He’s the Egyptian Boy taking over Hollywood with starring roles in United 93, The Kite Runner and this year’s Green Zone alongside Matt Damon. He is the next Omar Sharif. Just don’t tell him that. The Cambridge-educated intellectual has got bigger notions to fry. From politics to art in the Arab World (and beyond), he’s got big ideas, big feelings and big theories. And as Managing Editor Amy Mowafi discovered, he’s not afraid to share them…
Khalid Abdalla is sipping an espresso while analyzing. There are many things that need to be analyzed, delved into and discussed. There’s his responsibility as an Arab actor in Hollywood; the roles, the reasons, the message. There’s the rise and fall of Egyptian cinema; its role, its reason, its message. There are big existential ideas that must be grappled with, right here, right now. Love, longing and loss. Isolation and alienation. Dichotomies and diasporas. Belonging.
So he sips and speaks, he mulls and meditates.
“It’s a shame that Arabic cinema doesn’t really have an international voice,” he starts. “And that’s a disaster for regional cinema and world cinema. And it’s a disaster considering our heritage and the political world that exists at the moment,” he stops.
He thinks. He stares into space. He stares at his espresso. He gestures, a lot. He speaks…
“I’ve done a number of films in Hollywood I’m very proud of, and they are part of changing the game of how the Middle East is represented in western cinema. But at the end of the day you should never rely on someone who’s not from your part of the world to create your voice. My voice is somewhere between East and West. I love the West where I was brought up and I love the East where I come from. And I see it as part of my responsibility to be in and represent both places. As an Arab, with the status of the world as it is, you’re constantly being asked to align yourself and the idea of that is unnecessary. Why do I need to prove that I’m more British than the British, or more Egyptian than the Egyptians? I find it far more interesting to live with love for all of those parts of my life. International Arabs specifically have an extraordinary opportunity to create a very progressive identity. That is our challenge and our responsibility.”
Outside, downtown Cairo is ablaze, with the sun and heated arguments, chaos and inconvenience. Inside, in this quiet, cool, high-ceilinged coffee shop with old-world pretensions (but is actually very new), Abdalla seems to be trying to recreate the literati-vibe this area was once renowned for. Maybe he believes it still is so; in that way which Egyptians brought up in the West latch on to nostalgic novelistic notions they’ve never even experienced. Just across the road from our pretend-old coffee shop, is the really-old building which houses the ramshackle production company (Zero Productions) where Abdalla’s very creative, and intellectual and politicized partners are busy putting the final touches to their pièce-de-passion, In the Last Days of the City.
The film is an Arab-led, low-budget, deeply personal independent project, which sets out to capture the fading grandeur of Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad (with Berlin thrown in there for good measure). It unfolds through the stories of a generation of young filmmakers trying to find their voice under the weight of authoritarian governments and the rise of religious fundamentalism. “It is about people who love their cities and don’t want to leave them, but don’t know how to live there,” says Abdalla. “Which is something we all feel in one way or another.” Directed by Tamer El-Said (from whom Abdalla received the script unsolicited), co-written by El Said and Rasha Salti and co-produced by the three of them, this intense labour of love is Abdalla’s attempt to use the leverage he’s gained in Hollywood to counteract “the failure of the arts world to enable people to truly understand the Middle East.”
He pulls out his laptop from his over-sized student rucksack, eager, enthusiastic, excited to show me some of the initial edits on the movie. The beautifully shot footage is dark, brooding, melancholic and ultimately captivating. It’s Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, raw and real, with no Hollywood effects; glamorised only by the veneer of passion infused into every shot by its makers.
“There have been massive difficulties the film has gone through but at the same time, on a human level we’ve been spoiled,” says Abdalla. “We are a group of people coming together to work on a project for no money that we all believe in. We’ve had to make all sorts of sacrifices together to make this journey possible. And at the end we’ve come up with a film that we’re immensely proud of and journeys to all these places that have been so formative. We’ve developed friendships and a bond that is part of where we creatively want to go.”
I am at once enthralled and exasperated by Abdalla’s mediation on arts, politics, culture and everything else. There are entire stretches of conversation during which I am lulled into a sense of intellectual-security. But deep down, the cold hard truth remains… all I really want to know is:
What’s Matt Damon really like?
And Cannes, the BAFTAs, the Red Carpet.
And how totally excited is he to be like, a celebrity. A real Egyptian celebrity, not in the manner of Khalid El Nabawy who we get super worked up about because he got to say half a line in a Hollywood movie, or Amr Waked, who got to sporadically stare moodily into the camera in some other Hollywood movie, but proper big-time… like the lead role in The Kite Runner, and a pivotal player in United 93 and, yes, yes, yes, alongside Matt Damon in this year’s Green Zone.
