Almost two decades ago, I remember watching the trailer for the now forgotten Joaquin Phoenix dark comedy, Buffalo Soldiers. The quick image of an imposing middle-aged man yelling at Phoenix’s character stuck in my mind. Where did I know this actor from? As much as I tried, I could not place him in my mental library of American films. Then it finally dawned on me the second I randomly thought of a handful of Turkish movies—it was Haluk Bilginer, one of the most beloved, versatile actors in Turkish theater, film and television. How could I not recognize the face I practically grew up with, either as the heavy-handed lead in prestige dramas on the silver screen, or as the unabashedly goofy presence in a series of massively popular sit-coms (including the Turkish versions of The Odd Couple and The Jeffersons)? Alas, I had been so conditioned to never expect Turkish faces in American cinema, that my brain could not register Bilginer as occupying the same frame as Joaquin Phoenix.
It turns out that Bilginer actually has been appearing in American and other English-language films since the mid-’80s, along with his better known recurring parts in TV shows, like a character named Mehmet on a whopping 67 episodes in the quintessential English soap, Eastenders. Bilginer’s international clout saw a boost with his illustrious lead performance as the surly hotel owner in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2014 Palme D’or winner, Winter Sleep. This resulted in an explosion of tiny to fairly large supporting parts in English American films. To celebrate Bilginer’s biggest role to date in a Hollywood production, as the “new Dr. Loomis” in David Gordon Green’s impressive 2018 edition of Halloween, let’s dive into the most prominent of his English-speaking roles in western cinema, in chronological order.
Bilginer plays the ruthless leader of Moroccan guerillas trying to overthrow the tyrannical government in Elaine May’s fairly maligned box-office bomb. The purpose of his character is to give motivation to Isabella Adjani’s idealist freedom fighter to save the lives of the two bumbling songwriters (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) who are to be sacrificed as political pawns for the cause. With the handful of lines he’s given, Bilginer makes the most of his role by creating a character who doesn’t find much pleasure in condemning two innocent men to death, but also recognizes that some ugly decisions are necessary for the greater good. Unfortunately, his first role in a Hollywood film turned out to be an industry punchline. To add insult to injury, his name is also misspelled as Haluk Belginer in the credits.
In Franklin J. Shaffner’s mostly forgotten medieval adventure, Bilginer’s role is pretty insignificant. As his part states, he plays a merchant haggling with Eric Stoltz’s knight. He sports a bushy beard and apparently was told to employ the thickest accent possible—that’s pretty much it.
We jump 14 years into the future to find Bilginer’s next Hollywood role. He kept busy in between, starring in numerous award winning Turkish films, two successful sit-coms, and appearing in English television with the aforementioned part in Eastenders, as well as in Omar Sherif TV movie called Memories of Midnight. In Buffalo Soldiers, Bilginer’s credited simply as The Turk. (Imagine such little representation in Hollywood that a character’s title can simply refer to his nationality.) The Turk is a gangster who buys stolen weapons from Joaquin Phoenix’s shady soldier. The story takes place in Germany, which is full of Turkish immigrants, hence the connection. With slicked-back hair and a thousand-yard stare, Bilginer embodies the intensity of the generic Turkish mobster during his brief screen time.
Another Turkish gangster in another shady arms deal plot, this time in Tom Tykwer’s underrated action/thriller, The International (See the terrific shootout sequence in the Guggenheim museum.) Even though his part as a mob boss involved in the international arms deal is shorter than his screen time in Buffalo Soldiers, his character is graciously given an actual name this time around. There isn’t much to this character, other than looking intimidating and menacing, a gear that Bilginer, known for playing such characters in Turkish cinema as well, can capture in his sleep.
Madonna’s long forgotten Julie & Julia-style melodrama, switching back and forth between a period royal romance and a present-day woman (Abbie Cornish) who’s obsessed with it, culminates in Cornish’s character trying to track down the salacious love letters from that romance. Bilginer’s character is a millionaire who owns the letters, which results in a scene with Cornish where they argue over whether or not such intimate material should be treated the same way as art or antiques that were meant to be sold. With his one short scene, Bilginer manages to convey that his character truly cares about what he has acquired, and is not in the game simply to own priceless artifacts.
