Sizzling and sensual, this is Sawsan Badr as never before…
She’s part of the very fabric of the Egyptian movie industry. Both her silver screen and small screen credits would leave even the most hard-working of Hollywood stars reeling. Hers is a career that spans three decades (and counting) and yet her star has never quite shone as brightly as those of cinematic compatriots. Whether it’s because she consistently and determinedly chooses the sort of gritty unglamorous supportive character roles that showcase the full-dazzling scope of her acting abilities, or whether it’s because she shies away from the hard glare of the media spotlight is unclear. What is clear however is that Sawsan Badr is an Egyptian institution. And if you can convince her – it’s taken us nearly six whole months – to feature in her first ever fully-fledged magazine cover shoot and fashion spread (a fantasy setting conceptualised by our Fashion Director Maissa Azab), it also becomes clear that Sawsan Badr is the sexiest and most sensual of silver screen sirens. Who knew? In this absolute eniGma exclusive the siren finally reveals all to eniGma’s Dalia Awad…
It’s just after eight on a Wednesday night and I’m running late to meet Sawsan Badr.
She’s still high on the hype surrounding her star-turn in last Ramadan’s hit TV series Awza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married). She’s just been awarded Best Actress at Cairo International Film Festival for her role in El Shouk (Desire). And her hard-hitting movie about sexual harassment – 678 – was released just hours ago.
Sawsan Badr is a hot commodity. And I’m late to meet her.
Now, it’s easy to put my tardiness down to pressure at the office or, of course, Cairo’s infamous traffic. But for the first time in my professional career, I chose to be late.
You see, as I’m an Egyptian who’s spent her life abroad, Sawsan Badr, and all the on-screen versions of herself, have always represented the archetypical Egyptian woman. Every glimpse I caught of her on satellite TV blended seamlessly into the news broadcasts from the motherland, and indeed, into the dramas of my own Egyptian family. She managed to become a part of my vague yet undying recollection of what it is to be Egyptian with all our fortunes and flaws, our history, our hang-ups and our far-too-strong passions. She also looks like my mother.
So I hang back in the office that little bit longer. I feel all the pressure of a teenager who needs to impress a parent – a parent, who is also one of the most well-known actresses in the region; who is famed for her ability to turn around roles like no other (last Ramadan she appeared in a whopping nine top-rated TV series). And who, just like my mother, is to be feared and loved in equal measures.
When I do arrive, Badr is already in the fourth outfit of our fashion shoot – a glimmering gold affair that, if I ever had any doubt, lets me know exactly how big a star she is. I’m ushered into a corner while she takes a seat for a hair and makeup change and, just like I’d imagine it to happen in Hollywood, she’s surrounded by a buzzing team.
Suddenly, everyone is asked to clear the room. As I begin to make my way out, disappointed and relieved in equal measures, eniGma’s fashion director Maissa Azab asks me to stay. Badr looks at me through the diva-worthy mirror she’s sat in front of and smiles, “Of course! Yalla ya Dodo,” she says. Just like my mother.
With an astounding filmography of around 150 roles under her belt, Badr has come a long way to earn her latest accolade. “An award from the Cairo International Film Festival has a whole different meaning to other awards,” says Badr. “Firstly, it’s been several years since it’s been given to an Egyptian actress. Secondly, the festival is becoming more and more credible in the international film industry, making the honour of an award resonate much louder.”
The long-anticipated El Shouk is a simple yet striking tale of a poverty-stricken Egyptian family. “It’s a fairytale about their dreams, their happiness and their heartbreaks, all told within the framework of a typical Egyptian street,” Badr explains. She plays Fatma, the matriarch, weathered by the constant struggle of raising a troop of children before she resorts to begging to fund the medical treatment for her youngest son. By the time she collects enough money, he has already died but Fatma becomes determined to pull her family out of poverty by any means.
Joined by a cast of younger, newer actors including Ruby, Mohamed Ramadan and Marihan, any other actress could have easily been swamped by the fresh faces. But Badr comes up trumps with yet another heart-wrenching performance. “The title Desire represents the desire for safety, wealth, power and sex. Life is built of these basic human desires,” says Badr and it’s clear she isn’t just talking about her new movie. “For me, choosing a role comes down to measuring it against what I want to achieve as an artist. It’s important for me to send a message with every part I play.”
