Africano, Mafia, Sahar El Layalie (Sleepless Nights), Abu Ali, Taymour & Shafika, Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Shahrazad, Tell Me a Story) and Welad El Am (Cousins) – These are all critically acclaimed Egyptian blockbusters that have one thing in common, Mona Zaki as their leading lady. With her outstanding talent and stellar beauty, Zaki’s renowned roles and iconic lines are engraved in this generation’s minds and hearts. And this year, Zaki is returning to making screen history with three hotly anticipated new projects. Naturally, eniGma is taking note of this with an exclusive cover shoot of Zaki in beautiful El Gouna, which coincidentally was the location of a past eniGma cover shoot of her in 2010. Zaki also sat down for a great interview with eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham, where she opened herself up on what her job means to her, the secret to longevity in the entertainment industry and the challenge of finding the perfect balance between work and family.
Okay, so for full disclosure, I must start by saying that this interview was originally supposed to be travel themed with a lighthearted vibe around Mona Zaki’s wanderlust and nomadic adventures. However, by the time we did the interview, an official pandemic was spreading globally, and the last thing anyone wanted to do was to be far from home, including Mona Zaki. So, following today’s ‘social distancing’ reality, we conducted the interview over the phone on a cosy Friday afternoon. Zaki had just returned from a fifteen-day work trip in the United States, filming scenes for her upcoming Ramadan series. Luckily, she managed to catch the last flight from Los Angeles before airports were shut down, and a day later, was in the comfort of her home, with her three children and loving husband, actor Ahmed Helmy.
With the pandemic already causing job losses, particularly among workers in the informal economy, Egyptians are standing together and trying to help the most vulnerable families being affected. With that aim, Mona Zaki initiated a solidarity initiative on social media that rapidly caught on with other film stars. She began by announcing her commitment to financially support 80 families who are losing their income as a result of the pandemic, and she challenged other stars to do the same. Explaining the driving force behind her decision, Zaki says, “Some people, don’t receive regular monthly salaries, but are paid day by day when they actually work. We have many workers on our sets who depend on this sort of daily income. Many of the stars in the series being shot now, are able to do that only because of the work of these people. I did my Instagram video to raise awareness for this issue, to grab the attention of my fellow stars and other people who can help. I’m happy to say that I received calls from a lot of people who want to get in on this.”
Still on the current pandemic, Zaki urges the public not to take the danger of the coronavirus lightly, but she also feels that a state of panic is unnecessary. “There’s a very thin line between being cautious and panicking. It’s very good to be cautious and to take care of your hygiene and to stay at home. We should stop getting into contact with people unless it’s very urgent. We just have to be cautious, but also avoid freaking out,” says Zaki.
Moving on to other subjects beyond the current public health crisis, the conversation with Zaki shows that she is as comfortable in her own skin as one can be. She exudes an obvious self-confidence and inner peace. Reminding her that exactly 10 years ago, in April 2010, she was on the cover of eniGma, I ask her what she thinks has changed the most in her life since then. “So many things have changed,” she replies, adding, “My kids have taught me so many things, so has illness and sickness. Having sick people around me has taught me a lot. I’ve become more human and caring. I’ve always known how to express myself through actions, but now I’m starting to learn how to express myself through words, too. I’m not as tense as I used to be. I take things more easily, and I’m learning that there are more important things in life than the little things that can get on your nerves and make you go crazy. Now, when I look back, I realise how silly it was that the smallest things would aggravate me.”
Zaki believes that remaining grounded and staying connected to people from outside your social circle is very important, especially for longevity in the business. She advises rising stars to always be aware of that. “We have some very promising young talents, such as Jamila Awad, and Ahmed Malek, who are already becoming big stars. I think all these young rising stars need to find what keeps them grounded. Generally, they to need be in the streets, meeting people from different backgrounds. This is how we gain experience and absorb the details that make a character specific and on point. Personally, I find my ground in raising my kids and dealing with simple people, as well as meditating and doing yoga. It’s also very important to get good scripts and go to a lot of workshops,” says Zaki, who despite being a seasoned actress with tons of experience under her belt, continues to attend acting workshops. “Workshops help me refresh my senses and learn different acting techniques. The more workshops I attend with different people, the more I get to see what suits me. Every time I perform a different character, I can use a different technique,” she elaborates.