In The Reluctant Fundementalist, Bilginer’s monologue succinctly communicates the themes of director Mira Nair’s meditation on Islamic terrorism. Sitting across from Riz Ahmed’s Changez, a Palestinian-American conflicted between his differing ideological commitments, Bilginer’s Turkish character tells him about Janissaries, Christian kids taken in by the Ottoman Empire to be trained to fight against their own culture. This small but important part captures Changez’s inner conflict with searing depth and understanding.
In his largest role in an American movie to date, Bilginer plays the father of the protagonist, an Iranian journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) imprisoned under suspicion of being a spy simply because he gave an interview to The Daily Show. Jon Stewart’s sole directorial effort thus far, an empathy-filled attempt to examine the pain his show inadvertently caused, is predictably full of Bernal’s character wasting away alone in a jail cell. In order to add some dramatic content to these scenes, Stewart has the journalist imagine conversations with his father, also a victim of draconian political punishment, as a way of visualizing the protagonist’s inner conflict regarding sticking to one’s principals versus saving one’s skin. Bilginer, whom I’ve known mainly for his typical Turkish demeanor and accent, completely disappears in the role and sells himself as a natural Iranian. It might not seem so to westerners, but there are vast differences in the ways Turks and Iranians, especially men, carry themselves. In this emotionally potent and important role, Bilginer shows himself to be a powerful presence in English-language parts.
Unfortunately, we slide back to a nothing role that’s a step above a background extra. In this case, that’s a blessing in disguise for Bilginer, since no one wants to be associated with Timur Bekmambetov’s gaudy and financially disastrous remake of perhaps the most legendary epic in Hollywod history. Bilginer plays the father of Esther (Nazanin Boniady), the love interest of the film’s title character (Jack Huston). He gets a couple of throwaway lines here and there, and is summarily killed off before the first act is even over. To add insult to injury, once again his name is misspelled in the credits—this time as Haluk Biligner.
This laughably maudlin Turkish-American co-production is primarily known, if known at all, for its whitewashing of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire. Bilginer’s role is that of a no-fucks-given commander during World War I, delivering a monologue about how the Turks will stand the test of time long after the American empire is turned to dust. Did he predict the rise of Trump a century before? The writing contains such silly grandstanding, that I fully expected it to end with a freeze frame, a joint in Bilginer’s mouth, and “Thug Life” draped across the screen. I’ll give Bilginer this much credit—he fully commits to his craft even in the face of such unintentional buffoonery.
German director Margarethe von Trotta’s first English-language film is a passable comedy that plays out like a scaled-down chamber piece version of The First Wives Club. It’s about two ex-wives (Katja Riemann and Ingrid Bolso Berdal) of a rich playboy named Nick (Bilginer) deciding to work together to reclaim their lives by sharing the same penthouse flat. Even though he’s the title character, Bilginer’s only in a handful of scenes, but he sells the somewhat sleazy but undeniable charismatic quality of the character well enough to make us understand what made these women fall in love with him in the first place. It’s also refreshing that the character wasn’t renamed simply because a Turkish actor was cast.
It’s hard to pinpoint the ethnicity of the “new Loomis” in the only legitimately good Michael Myers-based Halloween sequel made so far. Sartain certainly doesn’t sound like a Turkish name, but Bilginer’s character also sports a thick Middle Eastern accent. What’s certain is his character’s decades-long obsession with Michael Myers. Even so, it doesn’t explain his out of left field shift, a lame plot twist utilized solely as an excuse to get Michael to the climactic location. (But that’s hardly Bilginer’s fault.) Even though the two are pretty similar, Bilginer finds subtle ways in separating his character from Donald Pleasance’s iconic role. While Dr. Loomis was more afraid of Michael than in awe of him, Sartain chooses the opposite path.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.