The origins of a crudely made anti-Muslim movie that sparked violent protests in Egypt and Libya began to slowly emerge on Wednesday, with an actress in the California production saying she was duped and was unaware it was about the Prophet Mohammad.
Cindy Lee Garcia of Bakersfield, California, who appears briefly in clips of the film posted online, said she answered a casting call last year to appear in a movie titled "Desert Warrior."
"It looks so unreal to me, it's like nothing that we even filmed was there. There was all this weird stuff there," Garcia told Reuters in a phone interview.
Clips of the movie, posted on YouTube under several titles including "Innocence of Muslims," portrayed the Muslim prophet engaged in crude and offensive behavior. Many Muslims consider any depiction of the prophet as blasphemous.
Clips had been posted online for weeks before apparently triggering violent demonstrations on Tuesday at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The Americans died after gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate and a safe house refuge in Benghazi in an attack U.S. government officials said on Wednesday may have been planned in advance. The attackers were part of a crowd blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
Garcia said the film was shot in the summer of 2011 inside a church near Los Angeles, with actors standing in front of a "green screen," used to depict background images. About 50 actors were involved, she said.
An expired casting notice at Backstage.com listed a film named "Desert Warrior" that it described as a low-budget "historical Arabian Desert adventure film." None of the characters were identified in the casting call as Mohammad.
"They told me it was based on what it was like 2,000 years ago at the time of the Lord," Garcia said. "Like the time Christ was here."
Several U.S. news organizations on Tuesday night had reported that the film was produced by a man who identified himself as an Israeli-American property developer, Sam Bacile. He had told the media organizations that the film cost $5 million, some of which was paid by around 100 Jewish donors.
Reuters could not independently confirm his responsibility for the film, or even that Bacile was his real name, nor could he be located for comment.
The Backstage.com casting call listed a man of a similar name, Sam Bassiel, as the producer, while the director was named as Alan Roberts. Roberts could not be immediately located by Reuters.
Steven Klein, a southern California man in the insurance business who described himself as a consultant and a spokesman for the project - but not the filmaker - said he believed the name was a pseudonym.
"I've met him twice, I don't know what country he's from. I do know he's not an Israeli Jew and I can only guess he threw that out to protect his family, which I do know is back in the Middle East," Klein told Reuters in an interview in front of his home in Hemet, California, as he sipped a beer.
Klein, who described himself as a former U.S. Marine, said he advised the filmmaker to go into hiding.
Hate-group tracker the Southern Poverty Law Center has described Klein as a Christian with ties to right-wing extremists, which he denies. He said he did not see the film being made, and it could not be independently confirmed that Klein was involved with the project.
The largely obscure English-language film's low production values were evident in its stilted dialogue and wooden acting. Klein said there was an attempt to screen the full movie at a theater in southern California under a slightly different title, but after 30 minutes into the film no tickets had been sold.
Garcia, who appeared in online clips from the film, said her character was forced to give away her child to a character named "Master George" in one scene. The casting call describes a character named George as a "strong leader" and a "tyrant."
But in a 13-minute trailer posted at YouTube.com, Garcia's character appears to be dubbed over in that scene, with a voice-over for her character referring to Mohammad instead of George.
YouTube, the video website owned by Google Inc, has restricted access to the film clips in Egypt and Libya, according to Google.
Garcia said she remembered the film's producer as a man named Sam Bassil, whom she described as an older man with graying hair and an accent. She said he paid her with a check. She said she called him on Wednesday after the protests.
"I asked him why did he do that and put me in a bad position to where all these people get killed for a movie I was in?" Garcia said, adding that the man she knew as Bassil told her it was not her fault.
Meanwhile, Morris Sadek, a U.S.-based Egyptian Coptic Christian activist who said he promoted the film, told Reuters he was sorry U.S. diplomats had been killed and that his objective had been to highlight discrimination against Copts in Egypt.
Coptic Christians, who form Egypt's biggest minority group and constitute most of Egypt's Christian population, have had a difficult relationship with the country's overwhelmingly Muslim majority.
Conflicts over conversions, cross-faith romances and church-building have flared in Egyptian towns where turf wars or family rivalries often loom as large as sectarian loyalties.
Since former President Hosni Mubarak's removal, Christians have become increasingly worried after a surge in attacks on churches, which they blame on hardline Islamists, though experts say local disputes are often also behind them.
Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church has condemned some Copts living abroad who it said had financed "the production of a film insulting Prophet Mohammad."
Representatives from the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America did not immediately respond to phone calls requesting comment.
Klein blamed the violence in North Africa on Muslim extremists.
"Do I have blood on my hands? No," said Klein, who the SPLC said has worked with a militia at the California-based Church at Kaweah and conducts drills with a San Francisco-based group named Christian Guardians.
"Those people are screwballs," Klein said of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He added he is not "what these people say."