As eniGma’s beauty team buzz around her and an entourage of three tight-knit girlfriends hand her pre-lit cigarettes and pre-screened phone calls, Badr looks on top of the world. But things haven’t always been this way.
Sawsan Badr’s journey to stardom has been turbulent to say the least. Having gone through four divorces, the death of a husband and her mother as well as that of legendary director Shady Abdel Salam (a close friend and the man who was set to make history by turning her into Nefertiti on the silver screen), Badr has been the topic of many gossip columns.
“I have no problem with criticism,” says Badr. “When it comes from someone who has a deep understanding of the art of acting, I know that criticism, however bad it can be, comes from a true place that is honest and useful. Likewise, when newspapers and magazines discuss my personal life in a factual way, it doesn’t bother me.” What about gossip and speculation? “I don’t have time for that; I forget it as soon as I’ve read it,” she announces.
Yet the ups and downs of Badr’s 53 years are hard to ignore. Her first husband was her drama school teacher and her last was 20 years younger than her. She has been veiled and today she sits before me with a risqué heart-shaped tattoo peeking out of her dress (“I had it done years ago,” she says with a cheeky smile). I quickly realise she’s everything Egyptian women want to be – independent, outgoing and just a little bit scandalous. “There’s nothing in my life I’m embarrassed about, nothing I would keep a secret,” she says.
Broken marriages and body art aside, Badr’s professional career has also been a rollercoaster ride. “There are times at the beginning when actors take any role just because we’re broke!” she laughs. But it wasn’t long before her hard work paid off and her breakout role alongside Adel Imam in Ahlam El Fata El Ta’er (Dreams of the Flying Boy, 1978) is still one of the most well-known TV series, over 30 years after its production. “All of my roles are like my children, I nurture them and they are infused with a part of my personality, energy and mind,” says Badr. “They’re all special to me but it’s the ones that mark important transitions in my life that are the dearest. Ahlam is one of them, as is my first feature film with Nour ElSherif Habibi Da’eman (Forever My Love, 1980) and now, El Shouk,” she lists, with a rightly earned sense of pride.
Then I mention what turns out to be a sensitive subject – “It’s been over 30 years since that happened, I don’t think it’s necessary to talk about that anymore,” says Badr about the film that brought her career to a standstill just as it was taking off. She asks me to stop recording….
Death of a Princess (1980) was a controversial British docudrama based on the public execution of a Saudi Arabian princess for adultery. Though highly critically-acclaimed, the movie caused an avalanche of controversy putting pressure on Saudi-British relations and causing the Egyptian media to blacklist Badr from television, film and theatre as a sign of goodwill to the Saudis whose petrodollars were essential for the industry.
For four years, Badr had to watch silently as newer and lesser actors rose to the forefront because producers and directors refused to work with her. For a 23 year-old so close to stardom, this hiatus must have been a major blow. “There are so many exciting things that I’m working on right now, let’s talk about that,” says Badr, and we carry on.
And with the unparalleled experience Badr has accumulated over the years, she knows better than anyone in the industry that there is life beyond scandal; and she’s making use of every waking minute of it. Currently filming the Middle East’s first 3D production, she’s ready to make history with her role in 1001 Nights. “It’s an epic tale that has to be told in an epic way,” she enthuses. Working with the same crew and equipment that produced the Oscar-winning blockbuster Avatar, the mammoth series will consist of 1001 separate episodes. “We’re in no rush at all to get it finished – it’s a matter of as long as it takes to get it perfected,” says Badr. “Arab cinema and television is on the verge of returning to its former glory as each generation of actors, producers and directors are contributing their talents and visions to the art.” With her role-juggling skills honed over decades of acting, this is of course not her only project. She’s also filming yet another series and rehearsing for a play. “I just love acting. It’s a never-ending romance – as long as I’m acting I feel great.”
Finally, her makeup look is complete and a goddess-like Sawsan Badr is summoned back into the studio. Standing up to see the finished product, she nods with approval. “Before I started acting I tried out modelling – Ragaa El Gedawy taught me how to pose – but I’ve never thought about doing something like this before,” she explains. “You’ll usually find me in jeans, flats and no makeup!” With that, Badr puts out her cigarette and eagerly makes her way onto the closed set. Yet before she leaves, she utters what could also be her motto, “A person’s life is a sum of their choices. I don’t regret anything because I’ve believed in every choice I’ve made.”