Another season of Orange Is the New Black (OITNB), another heartbreaking reality check with the injustices plaguing the modern world...
This time around, in its seventh and final season, the Netflix comedy-drama series introduced Shani Abboud, an Egyptian character with a moving, ever-relevant backstory. From homophobia to female genital mutilation (FGM), Abboud sheds light on pressing issues affecting Egyptian women, Arab women, and immigrants in the U.S.
So, who's the actress behind the character? Well, that would be Marie-Lou Nahhas, a New York-based actress and public health graduate from Lebanon.
StepFeed reached out to Nahhas, who spoke about her experience with the OITNB family and recalled her journey from biology to acting.
In the show, Nahhas plays a detainee who had fled Egypt, where she had fallen victim to FGM, which affects around 92 percent of women in Egypt aged 15 to 49 as of 2014.
The character, Abboud, had faced the threat of so-called "honor killing" after her family discovered she was queer. Her father had accused her of bringing shame to the family, saying he would not stop her relatives from killing her.
Abboud ends up illegally immigrating to the U.S. and getting detained at PolyCon Corrections, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centre. She meets fan-favorite inmate Nicki Nichols and the duo directly hit it off. Unfortunately, the relationship is cut short when the former's appeal for asylum is denied and she faces deportation.
Nahhas, who was born and raised in Lebanon, announced the news of her role in OITNB the day before the premier of the final season late in July.
She told StepFeed she had been living in New York for four years when she scored the OITNB role. Describing her experience on the show, Nahhas assured she felt welcome among the OITNB team, which she described as "one big family."
She is glad to have played a character with a compelling backstory and highlighted crucial, taboo topics she connects with on a personal level. As for the feedback she has received so far, Nahhas expressed her excitement about the positive, heartwarming responses, particularly those from viewers who related to her character and were inspired to share their personal stories with her.
Who is Marie-Lou Nahhas?
Nahhas moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her family in 2007. She studied biology at the University of Pittsburgh and went on to earn a masters degree in public health at Duquesne University.
"Many experiences in my life led me to my true passion: acting," she said, explaining that she sought her passion by learning about cinema and attending acting workshops.
While playing Abboud marks her most noteworthy role to date, Nahhas had previously appeared in a number of American productions. She made her debut in the drama/thriller film Southpaw in 2015, and went on to star in the 2016 comedy Craig Quits His Day Job and appeared in the Hulu original The Looming Tower and CBS drama Madam Secretary. She is now set to grace Arab screens as part of OSN's television series, Awake, which will launch in September.
Back in 2012, she participated in the Miss Lebanon beauty pageant and earned a spot among the top 10 finalists.
Apart from her acting career, Nahhas puts her university education into good use and makes an effort to raise awareness on sexual and reproductive health.
Here's how social media users responded to her role:
Arabs are beyond excited
Fans are in love
Some are struggling to hold back the tears
Meanwhile, others would have preferred to see an Egyptian actress
In response, Nahhas emphasized that the "beauty of acting" lies in a performer's versatility and ability to depict characters from different backgrounds and nationalities.
"It's fiction, after all. It's up to producers and casting directors to evaluate your potential and see what you can offer," she explained, noting that she has previously played a diverse array of characters, including ones from South Africa.
She also noted that her accent "comes from who I am, not from my nationality, especially since I speak four languages."