Oscar Salem | Acting, Empathy, and the Art of Storytelling
Lifestyle3 Minutes Read

Oscar Salem | Acting, Empathy, and the Art of Storytelling

February 1, 2024 Share

DDW sits with BBC Vigil’s Oscar Salem to discuss the intricacies of the acting world, tennis and fantasy fiction.

Oscar Salem was halfway through a bicep curl at the gym when his agent rang with the news. He’d snagged a part in BBC’s “Vigil,” the drama that somehow outdid its own stellar first season in round two. There he was, muscles flexing, attempting to play it cool while, internally, he was probably doing cartwheels. “Probably” is key here—during our chat I get the impression that Oscar’s knack for looking composed and put together is nothing short of award-worthy.

As a teenager, Salem felt more at home in the drama department than in a math class. “I was never very good in school. I didn’t like academics. It did not hold my interest, nor did I put in any effort to try to get better.” He tells me. “What I did have at school, though, was a was a very thriving drama department.”

And with this drama department to thank, Salem began his acting career at a youth group production of Les Miserables. He talks about it fondly; the excitement of meeting new people, the talent, and most importantly: discovering the concept of drama school. “I looked into that very quickly and then I was like, yeah, okay, I want to study this. But if I’m gonna do this, I want to do it right.”

And so he did.

It becomes apparent very early in our conversation that Oscar Salem is very passionate about what he does. He tells me acting, to him, is all about storytelling, and speaks about it as an educational tool to learn about the world, and to reflect on being a human. It seems the profession has taken the actor on his own share of personal discoveries too, a maze Salem navigates with impressive consciousness. “I don’t want to say it has increased my empathy, but it’s helped me understand empathy a little more.” He tells me.

And it is this very concept that Salem tapped into in preparing for his role as Captain Sattam Abdul Kader in Vigil.

In the gripping second season of the show, the narrative takes a dramatic shift from the confines of a submarine to the expansive and complex world of drone warfare. The show, known for its intense and intricate storytelling, unfolds a new chapter where DCI Amy Silva, portrayed by Suranne Jones, and DI Kirsten Longacre, played by Rose Leslie, find themselves entangled in a high-stakes investigation. When talking about his character, Salem speaks of him fondly.

“He’s fiercely loyal and he’s incredibly brave. He was raised in a culture and environment where it is incredibly difficult to be yourself as authentically as possible. I would say it was an environment that was very defensive for him to grow up in, and there was a lot of challenges that he would have had to navigate throughout that. So I guess researching the part, that kind of real lived experience and culture, was quite eyeopening because it definitely educated me on what that situation and lifestyle would actually be like in real life. So there was a lot to unpack there. There was a lot for me to learn and understand.”

Image courtesy of Eric Frideen

But who is Oscar Salem beyond the scripts and the spotlight? Apparently, amongst other things, a tennis nerd. Oscar confesses to being the type who’ll rise at ungodly hours to catch the Australian Open or brave a chilly minus 4 degrees just to play a match. Even when filming on a military airbase in Morocco, his tennis gear is a staple in his luggage. You’ve got to admire his dedication; the man is unmistakably committed.

While we never directly broach the subject, I’m convinced Oscar Salem is on a quest to devour every fantasy novel in existence, judging by the sprawling bookshelf that serves as his backdrop during our conversation. He shares that fantasy novels ignite his inner child, a spark he deems crucial because “acting is pretend and we pretend when we’re children”.

On the topic of pretend, I ask Salem what is perhaps the most cliché interview question of all times. I ask Salem to name three dream dinner guests, dead or alive. His response is unexpectedly touching: Elvis, to honor his father’s hero; his brother, who is both his best friend and personal hero; and Hailey Williams from Paramore, his inaugural crush. We both agree the latter is a particularly commendable choice.

Image courtesy of Eric Frideen

Our conversation winds down, but Oscar’s story is far from over. As the call ends, Oscar Salem leaves an impression not just as an actor of notable talent, but as a storyteller who finds as much meaning in the roles he plays as in the life he leads off-screen. Against the backdrop of scripted scenarios and theatrical settings, Oscar’s genuine nature and enthusiasm for life stand out, and we finish off on advice he would give to anyone looking to follow his acting footsteps.

“Make sure that you really want to do this as a job. Understand how much of yourself that you have to give, and kind of how much you have to sacrifice in order to do it, because this job is a grind and there are no guarantees at all.”

You can find Oscar Salem on Instagram, and watch Vigil on BBC iPlayer.

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