A rebel by nature, Khaled El Sawy shot to fame playing a homosexual in the hugely controversial Yacoubian Building. Yet he is much more than your average actor. A graduate of law, he has the soul of an artist and is a multi-talented star who writes, directs and composes. He is also a man who wants to make a difference. Currently starring in box-office smash Cabaret, Enigma’s Daliah Galal gets to know the irrepressible star.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your childhood…
I’ve always been inspired and influenced by art. As a kid the only way to calm me down was to put a paintbrush in my hand. I always felt there was a hidden camera filming me, recording my every move. At school I’d write stories and poetry and put on plays. Even at law school I was a member of the theatre club and the moment I graduated I studied directing. I did a lot of independent theatre as well. I spent my time writing, directing, acting and composing.
When did you feel people started to recognize you as an actor?
It was when I played the role of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the movie of the same name. Sadly the movie didn’t get the promotion or respect that I felt it deserved. And that meant I basically had to work my way up virtually from the bottom again. I went from having a starring role to playing supporting roles again.
The legendary Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki also played the character of Nasser two years before you did. How was your role different from his? And knowing what you know now, would you have still gone through with the film?
Ahmed Zaki played the role of Nasser at a certain period of his life, but I did a movie about Nasser’s life from university until death, so I had the chance to portray the character’s growth and progression. I watched Zaki’s movie only once so it didn’t affect me in anyway. And as for the experience itself, for me – a nobody at the time – to get the chance to portray someone as important as Nasser, previously played by someone as intimidating as Ahmed Zaki? I’d do it again and wouldn’t think twice!
How do you prepare for your roles?
Extensive research! When it came to playing Egyptian President Nasser, I compiled a huge library that included books, recordings and BBC documentaries about him as well as everything he wrote himself. I wanted to capture every detail about him. I also record all my thoughts and register the way different people act around me. So that if I have to play the character of a homosexual or an Upper Egyptian, I’ll know how to do so.
What have been your biggest challenges?
I wrote, directed, starred in and composed the music for the political play entitled El Leab Fel Demagh (Playing With Your Head). From Cairo to Alexandria, to Milan, the play was seen by over 70,000 people. I was the only radical voice to talk about the American occupation in the Arab world and as you can imagine, it got me into a lot of hot water; not just with the censors, but with the American Embassy and the Egyptian Parliament as well! But I’m a big believer in persistence. You really have to keep fighting for what you believe in, especially when it comes to art.
Tell us about your current movie Cabaret…
It’s great because I get to make use of my musical skills. I play the part of a ‘shaaby’ Egyptian singer and it’s so different to many of the other roles I’ve played on screen. So I can really showcase my diversity as an actor in this role. I know the film has had a lot of criticism for showing Egyptian society in a supposedly negative light, but the characters and context we explore are very real; these things go on in Egyptian cabarets, and as artists it’s our responsibility to showcase and represent all segments of society. There’s no point in sweeping things under the carpet and hiding our head in the sand.
And yet your most memorable role to date remains that of the homosexual in the Yacoubian Building. How did that unique opportunity come about?
The reason I was cast for the role is because they couldn’t find anyone else to do it! The big stars refused and they figured a lesser known actor would be willing to risk playing a homosexual in a society like ours. But I spoke with Marwan Hamid the director and told him that there are two things I wouldn’t do. I would not get physical and would not be shown in the same bed with another man. At the end of the day I respect the culture I belong to and I did not want to offend anyone. I wanted to show the human side of the character, yet I was still terrified of people’s reactions.
As someone so intimately involved with the workings of local film industry, what would you say are the biggest problems we face?
The truth is I wouldn’t call it an industry because we don’t even have the basic ingredients that make up an industry! We import everything from abroad and we don’t even have movie theatres everywhere in Egypt. And then you look at somewhere like India, which is also a developing country, and they have screens, speakers and straw carpets in the streets for people everywhere to have access to movies. The problem with our film industry is that we don’t have one!
Are you a rebel by nature?
I am a socialist; my ideas are radical and revolutionary and I participate in strikes all the time. When I believe in something I don’t think about the consequences, I just do it.. I did that with my political play El Leab Fel Demagh, I was prepared to fight everyone for it; whether it was the American Embassy in Egypt or the Egyptian political authorities or even censors. I always fight back and never give in to negative criticism because I feel like a soldier in an army that frees minds.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
I don’t really like to blow my own horn, but I have been called a genius and was also called the Charlie Chaplin of the Arab world. The reality though is that I still have so much to do, to prove and to achieve. I don’t like to sound egotistical!
And what about the criticism you’ve received?
Some people were very offended by my decision to play both the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the homosexual Hatem Rashid in the Yacoubian Building. And of course there was that “who does he think he is” sentiment when I dared to take on the role of Nasser after it had been played so famously by Ahmed Zaki. But negative criticism never affects me. I don’t mind being criticized as an actor. Yet when the negativity is personal, or if someone claims to be more of a patriot than I am, I will bring them down!
And what does being a celebrity mean to you?
It means that I’ve partially succeeded in what I was dreaming of 20 years ago. It also gives me more power and makes me more selective in the roles I play.
Ok now tell me, what is your dream role?
I wouldn’t really know now because I still haven’t done much and I don’t have a legacy yet. Maybe I’ll know in 10 years or so. Right now I have too many dream roles!