From adverts and sketches, to series and feature films, comedy actor and writer Shadi Alfons has always found new and inventive ways to make us laugh. Having just returned from four intense days of touring the Gulf to promote his new film, Rashid & Rajab, Alfons was in high spirits when eniGma’s Bronwen Mehta sat down with him. As they enjoyed the aromatic blend of scented candles and infused oils that are a secret love of his, Alfons couldn’t wait to share stories about his adventures in the showbiz industry.
Growing up in Kuwait, Alfons knew from a very young age that he wanted to be an actor. “I was definitely the class clown at school. As early as Kindergarten, teachers would complain that I couldn’t sit still. But because I was always sure I wanted to be an actor, I was able to channel all my energy towards drama and physical activities,” he says. Determined to pursue the performing arts, Alfons began training with British theatre troupes, starring in Shakespearean and Elizabethan plays all over the Gulf. In order to hone his skill set, he went on to study Performing Visual Arts at the American University in Cairo, gaining his first experience of living long-term in his beloved Egypt. But there was a problem… “When I first moved here, I only spoke broken Arabic and my Arabic reading level was that of a middle-schooler. Especially during my stint in the military, I realised I had to work hard on learning to speak like a native Egyptian,” he admits. “I was also determined to write Arabic comedy and perform without an accent, as I knew it would hold me back,” he adds.
After temporarily relocating to Canada and meeting his beautiful wife Natalie there, Alfons returned to Egypt in 2011 with a mixed bag of experience in advertising and comedy, this time on a mission to take his comedy writing and acting to new heights. Immediately after returning, Alfons was lucky enough to be hired by the infamous Al Bernameg (The Programme), parachuting him onto the screens of millions across the region. Since then, the young comedian has made a solid name for himself across the Middle East, with the beginnings of a career on the global stage in sight. However, Alfons explains that he isn’t in it for the fame or money, “I live on the thrill of this job. I tried a 9-5 job and felt like my life was being drained; my soul was dying. For me, when I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, the passion takes the wheel. I’m just a vehicle between what’s in my brain and what goes onto camera,” he adds, theatrically.
Although he means what he says, even in normal conversation, Alfons’ tone and facial expressions bring a comic relief that makes even just chatting a hilarious affair. Which brought us to our next line of questioning, can he be serious when he needs to be? “It’s about balance,” he shares, going on to say, “I respect my job and I respect the other people having to do their jobs. But at the same time, it is part of my personality to find even the smallest sliver of humour in any situation, even when it might seem inappropriate. For example, a close friend was in a serious motorbike accident because he accidentally hit a donkey. When I visited him in the hospital I told him, in Arabic of course, it’s not your fault, the other guy was a donkey. Despite the pain he was in, he found it hilarious. Having said that, I do still get in trouble sometimes for my jokes!”
One arena that Alfons has become notorious for is the red carpet, where he invariably seems to bring out some unexpected laughs. He recounts that it all started when, one time, as stars paraded the carpet in their glamorous gowns and tuxedos with paparazzi snapping wildly, he lifted his trouser leg to reveal his “Socks!” he exclaims, “I love crazy socks. The crazier they are, the better; whether it is print, bright colours, patterns or characters. As a man, I was so bored of my options for the red carpet, so it was either socks or underwear, and I thought socks were a safer bet.” Accustomed to Alfons photobombing other celebrities with his funky socks, now the press give his unusual gimmick plenty of camera time!
Following in the footsteps of his comic idols, Mohammed Saad and Samir Ghanem, Alfons’ comedy style during his spell at Saturday Night Live Arabia, was very much about creating characters with accents and distinct facial expressions, and eliciting laughs through both songs and sketches. However, his unique background also gives him an extra edge. Having grown up in Kuwait, Alfons is well versed in the Gulf culture and dialect, while his Egyptian heritage, and time living here as an adult has brought him in touch with Egyptian comedic styles. To add to that, living in Canada alongside his better half, has given him an intimate knowledge of Western acting and accents.
As a hybrid of these different worlds of comedy and acting, Alfons has been able to give us a broader variety of performances than most other actor-comedians are able to. In April, his English-speaking side came to the forefront in the popular Hulu series, Ramy, starring American-Egyptian comedian Ramy Youssef. Playing a partying Egyptian millennial, Alfons’ character definitely contributed to the series’ aim to challenge misconceptions that many in the West hold about Egyptian society and the diaspora. Although he loved playing the role, Alfons took a quick, but serious, detour onto the topic of representation and diversity. “We are a diverse country of 100 million people, and, of course, it is impossible to present everyone accurately. In this series, I portrayed a modern millennial partygoer, and while it was cool, it was quite a narrow perspective of how Egyptian millennials feel post-revolution,” he suggests. Speaking more generally about the entertainment industry, Alfons explains, “While looking at Egyptians through a Western lens is definitely still controversial, we should consider shows like Ramy as progress. We’ve come this far, and we are heading in the right direction.”
Recalling his first experience working with a big international production house like Hulu, Alfons admits that the experience of filming Ramy was a world apart from filming in Egypt. “Production in Egypt is like driving in Egypt; it has its own way that works. Plus, people know me here, so I can get up to all sorts of mischief on set. Working on Hulu’s production was much more ‘business is business’, but of course I eventually broke the ice,” he remarks cheekily.
After we took a short break for Alfons to have a quick cuddle with his adorable daughter who had just returned from a playdate, we went on to talk about his latest movie Rashid & Rajab. Besides being one of its leading stars, Alfons is also one of its main writers. Featuring an Egyptian delivery-man switching bodies with an Emirati executive, this slapstick comedy takes the genre of body swapping down a whole new path. “While the region has produced hilarious body swap movies like Elly Baly Balak (From My Mind to Yours), there has never been one that has crossed cultures in this way. It plays on the stereotypes that Egyptians have of Emiratis and vice versa, to create something that the whole region can laugh at,” he says. When he first joined the project six years ago he was only a writer. A few years later, the production house, Image Nation, called him up to offer him one of the lead acting positions. “I hadn’t written it expecting to get the part, but because of my ability to act comedy in both dialects I guess they thought I fit the role perfectly. It was strange getting back the script that I had written years earlier and being able to add my own twist to my own jokes, but this time as the actor,” he recounts.
While we all know that Egyptians love to laugh, after having written comedy for both Egyptian and Gulf audiences, Alfons knows exactly what makes Egyptian humour unique. “An Egyptian audience is actually harder to write comedy for, because we have such a long, rich history of humour, and people are just so genuinely funny. That means that giving them something new to laugh at is hard. They know what a good joke is, and they won’t laugh at anything less than that. But with so much experience, I know what works,” Alfons explains.
Expressing his love for both Egypt’s humour and, more generally, for the Egyptian entertainment industry, Alfons says that he definitely wants to work on more Egyptian productions in the future. One of his career highlights was playing Ezzat in last year’s Ramadan series Fooq Al Sahab (Above the Clouds), where he was playing a selfish and greedy character which, he assures us, is his polar opposite. Constantly on the lookout for interesting and convincing parts, Alfons is open to working in any genre, wherever the roles may take him. That being said, he has his hopes set on one day starring in an action comedy, and his even bigger dream is to work on the American version of Saturday Night Live. Wherever he ends up, we can be sure to expect many more laughs from this jovial joker.