The Queer Palestinian Character Changing TV

Omar Ayuso, who shares the same name as his character, is a pillar of the teen telenovela Elite. He’s been around since the first season of Netflix’s Spanish hit, captivating viewers via his tender romance with heartthrob Ander, played by Arón Piper, and the jarring disapproval his character faces in his Muslim household.  

Elite, created by Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona, premiered its seventh season Oct. 20, with Ayuso reprising his role. The series, which announced an eighth and final season over the summer, marks Netflix Spain’s longest-running fictional series. 

Although set at a fictional high school, Las Encinas, in Madrid, most of the action takes place beyond the school’s walls. Sultry love triangles, masquerade parties, ill-kept secrets, and murder mysteries make up the show’s backbone, except for the occasional locker room chat or in-class party invite. Ayuso entered the Elite empire as a closeted teen and the son of Palestinian Muslim immigrants who criticized his attraction to prospective tennis champ Ander. His academically driven sister, Nadia, played by Mina El Hammani, received a scholarship to Las Encinas and later left for college in New York. (Nadia is expected to return in Season Eight.)

In Season Seven, Ayuso’s character is struggling with the loss of his friend Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), who died in his arms, and seeks therapy and prescription medication for his depression. The new season also features a carousel of new cast members, including sex-obsessed Chloe (Mirela Balić), emotional nuisance Eric (Gleb Abrosimov), Omar’s new love interest Joel (Fernando Líndez), and pop star Anitta guest-starring as the school’s self-defense coach. 

As a mainstay of the high school soap opera (minus Season Six), Ayuso talks to Rolling Stone about the similarities he shares with his queer Palestinian character and the onscreen representation he longed for as a child. 

How does it feel to be back on Netflix’s Elite?
I can compare it with coming back to your parents’ home. There’s this wonderful side where you get [to see] your teenage room. I compare this to coming back to the same crew, the same sets where we shoot and where it all feels like family, but there’s also this negative side, when you come back to your parents’ home. You somehow go back in time and become a careless person, a rude person sometimes. In the show, some insecurities that you thought would be over come back, too.

[embedded content]

What emotional things are coming back? 
Coming back to Elite, it’s a giant. It’s humongous. You wonder, well, you come back to the millions and billions of people that will actually see the show, the tweets that it will generate, the messages it will generate, you come back to people judging you physically. You wonder whether you have the right physical balance that is shown in the show. So, all these things make you struggle from an emotional side.

We’re in a difficult time right now with the Israel-Hamas conflict, and you play a Palestinian character. How do you feel about the ongoing war and for those who are being mercilessly killed?
I feel deeply sorry for any kind of death of innocent civilians. I have publicly defended the Palestinian people, but I think defending Palestinians doesn’t mean defending Hamas or criticizing the Israelis. Criticizing the Israeli government doesn’t mean you’re criticizing the Israeli people or country. In addition to this, there’s such huge disinformation and manipulation from the media, geopolitical interests, but what I can only say is that I really hurt for any kind of death.

Are you also Palestinian?
Just my character. My mom is Spanish but my father is Moroccan.


Omar Ayuso as Omar in Netflix’s seventh season of ‘Elite.’

Matías Uris/Netflix

Omar is in an emotionally vulnerable place in Season Seven and begins the season in a therapy session asking to go back on prescription medication. Where is your character compared to earlier seasons? 
The special thing about this season is that I start working from a psychological conflict: the mental illness he suffers from. The place he’s in and his development throughout the show has been the most stimulating part for me. I have the emotional and physical language to perform that because I have been there. I have been able to overcome depression. So, having had the chance of working on the character now is something I maybe wouldn’t have been able to do before. Playing the sex and love scenes is not as complicated as you may think and [it’s] way more complicated trying to convey what he feels and his addiction to benzodiazepines and his suicide attempts. 

Before Netflix shows like Heartstopper and Young Royals, Elite was one of the first Netflix dramas to center queer stories. How does it feel to have helped pioneer LGBT representation on streamers?
When you are representing a minority that has been a minority throughout history — and when you grow up and discover your identity — you try to shape it. It’s really helpful to have role models you can relate to, when you can see that this is normal, that there is a future for you. I think the current generation has many, many more role models than I did 20 years ago, than my mom did 50 years ago, or even my grandma 80 years ago. So, yeah, I think it looks like we’re on the right track.