Nazneen Contractor’s long, strange trip to ‘The Border’


November 5, 2008


Film | Individuals | Theater

As customs agent Layla Hourani on “The Border” — which airs Mondays on CBC Television — Nazneen Contractor is almost a genre of one.

Hourani defies both the Western stereotype of the submissive Muslim woman and the Muslim stereotype of the fast, loose Western female.

“Layla is someone who is assimilated and entrenched but still holds a lot of Islamic core values,” Contractor says. “I

think that makes her a very dynamic character and also makes for great moral issues on a show like ‘The Border.’ ”

Hourani is a young Muslim woman promoted quickly — some think too quickly — into an elite squad of Canada Customs inspectors.

And with the character, Contractor — along with Sitara Hewitt of “Little Mosque on the Prairie” — has helped create a new kind of TV heroine. It’s one that is a sharp contrast with most of the women we see on TV and in film. Hourani — like Hewitt’s Rayyan, a doctor — is liberated but traditional, beautiful but modest.

“There’s something really dignified and fantastic about being attractive or being sexually attractive in a very modest way,” Contractor says. “I love the fact that I don’t unbutton my shirt that low on ‘The Border.’ I love the fact that Layla dresses in quite a conservative manner.

“She has so much more to offer than that. Also, people aren’t staring at anything other than my face, which is kind of nice.”

Contractor is Parsi — Indian of Persian descent — and a Zoroastrian. Yet, she says, she grew up with Muslim friends and patterned Layla on them.

“My friends all have jobs. They live on their own. Some cover their heads. Some don’t. Most are devout.”

If it hadn’t been for chance, Contractor might not be on “The Border.” Until recently, she was headed for a profession. And until she was halfway through high school, she was on the road to being a dancer.

She was born in Mumbai and lived in Nigeria until she immigrated to Canada at the age of 10 in the early 1990s.

She had been studying ballet since she was very young. So when it came time for her to go to high school, she auditioned for the Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto’s west end.

“I had always wanted to be an actor, and I auditioned for the dance and drama,” she says. “And I got in for dance and not drama. But I realized as I got older that my life as a dancer had a ceiling on it. I didn’t have the physical anatomy required to be a prima ballerina.”

So she switched to acting, treating it as “a hobby.”

“I thought, ‘I’ll do this and go to school and become a lawyer.’ It was also a great way to make money.”

Then, when she was studying sociology and psychology (which she is now finishing) at the University of Toronto, she attended an audition for the Stratford Festival.

Artistic director Richard Monette was looking for “ethnic” actors to perform in a production of “The King and I.” Contractor got signed and ended up spending 2 1/2 years with the company– without appearing in the musical. However, she did have feature roles in such productions as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “As You Like It.”

“My whole life changed when I went there,” she says. “It was very intensive. I worked for 2 1/2 years straight. I did the conservatory between shows. It was the first time I had ever been paid to do theater.”

Contractor was set to go back for a third year in 2006 when CBS called and offered her a spot on “The Papdits,” by the people who produced “Da Ali G Show” and “Borat.” The comedy aired on CBS’ broadband network, Innertube.

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