Khaled Nabawy

How the Egyptian Actor Conquered Hollywood

Khaled Nabawy is an actor with a purpose. His deeply rooted belief in the sublime power of the arts is not theoretical  but has actually guided his personal journey as an actor in a very real way. Refusing to accept roles in order to just become more famous or successful, every role Nabawy has played had a message and a story to tell.

After graduating from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in 1989, Nabawy got his first lessons in acting from the internationally acclaimed Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine. Chahine recognised Nabawy’s talent very early on, casting him in major roles in his hugely successful films, such as Al Mohager (The Immigrant) in 1994, for which Nabawy won the All African Film Award for Best Actor. Chahine also cast the young actor in Al Massir (The Destiny) in 1997, for which Nabawy won the Horus Award for best supporting actor. With these groundbreaking roles, Chahine put Nabawy firmly on the path to international stardom. Other works like Al Mowaten Masry (The Egyptian Citizen) with director Salah Abou Seif in 1991, Nahno La Nazraa Al Shawk (We Don’t Plant Thorns) with Hussein Kamel in 1998 and Mas’alet Mabdaa (A Matter of Principle) with Khairy Bishara in 2003, all further established his name as a serious actor in Egyptian movies.

Until Nabawy’s talents caught the attention of Hollywood producers and he was cast in director Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed film, Kingdom of Heaven. That role was soon   followed by yet another Hollywood role as Hamed, the Iraqi scientist in the movie Fair Game with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Through this film Nabawy  also became a good friend of Sean Penn’s, who came to Cairo especially to support Nabawy in his political activism after the January 25th revolution.

Most recently, Nabawy went back to Hollywood for his leading role in the movie The Citizen, an international film directed and produced by Sam Kadi. In the movie, Nabawy plays the role of a young Lebanese man, who goes to the United States in search of freedom and success but ultimately finds out it’s not as easy as it seems. The role is yet another great step in Nabawy’s path to international stardom, he got a lot of praise from the likes of the New York Times who described his performance as “invaluable”. They likened him to the actor Benjamin Bratt, adding that his performance “adds much-needed weight and authenticity” to the character. eniGma’s Deputy Editor Omnia Zaied sat down with Nabawy to find out more about his unique path to success in both the Arab and international movie industry…

Khaled Nabawy

Let’s start with The Citizen, how did you get this leading role in a Hollywood movie?

Actors receive phone calls all the time; this is what happened with me throughout my career. They called me, they gave me the script, I read it, and I loved it. I love that the movie has a great message for both Arabs and Americans. The message for the West, is to show what the average young Arab is really like. He’s not a terrorist, he is a good guy, and he is well educated. And the message for the Arabs is that this good guy will leave his country if he doesn’t find an environment where he can follow his dreams and become successful. My character left his country and had to deal with a lot in his pursuit of the American dream. The lesson is that we have to create the Arab dream, or in our case,  the Egyptian dream for our young people. I’ve always been concerned about this. I really want to create the Egyptian dream, for people to stay in Egypt and work  and contribute positively to the country.

Why do you think Hollywood was interested in such a movie?

There are many good American directors and producers out there concerned about the state of the world. If you look back at Kingdom of Heaven, which was about Saladin and the Crusades, it was a movie that had a great message. It showed the truth about the Arabs and the fact that it was directed by someone as well known as Ridley Scott and was made by 20th Century Fox, one of the major studios in Hollywood, definitely helped. It was the same with Fair Game. It showed that there are people in the United States who stood against the lies about Arabs that are prevalent there. We as Arabs, have to cooperate with people like that; we have to get closer to the people who want to tell the truth. The Citizen gives hope; it talks about the cooperation between the East and West, something that would benefit both sides. We can do great things together, instead of just promoting hate and revenge.

Tell us more about your character Ibrahim Al Jarrah in The Citizen.

He is a very simple young man. He is not a big businessman or a politician; just a young Arab with ambition. He has a very interesting background, he’s Lebanese and he witnessed the civil war in Lebanon. He went to Kuwait at the same time Saddam Hussein tried to invade it. His background and life reflects how unbelievable the Arab world really is. It’s like our governments are trying to kick all of their citizens out.

What was the feedback like for The Citizen in Egypt and abroad?

It’s been really good, I am very happy with it. What I didn’t expect is the great reviews it got in the United States. I loved it when they referred to me as the Egyptian actor, this is my identity and I am proud to be Egyptian.

