent in their life, so it was really not good. I remember having this moment in rehearsal where everything was going wrong and for some odd reason, I felt super dialed in and just stuck with it. And my theater director made it a point to stop the rehearsal and be like, “just so everyone's aware, that's what being in the moment means.” And I was like “oh, that's what I am doing.” And I know it's a kind of silly example, but it really was a moment where I was like, oh, this is real work and is so super fun.
Shahjehan: Who are some of your American Muslim creative inspirations?