The bar is ever so high when it comes to stars making the cut for eniGma’s coveted covers, especially with the growing number of young and promising talents bursting into the scene every year. That is why it is quite rare for us to pick a relatively new fresh face for our cover feature. But we do make an exception when it’s called for, as we’ve done for this issue with our choice of Adam Elsharkawy, or the infamous Big Zee, who melted the hearts of fangirls (and guys) as the bad boy-turned-good guy, in Lea’bet Newton (Newton’s Cradle) this past Ramadan. This Egyptian-American actor literally burst into our lives with his impressive performance opposite superstar Mona Zaki, earning our admiration and respect as a truly talented actor. With Elsharkawy prepping for some even bigger and more challenging roles in Egypt and abroad, eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham accompanied him on a memorable day in Cairo, during which he got to know the star, up close and personal.
fter a good 10 minutes of trying to find one another through Google Maps, Adam Elsharkawy and I finally managed to meet near his temporary apartment in Cairo, to head to our cover shoot location together in Heliopolis. Admittedly, I got my dad to drive us, because I didn’t want to risk an Uber mishap, nor to put the actor’s life in danger by taking the wheel myself! It was actually fun to watch my dad’s evolving reaction to Elsharkawy. He started out as the one in 100 million Egyptian citizens who had not heard of the breakout star and could not care less. Yet, he quickly became a fan after experiencing firsthand Elsharkawy’s fascinating charisma!
Dressed in black, from head-to-toe – tee, pants, bag and all, and cracking jokes from the moment he gets into the car, Elsharkawy comes through as naturally friendly and engaging, notwithstanding having just gone through some extremely tough circumstances. This young star has had one hell of a year – part good and part bad. While he became an overnight sensation in Egypt this past Ramadan, sadly he recently lost his father in the US and he found himself making the trip back to Egypt shortly thereafter to complete his father’s funeral procedures in the small Egyptian village where he’s originally from.
Born in Egypt, in a small village called Meniet El Morshed, Elsharkawy left Egypt when he was four years old after his family, in a whimsical turn of events, won the “travel lottery” and got the chance at a fresh start in America. “Along with my dad, my mom and my older brother, I moved to Anaheim, California, near Disneyland. I don’t remember a lot about Egypt, as after that I only came to Egypt once with my family for a two-week visit but we stayed in my hometown and I didn’t get to see Cairo. So, I didn’t get to really experience Egypt,” he recalls.
At the age of 20, Elsharkawy moved out of his parent’s house and went to LA to explore a future in the entertainment industry. “I had played the role of Romeo in a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at university and I thought that when I went to LA, everyone would want to work with me. Of course, I was humbled very quickly when I got there. I stayed there for two years without a job,” he reveals, noting that he found out that there were hundreds of thousands of promising young Romeos in LA.
“I was staying with my best friend, partying a lot and discovering LA. So, the first year was basically figuring out this whole other world. Then, I told myself that I needed to concentrate, to find roles and start acting. It’s so hard though; for every casting, maybe six or seven or a thousand people apply and only one is chosen!” says Elsharkawy, adding, “Then I found this role and I submitted my application online but I received no response. I went to the audition even though they didn’t call me in. They pointed out that I was not on the call sheet, so I begged them to give me a chance and they ended up giving me the part!” That was how he got his breakthrough role and became one of the stars of the indie film, Lowlow.
“It was such a nice project because all the actors were my age. It’s nice to be able to work with people who understand you and can relate to you. It was just a fun time; it felt like a party, more so than work,” he reveals. Following that, he had his own agent and became a solid contender for other projects. He went on to appear in several independent films, including Cuck, Clown and 86 Melrose Avenue.
Having seen him in Lowlow, a casting director for Lea’bet Newton invited Elsharkawy to audition in 2020 through one of his friends. “My Arabic was very bad; I could only say my name and a couple of other words,” admits our new star. So, after having been originally considered for the role of Big Zee, he was instead set to play Luca, a small two-episode guest role. “However, when I later met Mr. Tamer Mohsen and Mona Zaki, they told me to try again for Big Zee and they offered to help me. And they really did help me a lot with working on my Arabic. From the first day working with Tamer Mohsen on set, I was very comfortable. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak Arabic; he was getting the best out of me. Mona Zaki and Mohamed Farrag also helped me a lot. At some point, I was ruining their Arabic because my Arabic was so bad but they’d stop and laugh at me and correct me. I was grateful to work with people of their calibre,” he adds with a smile.