As an experienced actress, Zaki may be more selective choosing her roles today than she was a decade ago, but she isn’t too worried about messing with her legacy or image when doing that. “I’ve gone through the phase of excessively worrying about affecting my image when choosing roles. But that was years ago. Now, I just want to enjoy my life and my job, even if I don’t think what I’m choosing is the best character or the deepest project. If I click with the character or movie, I just want to enjoy doing it, without worrying about trying to preserve my previous image. Nonetheless, of course, as you get older you seek more meaningful and profound roles,” she candidly explains.
Luckily for her many dedicated fans, Zaki has clicked with three different roles in 2020, all of which will be released in the coming months. After a few years of absence from the big and small screens, Zaki is making a full-fledged return. “My youngest child just turned three in January. I took time off to focus on taking care of him and my five-year old for a while. Sometimes, you just need to take some time off and then get back going. This makes you enjoy and appreciate your job more and fall in love with it all over again,” explains Zaki.
Directed by Ahmed Nader, El Ankabout (The Spider) is one of Zaki’s soon to be released films, in which she stars opposite none other than her longtime screen partner, Ahmed ElSaka. “It’s an action movie, but my character does not really fit the genre. I picked this project, with my friends Ahmed Nader and Ahmed ElSaka, mainly because I really wanted to do a light role with the people I love,” Zaki admits. The film features a star-studded cast, including Dhafer L’abedine, Mohamed Mamdouh, Yosra El Lozy and Reem Mostafa, but most of Zaki’s scenes are only with ElSaka. “It’s always a pleasure working with him. There’s a lot of chemistry between us because we’ve worked together so many times in the past; we grew together as actors. The same goes for director Ahmed Nader. I’ve known him for ages and we’ve been missing his work lately. He’s a great cinema director, and now he’s making a comeback,” says the comeback queen herself.
Zaki’s second upcoming film, Al Sandouq Al Aswad (The Black Box), is a suspense thriller with her at the helm. “I really liked the idea and I feel that I clicked with its unusual premise. I enjoyed that role a lot,” says the actress. The film also stars Mohamed Farrag and Mostafa Khater.
Zaki’s third project, which is the one taking up most of her time, is the TV series, Taqato’ Torok (Crossroads), set to air in Ramadan, starring Mohamed Mamdouh and Mohamed Farrag, opposite her. “I thought the series would be a very nice chance for me to make a return. I’ve always loved its director, Tamer Mohsen. I really wanted to work with him and I’m enjoying the experience very much so far,” says Zaki. Not wanting to reveal too much about the storyline, she provides a vague tease, saying, “The story is about how people can change a full 180 degrees. It’s a simple but touching story. It’s very emotional.”
While filming three projects back to back may be fun, there’s always the downside of missing out on family time, especially when you have two toddlers at home. “It’s a killer. I miss my kids so much every day when I’m not around,” says Zaki. “I sometimes collapse and cry, just because I want to spend more time with them,” she adds, as I hear her kids on her end repeatedly trying to interrupt our conversation to steal their mummy away.
It’s different with Zaki’s teenage daughter, Lilly, as she explains, “With the times changing, we’re learning to listen to our teenage kids more. We try to do what’s best for them, bearing in mind what they really want. My daughter was in a German school her entire life up till recently. Wanting to be a painter and an artist, she was tired of feeling constantly stressed because the school system was very strict. Per her request, we moved her to a very good school with an American system. I think it’s best to guide children, but to still let them think for themselves.” Comparing her childhood with that of her children, Zaki recalls with a laugh, “When I was growing up, I thought my parents were open minded, cool and understanding. Now, I realise that they were kind of uptight. But it was a different time. I was also definitely a lot more rebellious. I was actually a terrible teenager. I’m grateful that my daughter is much more balanced than I was!”
