Michael Cassidy and Director Mike Mosallam on Making Space for Gay Muslims in 'Breaking Fast' (Exclusive)

'Let this movie hug their wounded little souls and let them know they are not alone.'

Director Mike Mosallam knows that there are people who will take issue with his new movie sight unseen: Breaking Fast is a romantic comedy about Mo (Haaz Sleiman), a practicing Muslim struggling to navigate single life in L.A. following a breakup. Then he meets Kal (Michael Cassidy), a hunky actor who offers to spend the month breaking fast with him, and Mo must navigate his budding feelings while still honoring the holy holiday of Ramadan.

Mosallam was inspired by years spent swooning over Julia Roberts rom-coms and wanted to make one of his own -- "if, in fact, she was a gay, Muslim, Arab man living in West Hollywood." However, some aren't ready for a story about faith and sexuality where the two aren't mutually exclusive, and Mossalam is OK with that. It's also partially why he made the movie, for those young queer Muslim kids who aren't getting validation elsewhere in their lives. "Let this movie hug their wounded little souls and let them know they are not alone," he says.

Over Zoom, Mosallam talked to ET about making the rom-com he needed to see, while Cassidy discussed straight actors playing gay and falling in love with his co-stars.

ET: Mike, you've said your goal was to create a Julia Roberts rom-com, but in terms of coming up with Mo and the idea of the story that you wanted to tell here, where did you start?

Mike Mosallam: I was having coffee with Michael Lannan, who was the creator of Looking, and he was sort of questioning and probing me about who best represents me or my journey within the landscape of film and TV. And I really could not think of an answer, which was very sad to me. I remember saying to him exactly what I wrote in the movie, which is that most gays don't get down with God and most Muslims don't get down with gays, and he said, "You should write it." So, I wrote a script which became a short that ultimately went to Cannes and my producing partner and I saw the response to it, people were saying, "What happens next? What happened to Mo and Kal? We want to know!" And we hadn't thought about it or thought about writing a feature version, but from there we started developing and writing and here we are.

What were some of the things you were most excited to expand upon from the short?

Mosallam: The short really takes place in their very first night together, from the moment they meet through the end of their night of walking and talking. And it ends sort of ambiguously. Will they be friends? Will it be more romantic? But we also set up this great convention with the short being the first night of Ramadan, and we thought, well, what happens if you slow burn getting to know somebody over the entire month, if you remove the prospect of getting to know them through physical intimacy and really have to invest in talking and asking questions and letting your guard down? When we meet somebody that piques our interest, we all bring forth the best version of ourselves to paint the perfect picture and then slowly but surely the real dude comes out. So, what happens if over 30 days, you couldn't sleep with somebody and you just have to be yourself?

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Michael, what was the initial pitch you got for this? And what was it that spoke to you, that made you want to be a part of this?

Michael Cassidy: I read the script first before I ever met Mike. I felt like I understood Kal, but ultimately, it's so funny and it's funny in a way that feels very real to me, that it's grounded in the sort of embarrassing but also high-stakes nature of getting to know someone. And then at the same time, the second half of the script really hits home. Like Mike said, that veneer that you put up, you can only keep it up for so long, and these two men really get to know things about each other very quickly. That just feels like intimacy to me, that you can't get to where you want to go in a relationship without all of the sort of sideway stuff coming in and making itself known, and at the same time, it's very funny and fun to try and hide it for as long as you can. [Laughs]

For a movie like this to work, the chemistry between you and Haaz has to work. Was there a moment where you realized, "OK, this will work. It's there."

Cassidy: Yeah. The first time we rehearsed in Mike's apartment and sitting across from him at the table -- a very pre-pandemic experience of, like, we're all two feet from each other in someone else's home -- and I remember looking up at him when he's making a joke and laughing at it and him looking at me, like, "Now it's your line." I was just taking him in and I remember thinking this guy has such an earnestness that is at the core of Mo. Like, a man of faith. It's what I appreciate about people who have such strong faith, and Haaz has that. I don't know how you would characterize his personal faith, but Haaz has this conviction about the way things go down, and I felt it in him at the table and I was, "Oh my god, this is such a fun thing to push around and crack through and play with." And still, every time I see him, I haven't stopped trying to mess with him and make him laugh and just make him like me, obviously.

There is always the discussion about which actors should be playing which roles. In casting Michael and, Michael, in accepting this role, was that something you two had to discuss or something you considered?

Cassidy: I think there's sort of two conversations here. Speaking personally, first and foremost, my relationship to my work is that I have yet to have a romantic offscreen relationship with anyone that I have an on-screen relationship with. So, my relationship to Haaz in this film, actor to actor, is the same as the romantic comedy that I filmed right before I did this one. My work is the same. My job is to fall in love with Haaz. He's an easy person to fall in love with. I fell in love with Mike and I fell in love with the script and all of that love expresses itself in my work. That being said, it is extremely important to me that people who feel underrepresented are represented in film and television. Period, end of story. What I can do about that is to tell stories that I personally find really interesting and to try and put art out into the world that helps people feel seen and represented, and that's what I feel this film is. That's how I can participate in that.

