Demonstrating raw talent and an uncanny ability to take on a wide range of roles with equal success, Rosaline Elbay is rapidly making a name for herself as a substantial actress. From her performance in the Egyptian TV series, Qabeel, to her role in the Hulu series, Ramy, and everything in between, time and again she is proving that she got what is takes. Yet, the talented Elbay has dreams and aspirations that reach beyond acting. To find out more about her unfolding success story, eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham had a Zoom sit-down with the multifaceted rising star.
The first time I watched Rosaline Elbay, she was still starting out on Egyptian TV in the Ramadan 2019 series, Qabeel. I was blown away by her seemingly effortless acting and by the depth by which she personified her character. My next encounter with her was a couple of months later, when I watched the first season of what was to become a global hit, Ramy. Sure enough, once again, I found her to be a total scene-stealer, performing with the same effortless gravitas, yet with a completely different vibe and delivery. I became intrigued by this actress, a virtually newcomer who gave a performance like a seasoned professional. To her credit, it wasn’t until sometime later that I realised this was the same actress I had admired in Qabeel. When I later met her personally, albeit briefly, at El Gouna Film Festival last year, I saw her free spirit and natural charisma flow. She’s the type that seamlessly makes friends wherever she goes; yet, she’s not overly confident or in your face, but rather subtle and spontaneous. I knew that it was only a matter of time until she became a full-fledged star.
Fast forward to getting to interview Elbay for this feature! What was originally intended to be a quick interview over Zoom, turned into a two-hour conversation that went way beyond my original list of talking points. I was lucky that Elbay, who is currently quarantining at home with her family, had some time to spare, and I gladly took advantage of that.
Elbay had not lived with her parents and younger brother for quite some time, since she moved out years ago. “The nice thing about moving back in with my family temporarily, or for what is turning into an extended visit, is that it ends up feeling like you’re on holiday… It’s nice to get to spend time together. We’re still in the honeymoon phase though; I’m sure soon we’ll be wringing each other’s necks at some point,” she says sarcastically.
Elbay was born and raised in Cairo where she went to an international school, after which she moved to the UK at 18 to study archeology at university. “I’m still like 40 percent archaeologist! It’s a running joke in my family that I just wanted to be Rachel Weisz in The Mummy,” laughs Elbay.
While studying archeology, Elbay took up acting as a hobby. Soon enough, she began taking it more seriously as she moved on to taking on roles in professional shows, such as Twelfth Night, Flea and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “When I tried it out, I loved it so much that I realised I needed to focus more on theatre and acting. A few years ago, whenever I would come back to Egypt to renew my UK visa, I began learning more about the acting scene in Egypt. I became more involved in the industry and went to auditions both in Egypt and abroad,” she recalls, adding, “I was very lucky that someone recommended me for an audition for Marwan Hamed’s film, Torab Al-Mas (Diamond Dust). He gave me a small part, which turned out to be a great introduction to the industry in Egypt.”
Elbay’s next role in Egypt was an appearance in the short film, Shoka w Sekina (Fork & Knife), starring Eyad Nassar and Menna Shalaby. “It was so much fun to work with Eyad. It was super quick; we did our scenes in two takes. He’s very easy to work with and one of the nicest people,” she recounts.
At that time, Elbay was also busy starring in several ads and doing some theatre work. While on a photoshoot at El Gouna, she met director Kareem El-Shenawy, and that encounter proved to be an important milestone in her career. “We really got along, and we both wanted to work together. So when he was doing Qabeel, he asked me to audition for it. After three rounds of auditions, I got the part,” she says.
Playing the complex role of Sara in Qabeel, opposite star Mohamed Mamdouh, was a turning point in Elbay’s career. Both she and the director knew that playing the role of Mamdouh’s dead wife was going to be difficult. “We knew from the beginning that this was going to be a challenge. I had to think of Sara on two levels – the real Sara and Mamdouh’s made-up version of her,” explains Elbay, who ended up getting rave reviews for her performance. “Playing opposite such a great actor like Mamdouh, who was extremely supportive, was great. He made me feel safe, in a way. And he always puts in the extra effort,” she recalls. “I’ve been very lucky to work exclusively with people who are very generous,” she adds, with a smile.
When prodded to reveal the secret to her ease at embodying complex characters, Elbay surprises me with her answer. “I make stuff up! I was taught by one of my directors in theatre to invent little details that can help me form a backstory to my character. So, with my notebook in hand, as I discuss the role with the director, I invent little things that help me embody the character. No one has to know. It’s my secret,” she explains with a sly twinkle in her eye.
Her part in the critically acclaimed American series, Ramy, which catapulted her to international recognition, was clearly another milestone for Elbay; and she declares that Ramy Youssef’s generosity played a big part in her success on the show. With very little information about the series and what they were looking for, Elbay was invited to audition in front of Ramy Youssef and director Jehane Noujaim. “Almost two years ago, they were holding auditions in Cairo, looking for the right actress to play Ramy’s cousin, Amani,” she recounts. “We got to improvise, and Ramy was just great. I left the audition thinking to myself that whatever this was, I wanted it,” she adds. And, indeed, she got it.
The first versions of the Ramy script that Elbay received were very preliminary, leaving room for her to develop the character by drawing on her own personality and background. In fact, she discloses that some of ‘Rosaline’ crept in the role of Amani as the script went through re-writes. “While Amani is not me, she is close to someone I recognise but haven’t seen on TV before. She’s someone who has faith and is trying to find her place in the world,” she explains.
By the end of the second season of Ramy, as Elbay recounts, Amani has made some remarkably bad choices, causing irreparable damage and ultimately hitting rock bottom. This leads her to finally acknowledge her mistakes and try to walk away from what ultimately proves to be a toxic relationship. “I’m glad that we got to see her pull herself out of something that was counterproductive and unhealthy,” says Elbay as she expands on her view of the character, which needs some redemption… perhaps in the upcoming third season?
Beyond Ramy, recently Elbay was to participate in the Ramadan drama series, Leabet El Nesyan (A Game of Forgetfulness). Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, she had to drop out. “We filmed some bits, and then I had to drop out because I couldn’t risk catching the coronavirus. I had to stay home, for health reasons, as per my doctor’s orders. It was sad, especially missing out on working with Tamer Habib, Hany Khalifa and Ali Kassem. But I’m so happy that the role went to Asmaa Galal,” she explains.
Aside from acting, another career highlight for Elbay was when she MCd the 2019 GFF opening next to Karim Kassem, Aly Kassem and Mariam El Khosht. “While I had previously worked with the Cairo International Film Festival, handling coverage, coordination and stuff like that, presenting at GFF was different. Being on stage was terrifying to me. When I’m on stage as a character, I’m not nervous because I hide behind the character. But getting up on stage and speaking as Rosaline is completely different. The worst thing is when you look out and you see your idols sitting in the crowd, watching you,” she recalls.
Elbay would like to explore other things as well. “I’ve been writing my whole life, and it feels like it exposes me more than acting does, because I don’t have anything to hide behind. I’m working on this script that’s very personal to me. It’s a work in progress and still needs some development,” she reveals. “I’m also working on a couple of other things behind the camera instead of in front of it. One of them might involve both simultaneously. But coronavirus has just halted everything,” she adds.
For now, Elbay is enjoying her time off in quarantine with her family. Hopefully soon, everything will get back to normal, and she will continue to explore new avenues, creating art, being authentic and making new friends… She has already made one in me.