Elsharkawy notes that the real turning point for him, when he would feel he had found his footing in his homeland, came when he made it back to Egypt in early 2020, to film some scenes in Cairo. The circumstances surrounding his stay turned out to be very unusual and challenging. “We were filming in LA and we took the last plane out to Cairo, right before the Covid lockdown. The next day, they shut the airports. When we came to Egypt, we tried to continue filming but the corona situation got out of hand and we had to pause,” he recalls. Looking back, he remembers that he felt trapped. “When I came from the US, I didn’t understand Arabic well enough and didn’t know anyone except for my family in my hometown outside of Cairo, so I stayed for a month basically all alone. There also was a curfew and on top of all of that, my only two friends here were the ones I had worked with in the US and I was not going to call Mona Zaki and be like ‘Hey, you want to go grab a drink?’ She’s got a life and a family and the same thing with Farrag. So that was frustrating but I was still very grateful… Eventually, I went back to the US and got my head straight again and was surrounded by family and friends,” he recounts. After that, Elsharkawy went back and forth between Cairo and LA for the rest of the show’s production in early 2021.
One side effect of the Covid conundrum that gave Elsharkawy some comfort was that he got to slow down and take time out from the stress-inducing filming schedule of the series. Being used to milder production schedules in the US, he was initially overwhelmed with the intensity of the work environment that Egyptian actors are used to. “Before Covid stopped everything, I found the pressure of working on a Ramadan show a bit difficult, even though it also made it easier in a sense because I sort of didn’t have much time to overthink things. I just had to focus and get it done. However, when Covid hit, I had a moment to breathe and work on my Arabic a bit more,” he explains.
While most of Elsharkawy’s work on the series took place in 2020, the series aired in Ramadan of 2021. Elsharkawy could not have predicted the level of success the show would go on to achieve, nor the acclaim his own performance would garner.
While the past year has clearly impacted Elsharkawy on a professional level, it has also affected him as a person, especially when it comes to his latest visit to Egypt, where he got to bond with his extended family after his father’s sudden passing. “Coming to Egypt and being around my family has changed me as a person. It made me more responsible; it made me appreciate what I had a lot more and it just made me grateful for the opportunities in my life and the sacrifices that my parents made for me,” he says. “Now I understand who is really going to be there for me at the end of the day. These may be people I have never met before in my life but I could call them at any moment and they’d be here for me. Just appreciating these simple family values led me to really grow as a person,” he adds. As I sense him zoning out every now and again, I ask him if he’s ready to talk about his father and he replies politely, “I’m not there yet.”
Having met him a couple of times before over the past few months, I already knew that Big Zee was a loving, fun guy by nature. He’s always smiling and joking around. Spending the day with him at the eniGma shoot, I found him to be generally the same. Nonetheless, I could tell that he was still processing everything that has happened to him very rapidly, both good and bad – personally and professionally. Yet he’s doing it in the warmest and most endearing way possible, which seems to be his default approach to life. “I’m definitely in a weird headspace right now,” he admits in a casual conversation during the shoot. Of course, he has every right to be in an unusual state – especially now, as he embarks on a path that has been paved by very few before him – namely “Omar Sharif, Bruce Lee…and Shakira,” as he says with a laugh, referencing the few stars who have achieved as much success internationally as they have in their home country.
Now that he’s heading back to the US for projects still in pre-production, Elsharkawy is returning there with a whole new outlook. “The calibre of roles that I’m going for now is more of leads, with better teams and better projects, with better scripts and better directors. I’m very grateful to Egypt, and I’m also grateful that I built a resume in the US too, so I am getting a lot more opportunities. I hope to be between there and here, equally. That would be the ideal situation,” says the actor, who most recently appeared as a guest star in an episode of the iconic American crime series, NCIS Los Angeles, earlier this year. “It was an interesting experience because my buddy Caleb [Castille] works on the show, so it felt like hanging out with my friend and filming in between. They’ve been doing the show for 13 seasons, so they’re like a family and they’re just very welcoming,” he tells me.
