Whether you know him as the playboy from Awqat Faragh (Spare Time), the disturbed lover from Halawet El Donia (Life’s Beauty), the perfect father who put Mrs. Doubtfire to shame in Leh Laa 2 (Why Not 2) or the tech-savvy hacker in Elharam Elrabe’ (The Fourth Pyramind), one way or another you have most likely crossed virtual paths with Ahmed Hatem. With his shiny ink-black hair and a statement beard to match, there is nothing this man can’t do. From roles that are sweet and romantic to others that are red with anger and insecurity, one thing we know for sure about Hatem is that he has range and doesn’t shy away from fully expressing it. By presenting different and non-traditional concepts through his characters, Hatem has quickly become a fan favourite, his roles providing as much fun as they do social commentary. And with so much to give on-screen, he sure manages to keep his private life… well, private. eniGma’s Hager Alazab sat down with Hatem to uncover the young actor’s secrets to success, his riveting on-screen characters and the man behind them all.
Having been the star of many successful works on the small and big screen and being right in the middle of the limelight with his recent role as a single father in season two of the hit show Leh Laa, Ahmed Hatem is quite the catch. He’s a jack of all trades: an actor who continues to go against the traditional, deeply ingrained societal ideas of masculinity, an athletic swimmer who recently participated in breaking a Guinness World Record for the fastest swimming relay and a loving husband who’s been happily married for two years. It’s hard to determine how he does it all, while also going from one acting success to another; never missing a step and always making his way up. Finding the time to speak with him was made harder by his busy shooting schedule and the recent premiere of his romantic comedy Arosty (My Bride). Once we finally got the chance to speak, his humble and reflective personality shone through and I got to see a glimpse of what goes on behind the action.
“I actually didn’t always know I wanted to become an actor,” recalls Hatem on his early beginnings. Hatem was born in Cairo and spent his whole life there. At a young age, he didn’t have a particular interest in acting but he grew more interested in it during his time in high school and college studying media. In his second year of college, he joined Mohamed Abdel Hadi’s workshop and as they say…. the rest was history. “I am a very shy person, so the idea of expressing myself as an actor and putting out this range of emotions was a completely crazy idea for me at the time. Fortunately, I had the right amount of support. My father was actually the one who pushed me into joining Hadi’s workshop,” says Hatem. Abdel Hadi recommended Hatem, who was just 18 at the time, to director Mohamed Mostafa, who gave him his very first role as Hazem in Awqat Faragh. That role opened up doors for him and staked his claim as a serious actor in a wildly competitive field. “Awqat Faragh was a gift to me,” affirms Hatem.
A benchmark of sorts, Awqat Faragh became a milestone and was the first in a set of brave roles that the young actor went on to take, never fearing public scrutiny or the backlash. He enjoys playing multidimensional characters and the challenge they bring along with them. “There is nothing wrong with the idea of a lovely protagonist, but it is the characters with complicated backgrounds that are the most interesting to play,” Hatem explains, as he recounts his long history of multidimensional characters. Starting his career with the role of a spiritually lost playboy who gets a girl pregnant in a conservative society may not have been the ideal introduction into the film industry but Hatem isn’t one to shy away from tough subjects. “I like playing characters with ups and downs, mysteries and a dark side that you can work on and fill up as you go. Stable characters aren’t that appealing to me,” says Hatem.
Despite the enjoyment he derives from playing complicated characters, Hatem says that they don’t come without their challenges, citing his roles in Leh Laa 2 and Halawet El Donia as prime examples. “Regardless of how bad a character is on paper, as an actor I have to live within him and believe his character in order to be able to portray him honestly,” says Hatem. He passionately recalls playing Hassan in Halawet El Donia, an emotionally disturbed man who lashes out physically on his partner, as one of the toughest roles he ever had to portray. Coming right in the middle of a strong feminist movement decrying toxic behaviour and society’s ideas of masculinity, Hatem’s role as the gentle lover turned domestic abuser was of crucial importance in Egyptian society. “The background of such a complicated character may not have shown profoundly in the script but I knew it as an actor and that helped me portray him in a way that still affects people to this day,” says Hatem, who notes that the role prompted a nationwide movement against domestic abuse and stirred public opinion.
