TORONTO — About 10 years ago, married Vancouver-based actors Kyra Zagorsky and Patrick Sabongui were on the city SkyTrain with their two children when something pulled them out of their happy family moment.
“Some man started calling him a terrorist,” recalls Zagorsky of the verbal attack launched on her husband.
“One of the big things that stuck out to me was the lack of engagement from everyone else. Nobody did anything. It was so shocking.”
The incident served as inspiration for the start of “The Prince,” which will start screening next week in the Short Film Corner of the Cannes Film Festival.
Zagorsky wrote and directed the Vancouver-shot short, which follows a Middle-Eastern/American actor as he takes his niece and nephew on public transit. During the trip, his elation over getting an acting job vanishes when a passenger calls them “terrorists” and tells them to “go back to where you came from.”
Later, on a film set, the uncle is further dismayed when he realizes the extremist nature of the role he landed.
Lee Majdoub stars as the uncle. His niece and nephew are played by Ashe Sabongui and Bodhi Sabongui, who are the children of Zagorsky and Sabongui.
Zagorsky says Sabongui, who hails from Montreal and is of Egyptian descent, is a classically trained actor with a master’s degree in his craft. Yet he’s often typecast.
“In the beginning the only roles that were available to people like him were you had to be a terrorist,” she says in a phone interview.
“He can do so many things and this is was what was presented to him for a long time.”
Even these days, with dozens of credits including CW’s “The Flash,” it still happens.
“After the (2016 U.S.) election, certain things have started to swing back the other way,” says Zagorsky, who was born in New York and can be seen in the CW series “The 100.”
Sabongui has fought back against such stereotypes, though.
Zagorsky says he’s walked away from some auditions, turned down certain roles and talked to creatives onset about his culture to help flesh out scripts and characters.
“While we were in Brooklyn, there was a big show coming out and they were like, ‘You need to read for this, this is a great part for you’ — but it was so twisty moustache villain, like no humanity to the character,” Zagorsky says.
“When you’ve got kids and you’ve got mouths to feed, it’s a big decision to say: ‘This is a really big role, it’s a great role, it’s a financially smart thing to do. But I can’t represent my culture in this light, because this guy is just a straight-up stereotype of a bad guy and we need to be putting people onscreen who look like me who are just regular people, because there are so many of us.”
Zagorsky says their children have also endured racism, noting her son documented his experience in a school assignment.
“It was this autobiography they had to write and he starts writing about how, ‘When I was nine years old my best friend called me a terrorist on the playground,’” Zagorsky says.
“There are these little moments that happen as children that shapes things for them.”
The National Film Board of Canada will also be at Cannes, with Patrick Bouchard’s animated short “The Subject.” It will screen in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the festival, which runs May 8-19.
“The Prince” has already screened at other festivals and Zagorsky says she’s excited to see the reaction in Cannes.
“Sometimes people are moved by it because they didn’t know the subtle racism that’s in the film,” she says.
“They started to recognize and think, ‘I had no idea how hurtful that could be or that it could have such an impact on people’s lives and the way they live their daily lives.”