Listening to Zaki, you can’t help but feel that, along with her husband, beloved actor Ahmed Helmy, she is mastering the parenting game. “As parents, we’ve had a system for a while now. It started coincidentally, at first, and then we figured that it was really good to keep it up. Basically, if I’m working, then he takes time off, temporarily, and the other way around. When he’s off, he goes to the office for a few hours and then comes back home to be with the kids. When I’m off, I just spend time with the kids and have my ‘me time’ when they’re at school,” explains Zaki, who has been happily married for almost two decades. At that point, I hear Helmy asking his wife a question, interrupting our conversation. “I’m doing an interview. Ahmed, leave me alone,” she chides him with a chuckle. Apparently answering his question, she exclaims, still chuckling, “Yes, it’s all in English. It’s for eniGma!”
Having inadvertently been exposed to this couple’s exchange, I follow up with a question about whether they make sure to have regular quality time for themselves as a couple, apart from being parents, to which Zaki cheekily responds, “Ahmed and I have become friends more than we are a couple. Actually, we haven’t travelled together alone in a long time.” At that point, Helmy jumps in and says, “Whenever I try to set something up, she says we can’t leave the kids!”
“He’s accusing me of being clingy to my children! We’re going to start a fight in front of you,” Zaki exclaims jokingly. “If you surprise me, of course I won’t say no. The trip doesn’t have to be long. It can be something quick and nice,” she adds, addressing him. At which point, I hear Helmy retorting, “When flying is allowed again, I’ll take you on a five day trip anywhere you want!” “That’s a deal,” Zaki promptly responds, ending what was the most entertaining real conversation between a celebrity couple I have witnessed.
I felt like I had just gotten an exclusive front row seat to the Mona Zaki & Ahmed Helmy show. I could feel the genuine affection between this charming celebrity couple and pictured them mischievously smiling at each other throughout their friendly quarrel. Then, Zaki brought me back to reality when she screamed at her youngest, “Younis, remove that garbage off your head!” It was clearly time to wrap up the interview and let her get back to her family.
What is in your Coronavirus Survival Bag?
My rubbing alcohol and my gloves… I got a really cool face mask, as well, and I always carry soap and an entire box of gloves, because I have to change them every 15 minutes. I also have wipes to clean any surface I come in contact with. On the plane, I was cleaning the chairs and everything around me.
How are you spending self-quarantine time at home?
We play board games, we dance and we watch movies together. I made these fun facemasks for my whole family. My daughter and I do facials and self-care routines. We try not to let staying at home be boring.
What are the five essentials you need with you during self-quarantine?
Internet, board games, lots of music, hair products and skincare products.
What is one hobby you’d like to pick up while staying at home?
I’d love to learn so many things. There’s a face yoga method on the internet which I’d love to learn. It’s like exercising your face; it helps with the lines. I would also love to go back and brush up on my French. I would love to learn an instrument, like piano or guitar.
What TV Show would you watch over and over again during quarantine?
Friends or The Cosby Show. I also want to re-watch Hend & Doctor Noaman and El Raya El Beida (The White Flag).
What is a movie you could watch over and over again?
I love I Am Sam, Forrest Gump and so many more.
What is your favourite book that you can go back and read again?
The Forty Rules of Love.
Out of your three kids, who is coping best with quarantine and who is coping the worst?
The teenager is “dying.” She wants to go out so badly. The little ones are still under control. They’re entertained with board games and the fun that we’re trying to have. But she’s not having it (laughs).
What is one country you would live in, if not Egypt?
I’d love to live in South Africa, if I had to move.
If you had to choose between city and countryside, which do you prefer?
Photography: Khaled Fadda
Styling: Mai Galal
Makeup by Soraya Shawky
Hair by Ashour
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