El Gouna Film Festival’s third edition had several highlights, one of which was the presence of Mena Massoud, the Egyptian-Canadian actor as a guest of honour at the opening ceremony. Massoud rose to fame this year with his starring role in Disney’s live-action adaptation of the classic Middle Eastern tale, Aladdin. During Massoud’s brief visit to El Gouna, eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham sat down with the star to hear all about his journey to Hollywood, his favourite Arab stars and his love for Egyptian food.
The day after the opening of El Gouna Film Festival’s third edition, everyone was running around getting busy, and we were looking forward to our scheduled interview with the man of the hour, Mena Massoud. The twenty eight year-old, newly minted Hollywood star had several interviews and press meetings lined up that day, and was running a bit late, but nobody was complaining, because everyone was excited about the chance to chat with the man on the magic carpet.
Massoud arrived with an entourage of assistants, agents and managers. However, up close, he could not have been more grounded and down to earth. I was surprised to hear him speak in Arabic with a rather fluent Egyptian accent, and some local jargon mixed in here and there. I asked him how come he had such a good grip on the language even though he had never lived here. “When we immigrated to Canada, my family basically refused to speak English in the house. What also helped me with my Arabic was that my older sisters were teenagers when we moved, and they were speaking in Arabic all the time, so I really had no choice,” he replies, with a laugh. “I went to church three times a week, and there I would hang out with my Egyptian friends most of the time. We basically had our Egyptian community there. Some of my best friends still are Egyptian!” he adds.
As a young boy, Massoud was always in touch with his artistic side. “I liked the arts in high school and was on the improv team, all the school plays and even on the announcement team in the morning. But I was a very quiet and reserved kid, so I kept to myself mostly,” he recalls. In college, Massoud started out studying to become a doctor, in typical Egyptian fashion as per his parents’ wishes. “However, I started to figure things out on my own, and one day, as I was sitting in class, I decided I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I knew I wouldn’t be happy. So, I got up and left, and I went into theatre right after that,” he recalls.
Massoud caught everyone’s attention as a triple threat in Aladdin, where he acted, sang and danced. However, starting out, he never really considered doing anything but acting. “I went to theatre school and I studied classical acting. I feel that I am an actor. It just happened that the role of Aladdin needed other tools that I had to add to my skillset. I had to train for the singing and dancing; however, acting is what I want to do. It’s what comes really naturally to me, along with the stunts. I love doing my own stunts and action sequences, and I want to keep doing that in my career. If I get a really awesome role where I have to sing and dance again, I would do it, but it’s not something I really want to do on its own,” Massoud explains.
Being an Egyptian kid wanting to get into showbiz was also pretty daunting. “I used to go to the movie theatre and not see anyone who looked like me on screen, so I kind of assumed that they didn’t exist. I didn’t feel represented at all in films when I was younger. That’s why I recently launched my EDA Foundation,” says Massoud, referring to his ‘Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation’, which supports culturally diverse artists in Canada. “I’m trying to help ethnically diverse artists get representation and help them with their needs. If an actor needs headshots, the foundation will help them. If a painter can’t afford gallery fees, we’ll pay the gallery fees for them and get them a gallery,” Massoud passionately explains.
While some believe that Massoud’s ethnicity is a strong factor that helps him get roles, others might say it also holds him back. Massoud has his own take on this issue. “There are a lot of Caucasians in America, so their huge numbers make it harder for them to get jobs. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of roles written for people who look like me. Yes, there are fewer people like me competing for those roles, but way fewer roles are written for us. So, it’s a hard one to answer. It helped me for Aladdin, but I haven’t had an audition since Aladdin came out,” he explains. “I’ll just tell you the facts. Right now, in Hollywood, if it’s a regular role, most of the time either a Caucasian American or an African American will get that role. That’s just factual,” he adds.
Contrary to what you may think, Massoud’s life hasn’t changed drastically since becoming a Hollywood star. “I actually moved to the United States in February of 2017, so that was before I got Aladdin. But I’m still waiting for Aladdin to open doors for more roles for me. It hasn’t, yet. I hope that it does, but we’ll see…” he says, with a sigh.
Massoud doesn’t rule out acting in Egyptian films. “Coming back to Egypt and seeing people’s support makes me want to work even harder to represent Egypt and North Africa as a whole. I would definitely come back to Egypt to do an Arabic film if the role was right. When I was growing up, I probably watched just as many Arabic movies as I did English ones, if not more. Yesterday, I got to meet Egyptian legends that I am a fan of, such as Yousra, Mona Zaki, Hany Ramzy and lots of actors that I looked up to growing up. I’d love to act with Yousra. I think she’s a great actor,” he exclaims. “Being Egyptian and watching Egyptian actors influenced my art. It’s very different from American acting and art. It helped inspire my acting and gave it a narrative. I would love to bring an Oscar nomination back to Egypt. Egypt has a lot of talent and it surprises me that we don’t get an Oscar nomination every year,” he adds.
For now, Massoud is just grateful for his presence at the El Gouna Film Festival. “I’m so privileged and honoured to be a part of the festival in its beginning stages, especially with the EDA Foundation and the International Artist in Motion award that we’re giving out. When something is in its beginning stages and growing, it’s really exciting to be a part of its growth,” he exclaims.
Massoud says that in the brief time he spent in Egypt, he has experienced some unforgettable stuff and is looking forward to trying more things. “I grew up in an Egyptian culture. My mom makes all the Egyptian dishes, but getting to eat Koshary, for example, from the actual Koshary place was just amazing. Foul and Taameya in Egypt is very different. Really, the food and the culture have been fantastic. But while I love Egyptian food, I’m vegan, so this narrowed down my selection in Gouna, but I loved the Koshary I had when I went to Cairo. I had falafel (Taameya) this morning, and it was really good!” says Massoud, who with his own social media page, “Evolving Vegan,” is a self-proclaimed foodie!
“I love cooking, I think I’m pretty good at it. I like to open up my fridge, see what I have and just make something. It’s a form or relaxation and meditation for me,” explains the multi-talented star.
Next up, you will see Mena Massoud in his upcoming Hulu series, Reprisal. “It’s going to be rolled out internationally, soon. It’s a dark drama with a lot of action. It’s very different from anything I’ve done, but I’m very excited about it,” he explains.
While Massoud is not sure what the future holds for him, it seems that he is slowly becoming part of a trifecta of Egyptian actors taking Hollywood by storm, alongside Oscar winner Rami Malek and comedian Ramy Youssef. Massoud, doesn’t view Malek and Youssef as competition. “I don’t think there’s competition at all. There’s only three of us. We’re probably not even 0.1 percent of the actors in Hollywood, but overall, I’m happy this is starting to happen to people like us and I hope it keeps going,” he concludes with a smile.