Atif Siddiqi is stumped by the very first question I ask: how does Siddiqi identify — as a gay man or as a trans person?
“You know what? I’m identity-less right now. I’m not sure how I identify. I know I’m part of the trans spectrum, but in the past I’ve identified as a gay man.”
It’s a fitting answer from Siddiqi, who is perhaps too complex a person to pin down to any one label. A writer and performance artist, he has also directed his own first-person documentaries (including Solo, about living the single life) and acted in a number of films, including 300 and Barney’s Version. And yes: I asked, and he’s cool with that pronoun.
In the short film House for Sale, Siddiqi stars as what he calls “a gay/trans crossover character” named Salim. Siddiqi gets a tour of a house that’s up for sale by a woman who has no idea that Salim had an affair with her husband. It’s all about closets and the various secrets that Salim is forced to keep while he’s getting a real-estate sales pitch.
Siddiqi says he was intrigued when Montreal filmmaker Eisha Marjara showed him the script. “Initially, she had written this to be about two women and a man,” Siddiqi recalls. “But then she thought of me for the lead so rewrote it to fit me. We had readings where we came up with suggestions. Basically, Eisha changed things a bit, to make my character a bit more sympathetic. She didn’t want Salim to look like nothing more than a homewrecker.”
Siddiqi says he really wanted to avoid playing things too over-the-top. “I didn’t want the character to be a typical bitchy queen. He had to be human, to be real. I didn’t want to go too camp with it. It’s a fine balance, playing the female side of yourself and not being too camp. With a film like this, subtlety is really important.”
Siddiqi says being an actor associated with trans roles is not something that’s ever bothered or hindered him. He acknowledges that some gay actors find themselves having to hide who they are – in some cases even going back into the closet to try to protect their career trajectory. “I’ve tended to use who I am as my strength. I’ve never hid who I am, and I’m never going to. I can play male or female roles. I can see how for some actors, they might struggle with it. But I’m a crossdresser and I’m effeminate. I’m not one of those people who they’re going to cast in a straight role in action movies or as a romantic lead.”
Siddiqi assumes a philosophical approach that many anxious actors should consider adopting themselves. “I’m fine being myself. I go to the auditions and I do the best I can. I leave the perceptions up to others. I don’t think sexuality should be an issue. It’s meant to be a fun business. And I’d like to think people in the business are open-minded, but let’s face it, there are narrow-minded people everywhere. Even a lot of gay and lesbian people can be narrow-minded, too.”
Marjara says Siddiqi is “fantastic” to work with and is especially happy that House for Sale is getting such a great response on the film fest circuit. She has just returned from the Out in the Desert LGBT Film Festival in Tucson, Arizona, where her film won the Crystal Cactus Award for Best Trans Short. “What a terrific, heart-warming community they have there,” she says.
Siddiqi reports that he and Marjara were on the same page in terms of bringing his character, and the romantic dilemma he faces, to life. “We wanted to humanize this story and to bring my character a bit of dignity. He’s not a stereotype or a caricature. I actually didn’t care if he was gay or trans or whatever. When my friends came to see the film they had that reaction too – they felt like you cared about the character, and that was what they said was so refreshing about the film.”