Leem Lubany is sitting across from me in an over-the-top French bistro in New York City's East Village. Her freshly cut hair—a trendy, wavy lob—is a departure from her usual long locks and can be seen as a transition of sorts from star of foreign films, to just plain star. You might have seen her in Omar, which was nominated for an Oscar, From A to B (a Hangover-esque film about an epic road trip in the Middle East), or in Bill Murray's Rock the Kasbah, which came out last month. But if she doesn't look familiar to you now, she probably will soon.
"As a person—as an actress—I always judge myself," she says, taking a sip of water. "Always tell yourself you can do better, even if you've already done well." This is rare composure from someone who has only recently finished shooting her third film; she's only 19, but you'd never know it.
Rock the Kasbah is a comedy that follows Bill Murray's character, Richie Lanz, to Kabul in Afghanistan. Lanz, a music manager, is hoping to send his only client on a USO tour with the hope of making them both some money. When his client runs back to the United States with all his money and passport, Lanz is left stranded with no real agenda. But the heart of the movie is a story that's barely hinted at in the trailer: it's the story of Salima, a young woman who dreams of singing professionally although it's forbidden for a Pashtun woman to do so. When Lanz stumbles upon Salima singing, he makes it his mission to make her famous by having her perform on the American Idol-like Afghan Star.
Salima, played by Lubany, was loosely inspired by two Afghan women who competed on Afghan Star. Setara Hussainzada, whose headscarf fell off onstage while performing, and Lima Sahar, a Pashtun woman like Salima who made it to third place but was accused of betraying her community and religion in her pursuit of stardom. Both have received death threats.
"Bill came up to me and said 'Leem. Do. Not. Move.'"
"I was really fascinated by the fact that it was based on a true story," says Lubany. "I found out when I was doing the scene where I was singing onstage. Bill came up to me and said 'Leem. Do. Not. Move.' He told me the whole story and I was shocked." She pauses for a second and looks down at her lap. "Setara and Salima are so courageous to do that—to know what they want and know there are going to be consequences, but [to] just go for it."
Although perhaps the least emphasized, Salima's story line of women's rights in Pakistan and gaining the respect of her country is one of the most compelling aspects of the movie. "What I really loved about this specific script," says Lubany, "was that it was talking about that side of Pakistan, what women can and cannot do, and how important their bravery and courage is."
Soon you may see her on the small screen in the (still only rumored) role of a young widower on Game of Thrones. Whatever happens in Westeros (or, you know, whatever it's called), Lubany's star is definitely rising. Born in Nazareth, in northern Israel, she is thinking of moving to New York to "learn theater, maybe" and "wander around": "That's the way I like to travel," she says. "You get to see so much."
For Lubany, acting is not about being comfortable. "I want to be challenged," she says. "I want to discover something about myself that I didn't know."
Stylist: Helen Rendell. Hair: Jerome Cultrera. Makeup: Mark Edio. Photo Assistant: Steven Tang