Mosallam: Yeah, I think it's an important question. It's a nuanced question. It's tricky, because both sides of the argument are absolutely valid, right? I would be very nervous if we, culturally, started to emphasize that only gay men could play gay roles. Somebody could easily say only straight men can play straight roles, and that would scare me and is also not true and shouldn't be the case. When you are as fine and accomplished an actor as someone like Michael Cassidy, you should be able to. Now, I will also say on the flip side of that, I would hope that efforts are made to see and include and have and give an opportunity for all actors to put their best foot forward, and that is something that we absolutely, definitely did do. And frankly, the reality of the story is Michael Cassidy, in a Zoom meeting similar to this, charmed me so unbelievably much in the way that I wanted the world to experience Kal. There was something in my heart that felt that he really needed to play this role.

And I think Michael's being slightly humble, so I'll tell this one story about him. Haaz was definitely a little nervous when it came time to film the kiss. And I don't know why. I've never done one, but I'm sure intimate moments like that with all the camera and the lighting and people around must feel uncomfortable. And Haaz started to get nervous and the most loving, sweet Michael put his hands on Haaz's shoulders, and he said, "I have never loved a co-star any differently than how I love you in this moment. I'm in love with you." And then they kissed. We all cried and it was magic and how could you say we made a wrong choice? We made the perfect choice!

Cassidy: I would want to talk about this for an hour. There's another piece to this too, which is that I would not say at 37 years old that my sexual identity is more decided now. Like, I enjoyed kissing Haaz very much and have no problem with that whatsoever. I'm also in a very comfortable long-term [relationship]. I don't want to put to the side the question of representation, but I do have to say, personally, that my sexual preferences are sort of existing on the same spectrum that we're hoping people in the LGBTQ community are seeing. Do you understand what I'm saying?

Yes, absolutely.

Mosallam: Every single person heard that! I'm speaking for myself only, and it was, like, "I got a shot! All right!"

Cassidy: You do! You do have a shot. If you had played Mo, we would have made out.

If you get cast opposite Michael Cassidy, you might have a shot of him falling in love with you.

Cassidy: That's right!

Mosallam: Breaking Faster, here we come. [Laughs]

For me, I think so much of the conversation is about opportunities that are available, so I also think it's so cool that Haaz is going from this and will next be in a big, huge Marvel movie with Eternals.

Cassidy: Totally.

Mosallam: And speaking of that, Haaz and Amin El Gamal, our number one and our number three [on the call sheet], are out, gay Arab, Muslim actors playing out, gay Arab, Muslim. That stuff rarely is happening, and to have these two actors who are in the threshold of this lived experience that we're trying to do in the movie is what makes it feel so real. Because for them, for me, for us as a community, it is very real.

Let's talk about the reception the film has gotten so far, but I want to get the negative out of the way first. We debuted the trailer for this and in the response on Twitter, there was quite a bit of backlash and homophobia and just hatred. Mike, how have you managed to navigate that part of it?

Mosallam: I'm assuming the comments that you're reading are specifically from the Muslim community, so it's important to say for myself and just out loud, the Muslim community is in fact not a community. It's not a monolith, right? There are hundreds of communities under the umbrella. I am choosing to focus on the communities that are going to see themselves reflected back in this film, who need a film like this to exist to make a conversation that they need to have a little easier. And I don't say any of this lightly and there's still a big part of me that is not entirely convinced that I deserve it, but to hear people say to me, "Thank you for allowing me to see myself reflected back." So yes, there are communities within the community that are going to be vitriolic, but I'm not talking to them. I'm not here for them. I'm not interested in changing their mind, because their mind is never going to be changed. I am here for all of the people who are begging for content like this, that gives them a sense of a place where they belong.

And I would rather focus on the positive. Do you each have a most meaningful interaction with someone who's seen the film, whether telling you about how it has affected them or sharing something about themselves?

Cassidy: I was touched that one or two people at the Outfest Fusion Q&A just grabbed the mic and said, "This is my story. I've never seen it told before." To be clear, I grew up with my story, which isn't my story -- it's the story of whiteness that overwhelms everything -- being told. Like, all the doctors are white on this TV show, so white doctors must be a thing. I grew up with that, and at the same time, it always felt like a lie to me. That sort of disconnect that is white supremacy is something that all of us grow up with, white or otherwise, and this film takes it as a given, that white supremacy is the water we swim in and not necessarily the rule going forward. For people to see a film in a theater, it's 90 minutes of their life, and grab a microphone and say, "This is extremely meaningful to me. This is what it looks like," is everything. It's literally everything to me. I already spent the money. That gift is everything.

Mosallam: And listen, here's the reality, right? The idea of taking the structure of a Julia Roberts-esque rom-com and laying it out as a structure and then just simply saying, "Oh, look, this white girl is being replaced by this brown man. Cool." I'm not crazy. Like, I understand that that is simple stuff. What is more complex and nuanced within just what I said is that the brown boy watching is literally seeing it for the first time. It's the same concept of, take the white man off the cape, put the cape on a Black man and the Black kids are going, "Oh my god, that's possible." It's so silly and simple, but it's so impactful. And, sure, people can hate this film. Fine. But there will be a small -- well, hopefully not small -- population that will say, "Oh my god, this one's for me." And in the pantheon of things that haven't been for them, let this one be for them, and that's OK.

Breaking Fast is now available digitally and on demand.