Four years later, Hatem continues to be the topic of conversation, this time due to the 15-episode limited series Leh Laa 2, where he played the character of Salah, a charming divorced single father who has a unique relationship with his seven-year-old daughter – quite an unprecedented portrayal of a modern Egyptian man. In awe of the show, the plot, Salah’s character and the precise way in which he was cast, Hatem comically recalls the way he was first introduced to the role. Hatem was handpicked for the role by the show’s director, Mariam Abou Ouf, who was the one to reach out and walk him through her new project. Not a father himself but always a father figure to his friends’ children, Hatem was eager to assume the role of the fun dad to Mona Ahmed Zaher, the quirky 7-year-old whose best friend is her father. Later, she becomes best friends with Younes, the adorable boy who steals the heart of Nada, played by Menna Shalaby, as well as the entire Egyptian population. Not only does the second season of Leh Laa dive into the stigmatised concept of adoption in Egypt but it also shows us glimpses of a positive example of fatherhood that is rarely ever portrayed in Egyptian dramas.
“A lot of people talk about Salah’s romance with Nada and their endgame relationship but for me, Salah’s most remarkable relationship was the one he had with his daughter Salma,” says Hatem eagerly. If you ask the Egyptian audience, Salah’s character was as close to perfect as a man could get but if you ask Hatem, he will tell you that Salah’s positivity almost made him an antagonist. And while the show was oriented around the idea of children and parents and the many ways this unique relationship can turn out, Hatem recalls that he was quite eager to work with a cast of children. “I loved working with them and I totally loved Mona. Our dynamic off-screen was just as good as it was in the show,” he adds. Hatem laughingly remembers the fun of working with children on set and the little moments of stubbornness that later turn into fun anecdotes passed on by the cast. With so much love and passion put into this series, Hatem, alongside the entire cast of Leh Laa 2, helped create an incredibly influential work of drama that directly led to an unprecedented rise in child adoption requests in Egypt.
Today, Hatem is gracing the big screen with his newest romantic comedy, Arosty, alongside Jamila Awad. A lightweight production in comparison to his previous hit this year, Arosty manages to hold its own when it comes to social commentary, as it revolves around the concept of traditional arranged marriage vis-a-vis marriage through love. Hatem, who plays the male protagonist on his journey of romantic discovery, identifies fear as the most relevant element in the movie. “On the outside, it’s a light romantic comedy but the movie actually talks about fear; women who fear making the wrong choice and men who fear commitment. It is a movie that discusses common insecurities in men and women and puts it out in a lighthearted manner,” Hatem passionately admits. The actor walks us through his character and his love interest; a woman who has fears and insecurities stemming from her parents’ failed marriage and Hatem’s character who is simple and uncomplicated, until she enters his life, curbs his style and makes him develop fears of his own. At its heart, the movie dives through modern relationships and the dynamic between the opposite sexes in a satirical production. It has held the leading spot in the Egyptian box office since its release in September.
Despite many influential roles that Hatem has embodied, his drive and ambition know no limit. With his new movie still playing in theatres, Hatem is already planning his next move. “I have an upcoming movie called El Molhed (The Atheist). I can’t imagine that portraying a character like that will be easy at all,” says Hatem, as he recalls his different methods to prepare for roles. Ever so serious about his profession, he says that for many roles an acting coach helps him get in character, while for others observation is his best friend. Whether observing someone with a specific accent and mannerism to be able to speak and act a certain way or sitting with an acting coach to learn how to fully embody a difficult character, Hatem remains the pioneer of honest portrayals, continuously striving to create space for himself to grow as an artist. Undoubtedly, diving deep into his characters’ psyche is not easy, even though he claims that his character ssometimes live within him. Hatem recalls times when he could see a tangible change in himself after long hours of work. “It is funny because sometimes I find myself speaking like a certain character long after shooting is over. My friends notice it too and they are always taken aback,” he laughs.
In a nutshell, since the day his career fatefully took off in 2006, Hatem has been moving from one social topic to another, tackling taboos and stigmas and shedding light on subjects that are rarely discussed in Egyptian film and TV. The actor, who is taking Egypt by storm, wishes to do more for his industry and hopes to portray more historical figures in the future. “We have a wide variety of Arab and Islamic historical figures with rich stories to tell. This is the direction I am moving towards. I want to be able to portray one of those figures in an upcoming project,” says Hatem on his future plans and projects.
Photography: Ahmed Mobarez
Styling: Hoda Wahby
Location: Uptown Cairo
Hair by Mohamed Fekri