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Chicago's Fawzia Mirza on her 'Signature Move'
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-09-07

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For audiences of her critically hailed appearances on stages throughout Chicago, the United States and South Asia as well as globally via a burgeoning and award-winning television and film career, Chicago-based actor, writer and producer Fawzia Mirza has already beaten down linear preconceptions of identity, delivered a series of mercilessly enlightened haymakers to cultural and racial stereotypes and provided five moves of doom to the neatly ordered file cabinets in which society and its clammy nests of bickering politicians wish to lock away minorities.

Now Mirza has just wrapped filming on her signature move—also the name of the project in which she stars and co-wrote with award-winning director, writer and producer Lisa Donato.

The recent casting announcement of cisgender male actor Matt Bomer as a transgender woman in the Timothy McNeil film Anything may have further cemented the idea that the people behind mainstream Hollywood are wedded to the same ( lack of ) vision that gave us Marlon Brando as a Japanese villager, Burt Lancaster as a Native American warrior, John Wayne as an East-Central Asian conqueror and a multitude of other miscast performances that drives more nails into the coffin of on-screen diversity.

However, Mirza's Signature Move: Life, Love and Lady Wrestling sets out not only to tell an all-Chicago love story about a Muslim lesbian ( Mirza ) who falls for a professional woman wrestler from Mexico—but to do so in a way that is completely authentic.

Each of the roles—be they extra, featured or starring—was cast using the multicultural, multiracial and gender diverse talent pool for which they were written.

Produced by New City editor and publisher Brian Hieggelke and Full Spectrum Features founder Eugene Park, Signature Move's principal photography took place using locations across Chicago.

Following the film's Aug. 29 wrap party, Mirza took off for a well-deserved vacation in Asheville, North Carolina, ahead of a 2017 release date.

From there, she spoke with Windy City Times about Signature Move, the experience of writing, acting in and completing her first full-length feature film, proving that an A-list actor will never equal accuracy in the way that a just as talented but decidedly more genuine performer-of-diversity can.

Windy City Times: Tell us about the genesis of Signature Move.

Fawzia Mirza: I was dating a Mexican woman in Chicago and we had so many similarities across our culture. I was also on a comedy talk-show in Chicago called Talk Hard. There was a former pro-wrestler on the show as well. I was inspired by her and how strong she was. I wondered about these women's stories in the greater narrative of women in the United States. I love when I get to talk about Brown women in ways that people don't expect. So, somehow, I thought wrestling should be a part of this.

In many ways there's a metaphor in it. I mean we're all wrestling with something in our lives whether it's relationships or work. So the wrestling metaphor is very universal. I originally wrote [Signature Move] as a short, but then I met Eugene and he wanted to produce it and turn it into a feature. My gut said that Lisa was the one who would be crazy enough to go with me on this journey, so I called her up and, in Los Angeles, we constantly wrote for a little over a week before we had a first draft. Eugene then introduced us to Brian at New City because he wanted to make a feature film and a Chicago story. I always joke with Brian that he is a straight, middle-aged white guy who said "The Chicago story I think we've got to tell is a Pakistani Muslim lesbian's story."

It was a year and a half ago when we made that first step. Then Lisa and I were revising the first draft; honing, crafting and fine-tuning it. Working with our director, we did revisions even on set. There's the movie you imagine, the movie you write and the movie that you end up shooting.

WCT: In shooting it, how important was it for you to have authenticity in casting?

FM: Diversity and authenticity were of the utmost importance to me. One of my visions as an artist is to tell authentic stories from my world and not wait for someone else to do it. It was essential to me that all of us were preserved in that process. I play the lead character Zaynab. In my experience growing up, there was a lot of our native language of Urdu spoken. I wasn't going to just turn it all English for an American audience.

In casting the role of my mother we chose a woman who is authentically South Asian. So she speaks the language fluently and can understand the character. The love interest Alma and her mother Rosa are a Mexican family. So [in casting] I didn't want to see anyone who was not Mexican. Sari Sanchez [Alma] and Charin Alvarez [Rosa] are both Mexican women and Chicago actors. We filled out the other roles with people who are part of the queer and LGBT worlds and made sure that the space included women, trans individuals and people of color.

WCT: What made Jennifer Reeder stand out to you as a choice for director?

FM: Part of what Brian and New City wanted to do was to work on a project that was a Chicago story using Chicago resources—meaning talent, crew, post-production, music, everything. So we wanted a Chicago director. I knew that I wanted a female director so we interviewed several women. I had never worked with Jennifer before Signature Move, but I had heard about her short films that had screened at Film Festivals like Sundance and her ability to connect with women's stories and especially these coming-of-age stories. Brian, myself and Eugene unanimously knew she was the one.

WCT: How about the Chicago locations you chose?

FM: Part of the reason that Signature Move is such a Chicago story is that it's a love story between a South Asian and a Mexican woman. We have two of the highest populations in the country in the city of Chicago especially Upper Rogers Park and in Little Village. So we shot a lot of footage there. We wanted to capture real faces. The final shooting weekend was a party at Rosa and Alma's home. It was almost exclusively Mexican community members who were a part of those scenes. We also used a bookstore in Printer's Row and the iconic bar The Hideout. We included Chicago brands to highlight and get them involved.

WCT: So how would you describe the experience of principal photography? Were there some challenges?

FM: I'm always a little nervous about everything I do. This was a first for me because of the nature of the beast—being responsible for what happens behind and in front of the camera. What was really nerve-wracking was working with Shabana Azmi as my mother. She is the Meryl Streep of India. She flew in to do this role. I had no experience working with that level of talent and making sure, as artists, that we found our rhythm as mother and daughter.

We had an amazing team. We worked with Angie Gaffney [CEO of Chicago-based Black Apple Media and co-founder of Stage 18] as our line producer. Our director of photography Chris Rejano is brilliant. He has a beautiful eye. If we had lighting like that all the time, we would all fall in love with each other! It really allowed me to focus on acting once production started. But, when something didn't go right, my producer brain kicked in with "How do we solve this problem?" Our Executive Producers Jan Hieggelke, Nabeela Rasheed and Michael Shannon were great at putting out any fires.

WCT: So a diverse, talented and authentic cast, an equally brilliant duo of women writers and a female director bringing it all together. In your opinion, just what the hell is Hollywood's problem?

FM: I guess when a select group of people who all look and are the same and have been doing something the same way for so many years are the ones making the decisions, I imagine they are going to make the same choices until someone pushes them to stop or until someone else gets to start making decisions in their place. It's offensive when the [HBO] show The Night Of is about a Pakistani family but one of the men they cast is not Pakistani. He is clearly an Iranian man with an Iranian accent. It's like they know that South Asians know better but they don't care enough to try harder. They are just lazy. That's the argument for making your own content because then you don't have to rely on anyone else. You have complete control and to cast authentically means sometimes you do have to work a little harder to see more people.

WCT: It seems their laziness applies during both the summer blockbuster and Oscar-begging seasons.

FM: Mmm-hmm. I had the privilege to be a part of the web series Her Story. That's a story about trans women with authentic representation. It would not have happened if Jen [Richards], Laura [Zak], Angelica [Ross] and Katherine [Fisher] weren't doing it themselves. It's exciting to see that it was nominated for an Emmy. It took that much work, so much pushing and being so vulnerable to put all your own stories out into the world saying "This is who I am and this is where we come from." We all have signature moves. We all have those things that we do that people can see, get and connect with.

For more information about Signature Move and to join the film's email list, visit: www.chicagofilmproject.com/signaturemove .


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