He’s now about to start filming Emily the Criminal, a dramatic film in the US, directed by John Patton Ford, produced by and starring Aubrey Plaza. “I am going out there to film with her. It will be a drama but with comedic elements because she’s hilarious,” he says of the star most known for her comedic roles in Hollywood.
As for Egypt, “right now, we’re in the process of reading scripts. Thankfully, there have been some nice offers, so we’re just trying to figure out the next step for me. I am very grateful for my team. I know that they are looking out for me a lot. So, we’ll see what happens,” he teases as he also reveals his dream of delving into different aspects in the film industry. “Eventually, I’d like to do less acting, maybe like a project a year and try to look into directing and producing, because I feel like, especially as a director, you get more of a storytelling role. Mr. Tamer Mohsen described it to me once as ‘being the puppet master’. You’re moving pieces around; you see the whole picture… Listen, I have big goals. I’d also like to have my own production company. I think I want to get more into that later in my career.”
Meanwhile, on the personal level, not surprisingly, Elsharkawy has goals that he wants to fulfill over the next few years. “I’d like to start a family and be in a place where I am comfortable enough to support my loved ones, both financially and emotionally. So personally, I would love to be a family man. But I think that’s a little bit further away,” he says. Judging by his fanbase of admirers and potential brides (waiting outside his changing room at the shoot alone), he most likely will not have issues on the romantic side…
Drama or Comedy?
Comedy, because the set is a lot lighter. In dramas, sometimes it can be very heavy.
Commercial blockbusters or indie films?
It would be crazy to be a part of a commercial franchise that goes on for five to 10 years. That would be incredible since it is guaranteed work… But I love indies a little bit more because I feel like there’s more freedom. There’s a lot less pressure and the storytelling there isn’t as limited. Commercial films try to target a specific audience and indie films tend to be more artistic in that sense.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I just like the change. Every set is different. You get to meet new people all the time and you get to be creative with different individuals and you get to see their perspectives. You help them and they help you in return; it’s just a nice exchange.
What would you say is your best attribute?
I would say it’s my willingness to try. I am not scared to fail. I’ll look dumb but I learn and I’ll try again until I get better.
What is your worst habit?
Sometimes I get really lazy; I just want to sleep – to just hangout and watch films but this is also a trap because I always tell myself that watching films is studying. You’re studying your craft… But then I watch films all day long and next thing you know, I’ve been studying for the past month! (laughs)
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to watch films. I love to play sports. I like to be outside. But honestly, just being with a good group of people and talking about nothing is the best time, really!
What is your favourite destination?
Luxor! I love it. It’s because I really like history and it’s all history over there.
Who is your role model when it comes to public figures?
Probably, Omar Sharif, just because he did what I want to do. He was a star there and he’s also very well known here. He did both.
Who is one director that you would love to work with?
I’d love to work with Quentin Tarantino. I know he’s doing his last film, so that’s going to be hard. Pray for me; let’s see what happens. (laughs)
Who is your dream dinner guest (dead or alive)?
I would maybe say Nikola Tesla because I think that guy was the good kind of crazy. He just understood things that other people couldn’t understand and I would just love to pick his brain.
Photography: Emad Kassem
Styling: Hoda Wahby
Location: Odyssey Collective Art Space at Villa Shaheer, El Korba
Makeup by Myirnah at Al Sagheer Salons
Hair by Wael at Al Sagheer Salons
Le Collezioni: City Stars Mall, Phase 2,
Level 3, Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt
Tel: (+20) 1149494911
Emporio Armani: www.emporioarmani.com
Versace Couture: www.versace.com
Brunello Cucinelli: www.brunellocucinelli.com
Ermenegildo Zegna: www.zegna.com
Esteban Cortazar: www.estebancortazar.com