How’s the movie industry in the United States different from that in Egypt?

In Egypt, in the movie industry and in almost all industries, we depend on individuals. In the United States on the other hand, it’s about the team. There’s one team, on one track, trying to achieve one goal, which is the director’s vision. But in Egypt the actors don’t work together; sometimes they even work against each other, which is very strange. And sometimes they work against the director’s vision. They think this is the formula for success and the right way to be a star. I don’t know where this comes from. There are exceptions to this of course with very talented people trying to do something different.

In Egypt, all of the country needs to work together. We have very good individuals, very good scientists, very good doctors, very successful writers and artists, businesspeople etc., yet the country hasn’t succeeded yet. Instead of helping each other we keep on destroying each other. We have to start understanding the concept of teamwork; that when we help others, we are in fact helping ourselves.

Khaled Nabawy

Have you always wanted to become an international movie star?

Not really, I just wanted to play nice roles and contribute something new, which is very difficult. I always make sure to choose different kinds of movie roles that offer higher levels of performance. This is what matters the most, the performance. How I, as an actor, am going to entertain people. Of course it is great to work with others outside Egypt, because it gives you a chance to learn and see how things are done differently.

How was working with big celebrities like Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Orlando Bloom?

It was great. On the professional and personal level, they are really great people and they all respect teamwork. This is how Sean Penn and I became friends. He even came and visited me here in Cairo.

From movies to politics, what made you take part in the January 25th revolution?

It wasn’t for political reasons; it was in support of human rights. I am not a politician and I don’t want to ever become one. I am a citizen, an Egyptian citizen and I want the best for my country.

You were one of the first people who started speaking out against the regime. Were you scared at any point? 

I was scared; I have a family, I have a career, and I have a life. But my conscience was stronger. My love for my country was stronger. I have a great family and they look up to me and I want to earn the respect they give me, I don’t want to take it for granted. I believe in this country, it is a great country and we have great people. Unfortunately we destroy everything we have. Look at the Nile for example, we have the longest river on earth and we can’t take care of it. But I still believe the January 25th revolution started a new future for Egypt and for the coming generations. At least now people know the taste of freedom. I have a five-year old son, Ziad, he keeps on playing in his room with the Egyptian flag running around saying ‘freedom, freedom.’ This is because of the revolution.

Khaled Nabawy

How do you view the events that happened in Egypt over the last three years?

On January 25, 2011, Egyptians made history once again. For me this was an even bigger achievement than the pyramids because it was about the power of the people. The people really rose against the regime and they were protesting against the corruption inside themselves. They decided they want to fix the country for the new generation. Yet surprisingly after such the huge achievement in January, 2011, we just stood still. We just sat and talked. We didn’t work. This is what we have been doing for the past three years, talking.

We managed to gather again in June 30th but again we went back to arguing and fighting. It is this kind of environment that makes people like my character in The Citizen leave the region. We have to stop ranting and start working.

Last year you launched an anti-harassment campaign called ‘Egypt Is Not to Be Harassed’, what made you decide to do it?

I was fuming when I saw that Egypt was rated second in the world in terms of sexual harassment. So I decided to launch this campaign. The feedback was great. I was abroad when the campaign was released and when I arrived in Cairo airport, an 18 year-old guy came up to me and told me he felt very embarrassed after watching the campaign because he used to harass girls. He promised me he would never do it again. It was so brave of him to admit that, it really humbled me.

On another note, how would you evaluate Egyptian cinema right now?

Apart from independent cinema, you can say that we have ruined this industry. It’s not a business anymore; it’s not an industry anymore. But this is the case with everything in Egypt now. Egyptian cinema can be considered a reflection of what the country is going through. But I believe we can bring it all back.

What are your plans for the future? Are you going to be more focused on international films or will you continue to work in Egypt as well?

For me it is not about where, it is about the kind of roles I am offered, wherever they are.  When I work, I don’t see a big difference between the Egyptian or international films that I make: Between The Immigrant or Kingdom of Heaven; between The Destiny or The Citizen, or between The Dealer or Fair Game. To me, they are all the same. They are roles I play in movies that are watched by an audience. It is all about entertainment.

I am currently writing a movie, which I am going to be directing as well as starring in, but I am not going to give any details about it yet. And right now I am preparing for the portrayal of the character of Egyptian scientist and a prolific author Dr. Mustafa Mahmoud in an upcoming TV series.

What would your ideal movie role be?

Che Guevara, the Argentinean revolutionary.