But this is where we hit a wall. Khalid Abdalla, you see, is not a celebrity. He’s not much of a star either. Given his roster of repeated ‘break-out’ Hollywood roles he really ought to be by now. But one senses he’s being terribly inconvenient and doing this on purpose. It’s just never about him. It’s about the idea, the ideal, the meaning, that blasted message. Watch him on the big screen, and you’re gripped by the quiet intensity of his performances; drawing you helplessly into the inner turmoil of his always tumultuous characters etc. etc. Watch him being interviewed on the small screen – on David Frost or Night Talk, on Al Jazeera, E! or Empire (YouTube him and you’ll see what I mean) – and there he is, blithely ignoring the fact that he’s standing centre stage on the promotional platform of a lifetime; his big chance to bring out the jazz hands and yell at the world, “Here I Am!”. Instead he’s too busy analysing stuff.
Abdalla was born in Scotland and grew up in England. His Egyptian father is one of the world’s most respected and renowned fertility experts. His Egyptian mother is also a doctor. When Abdalla was seven he dreamed of becoming a world-famous director. He could reference the work of cool directors and was already nurturing the intense quality that would become his trademark. I know this because I knew Abdalla in London when we were both seven, and he was busy brooding about his future and I was busy wanting to be a fairy. The summer I turned 18 and was busy flightily working as a Red Bull girl at the Edinburgh Festival, Abdalla was also there. Except he was busy becoming the youngest ever director to be awarded five stars for his production of Someone Who’ll Watch over Me.
He spent his gap year driving (and brooding) across Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Jordan. He went on to read English at Cambridge (naturally). He then became something of a star (I use that word, of course with trepidation) on the university’s drama scene. He starred in Othello and Equus and played the title role in Macbeth – among others. He was a joint winner with Cressida Trew (his current girlfriend) of the Judges’ Award for Acting at the National Student Drama Festival for his performance in Bedbound by Enda Walsh. He went on to train at the prestigious Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris. And in 2003, he played the title role in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. He also took part in the inaugural production of Peter Hall’s Canon’s Mouth Theatre Company composed of “young actors intent on discovering a new voice for the great metaphorical dramas of the Renaissance.” The great metaphorical dramas of the Renaissance. Are you reading this? So it all becomes clear. He is not to be blamed. He’s an intellectual by default. Hollywood by name, thespian by upbringing. An act-or, not just an actor.
How deliciously appropriate then – or perhaps even predictable – that his first big-screen break would force him to ask some very serious questions of himself, and his “role and responsibilities” as an act-or. Abdalla was asked to play a terrorist. And not just any-old terrorist, of course. Nope. One of those terrorists that would forever destroy the Western world’s very perception of Arabs and the Arab World. The part of Ziad Jarrah in the Paul Greengrass produced and directed movie, United 93. Zaid Jarrah, the leader of the terrorists who hijacked the fourth plane on 9/11, famously foiled by the flight’s passengers. Well what did Abdalla expect? Just because he’d played Macbeth, he wasn’t going to be ruthlessly stereotyped?
“When I was first called about it, I had no interest in going to the audition,” starts Abdalla. “Then I found out it was Paul Greengrass who’d done Bloody Sunday, which is just one of the greatest films of all time. So I went to the audition. I got recalled and I was really angry because it put me in this very difficult position. His first question to me was, ‘Do you think it’s possible to do this film correctly?’ Which was just an amazing question! We’re talking about a historical event. We’re not talking about an imaginative thing like The Siege, where Arab terrorists are used as a tool to make the movie more dramatic. No, we’re talking about an historical event in which 19 people from the Middle East decided to take over planes and ram them into buildings. You’ve also got to think about the context. Some people felt that a film – because it has this complicated relationship with entertainment – should not be made about this incident. Whereas books and news reports can be written, commentators can opine in the immediate aftermath and you can go on YouTube and watch anyone talking about it. But somehow a film is a different thing. And yet, as Paul Greengrass said, ‘There are things you can do in that burning furnace of popular culture that you can’t do elsewhere.’ So we had an opportunity with the power of cinema to enter into the debate and be a game changer.
“It became clear he wanted to make a film which humanised everyone involved, including the hijackers. Each actor had a tome of research on what happened on the plane to their particular character. We had 41 of us on a plane set and we basically tried to rediscover, what most likely happened. Jarrah, who I played in the film, is one of the most interesting characters in terms of the whole event of September 11th. He was the only Lebanese national, had a secular upbringing, a girlfriend in Germany and he tried to pull out of the whole operation in July of 2001. He called his family on September the 9th to say he’d see them on the 22nd for a wedding. On his plane, the hijacking took place 26 minutes after the seatbelt sign went off. Because the hijackers prebooked their seats, we know he was sitting on the plane with no one else around him but the air hostesses occasionally coming by asking if he wanted a drink. So for 26 minutes he was clearly sitting there thinking, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to do this? Am I not going to do this?’ The other three hijackers likely sitting behind him, also in first class, but barely within eye view, were probably also thinking, ‘What is he doing? He’s the one who is going to pilot the plane, he’s the one who’s leading the operation.’ And it’s quite clear that for 26 minutes, he considered everything. Doing it, not doing it, the consequences of what he was about to do. Now is it a coincidence that plane basically ended up crashing and not hitting its target?”
