Waleed Zuaiter commands the role of “Koba” in Season 2 of “Gangs of London,” playing a mobster bully who strikes fear in the hearts of all that dare oppose him, but in recent years, the talented actor and producer had suffered with backpain resulting from historic surgery, exacerbated by long shoots and standing for hours at a time between takes. In order to make “Koba” a convincing villain, Zuaiter, who is known to millions for his performances in “Altered Carbon” and “Baghdad Central” would need to fix his posture before standing tall as one of the most alpha television characters of 2022. M&F sat down with the Arab-American star of stage and screen to find out how he did just that.
“Some of it is, like, presence, I think,” Zuaiter explains of taking a character and making it dominate any scene. “I’ve always been told on stage, and I come from theatre, that I have a big presence on stage. I think screen presence is similar. When you are playing a character that is larger than life, and has this barbarity in terms of their childhood, and brutality, and gang culture, there’s a muscularity that comes with that.” Still, at 51-years-young, and having spent decades treading the boards and making movies, Zuaiter’s charismatic presence was being threatened by lingering back pain.
How Waleed Zuaiter Got (his) Back in Shape with Pilates
“It’s probably the best physical training I’ve done,” says Zuaiter of his Pilates journey. “It started because I had a herniated disc and I had back surgery. The physical therapy that I did was Pilates based, and what it taught me was that the support of all the smallest muscles that are connected to your spine, those are the most important to strengthen because what it does is it creates a natural brace for your abdominals. It’s like wearing a back brace but it’s all the thin layer of muscles that are closest to your spine and then it turned into, ‘oh’, this is the best way to get in shape for any role that I do.”
Pilates is an exercise undertaken to improve an individuals’ core strength, stability, and flexibility. It can be similar to Yoga in that you stretch and build strength through various exercises and positions. Then there is Reformer Pilates, this takes place on a bed-like frame that acts a piece of training apparatus, allowing for further stretching and resistance. “It just builds your confidence levels in terms of feeling very grounded, stable, and strong,” says Zuaiter. “Because for me, it just comes down to the fact that I don’t want to be injured, and I
want to be totally free to be able to do whatever is called upon me, or comes into my mind at that moment. For that, it’s about flexibility and mobility. As you get older, it’s really about that, and about stretching and finding that physical comfort so that you can kind of take risks. Every time that I’m done on the reformer, I literally have to roll off, I’m so exhausted.”
How Waleed Zuaiter Portrayed Koba as an Alpha Male in Gangs of London Season 2
“For me it was just, like, how do I physically embody this character so it’s believable that I am a gangster,” shares the talented actor. “And not only that I’m a gangster, but I grew up in a gangster culture, and for me that was about getting into shape physically and accentuating what I have physically, and so for me, wearing a tank top was part of that. In reading the description of the character, the mental image of animals came to mind because it was a very primal character. The description said that Koba at his essence is either predator or prey. I just had this image of a wild beast and for some reason, it was a leopard that came to mind. So that kind of inspired the hair and so when we got into the wardrobe, I wanted to show as much ‘cleavage’ (laughs) and chest hair as possible. To just kinda get that animalistic sense about the character.”
With his confidence restored, Zuaiter was able to collaborate with the Gangs of London stunt team, including coordinator Tim Connolly, who he had previously worked with during the making of “London Has Fallen” and “Altered Carbon,” to get in on the action even where the script hadn’t called for it. “When we had that scene in the boxing ring, it did not say that Koba punches Luan,” shares the actor. “It says that Koba gestures to one of his guys to punch him. I was like, instinctively, I wanna be in the ring. Koba is the kind of guy that wants to be the center of attention. He peacocks, wherever he goes.” Feeling Koba’s energy, Zuaiter suggested that rather than having a henchman punch Luan, he should do it instead. They nailed it one take.
So, what is the secret to throwing a great on-screen punch? “Really, it’s all in the hips and the feet,” says Zuaiter. “You get your power from where you are grounded because it all travels from your feet. The hip is the biggest muscle that is giving you that swing. So, once you get the actual posture down in terms of where you need to be for the right camera angle, it’s all about selling it. You’ll need to come up a little more (with your arm, to exaggerate) the hook. It’s like a dance.”
Season one of the BAFTA winning series, “Gangs of London” is available to stream through AMC+ in the United States and Sky TV internationally.