Abdalla pauses to order his third espresso of the morning. He thinks. No, he’s not quite done yet. Definitely not…
“Two major tragedies happened on 9/11. The first is that around 3000 innocent people were killed. But you also had the bigger tragedy: 19 hijackers, young men in their twenties, claiming to represent 1.2 billion Muslims across the world. And they did to me, the exact opposite of what I tried to reclaim for myself by humanising this character and telling this very, very complicated story. I tried to turn my character into a human being and not a monster. It was an attempt to reclaim a human identity. It became clear to me in that audition, this was an opportunity to make something honest. An opportunity to reclaim 9/11 and break it down to its essence – a human event with a beating heart and not this over-mythologised event that has been turned into a cause for war. I didn’t play a Hollywood terrorist. I played a human being that hijacked a plane.”
When the movie was eventually released in 2006, Abdalla found himself catapulted onto the world stage. Amidst the promotional and publicity whirlwind, he became, by default, a desperately-needed voice for the Arab world. “I’m an actor with my own opinions,” he says. “But I’m not a representative. And yet I had this tremendous responsibility because the Arab voice rarely gets to speak on such a stage.” At the pre-premiere conference at Cannes, the deep emotional and psychological investment Abdalla had poured into the film climaxed with a 15 minute outpouring of emotion and tears (and of course words, so many words) that had the gathered press, personalities and victims’ families on their feet – literally. “It was one of those situations that demand you rise to the occasion, and rising to the occasion produced one of my most eloquent moments,” says Abdalla. “There was no one that entered the project saying, ‘I want to create a mantra for revenge.’ Everyone entered it saying ‘I want to reclaim something.’ And that’s what it was.”
So there he was, ping-ponging about the world stage, being terribly clever when The Kite Runner landed on his lap. The very morning after United 93 premiered in New York, he received a call asking him to audition for the lead role in the adaptation of the best-selling novel set in Afghanistan. “They were having difficulty finding someone who could do an American accent, as well as be a good actor and speak Farsi,” explains Abdalla.
“How awesome is that!” I interject. “You’re being asked to play the lead role in this huge massive buzzed-about Hollywood movie. So how did it feel to be on the brink of superstardom?”
“It was wonderful, but what I was going to say….”
Of course, silly me. His potential superstardom is hardly the point. There are far more important issues to be grappled with, to be analysed here… There’s the fact, for example, that upon learning he landed the role, he headed to an Afghanistan in the midst of political turmoil, and immersed himself in the language and the culture. You know, to get to the root of the issues at hand.
So what he went on to say was this, “What’s important to me is the opportunity this role gave me. I had to learn another language, which I learnt. I had to spend time in Afghanistan during a war. I travelled widely there, I…”
No, Khalid. No, no, no. I really need you to think about this on a very superficial level. Did you not have a moment where you thought, ‘This is brilliant, I’m going to be a star!’?
“The truth is I’m quite shy. If there is any difficulty in interviewing me it’s because I feel much more comfortable when I have a character. At the same time, it’s lovely to have the opportunity to do a big Hollywood film, which puts you in a great position. Yet I haven’t started to do the things which would enable me to live up to the position of someone of great fame. I don’t know how to do that because I have many friends who are on their way to superstardom. I mean real superstardom. And I’m not a superstar. I don’t know if I ever will be.”
Why is that? Your role in The Kite Runner was massive. And for some, a role like that would really catapult them into stardom and all its superficial consequences. Why do you think that you came out of it with all the serious critical acclaim but none of the fame-nurturing personal buzz?
“Well I think there’s two things. First of all, the point I was going to make is…”
Damn it, there’s always a point…
“…I find it really important to keep a level of control over my identity. And in the film world, you can have your identity taken over by one film. If I ever do reach superstardom, I want to reach superstardom in a way I’m mentally comfortable with.”
Is that even possible?
“There are all sorts of superstars that are great actors who always do interesting roles. And then there are superstars who are stars because they did a big film and are immensely photogenic and they’re on the cover of OK magazine. And they’re two completely different things. I want to be the former. I want to be someone who’s built a reputation for himself. A reputation which allows actors the freedom to do different things. It’s a longer-term game, but it’s worth fighting for. Whether or not I’ll reach my goal, I don’t know.”
Because you know, everyone wants another Omar Sharif. Everyone’s desperate for that big Egyptian crossover star to take over Hollywood. And right now, you’re the only one who is really in a position to grab that mantle…
“I want to be claimed. And that’s something I feel very, very strongly about. I want to be claimed by Egypt and I want to be claimed by the Arab World and I also want to be claimed by Britain. The thing we need to think about here…”
No, wait. Stop. Forget that. I have a better question. And this is the big one, and before I ask it, I need you to really concentrate and give me the answer that I know, you know, I want…
What was Matt Damon really like?
“He’s amazing, Amy. He’s everything you’d wish him to be.”