A relative newcomer to the scene, Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni has been turning heads with his hauntingly raw performance as the lead in Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Oscar-nominated film, The Man Who Sold His Skin. Mahayni won the award for Best Actor in the Horizons Section at the Venice International Film Festival in 2020, where the film first premiered, and went on to gain further recognition at El Gouna Film Festival later that year. Not only was his film screened on the festival’s opening night, it also won the festival’s award for Best Narrative Film. Shortly after the film’s Oscar nomination was announced, eniGma’s CEO Yasmine Shihata and Senior Assigning Editor Mohamed Hesham interviewed the rising star at the eniGma office in Cairo. Here is Hesham’s account of the delightful conversation.
Our sit down with Mahayni came about after a fortunate encounter between him and our CEO, Yasmine Shihata, when they sat next to each other at the premiere of his movie on the opening night of El Gouna Film Festival last October. Thankfully, she didn’t have to fake a positive reaction, as she was genuinely impressed with the film, and found it an utter delight.
Fast forward to a few months later, the film has become a global success with an Oscar nomination under its belt. Yahya Mahayni arrives for our interview looking nothing like his character in The Man Who Sold His Skin. Sharply dressed in a dashing grey suit, a matching dotted sweater over a white shirt with a hound-tooth tie, his sun-kissed messy curls in sharp contrast with his attire, Mahayni gives off a hint of eccentric quirk that is to be revealed. All suited up, he might initially fool you with a serious vibe; yet, during the course of our delightful time together, his goofy, spontaneous and free-spirited persona shines through. A mere five minutes with him feels like a lifelong friendship. Simply put, Mahayni is a ball of positive energy.
Before we start the interview, Mahayni is introduced to the eniGma team. He insists on learning everyone’s names and, bizarrely, memorises them all on the spot. After making small talk and cracking jokes with almost everyone at the office, he finally sits down for our interview. “Tie or no tie?” he asks us, to which we unanimously vote “no tie” – mostly because we want him to feel comfortable and at ease, and partly because we feel rather underdressed next to the sharp star…
Much like his unique and distinctive look, Mahayni’s journey in showbusiness was fairly unusual. “My acting background consisted mainly of being the entertainer in my family. Growing up with an older brother and sister, Zeina and Zeid, with a significant age gap between me and them, I used to pop jokes and entertain them. I guess that was my first exposure to acting. I never really studied acting or pursued it in a serious way afterwards, other than on the side, as a fun activity,” he recounts. “At one point, I did try to take it more seriously, but I encountered obstacles when it came to getting actual paying roles or interesting projects,” he adds.
Over the years, Mahayni went on to participate in several short films and medium-length movies that were not officially produced and that were generally financed through crowd funding or by their directors. Stressing that this doesn’t make them any less viable or enriching, he still reveals that most of those films remain unlisted and under the radar. In other words, titles you will not find on IMDB… Nonetheless, Mahayni considers some of them pivotal points in his career. He notes in particular, a short film called Emptiness, directed by Yoann Suberviolle, dealing with the theme of loss, grief and finding peace. “It was a deeply personal project. Yoann dedicated this film to his mother, who had told him that, upon her passing she would like to have her ashes spread over a certain mountain; so, we climbed the highest peak of that mountain. Shortly after the film, my dad also passed away. So, I consider it an ode to the deceased in a form of visual poetry. That was one of the most special experiences I had,” he explains.
While Emptiness and other films he took part in were personally fulfilling, Mahayni felt that his acting career was not heading in a meaningful direction, which prompted him to quit acting for about two years. That is, until he received a call from a casting director who was looking for the perfect lead in an ambitious Tunisian-French production titled, The Man Who Sold His Skin. The film’s director, Kaouther Ben Hania, had auditioned many great actors for Sam Ali, the main character in the script, but ultimately felt that none of them were a good fit. Initially intrigued by Mahayni’s facial features, Ben Hania viewed his audition tape and felt he could be the right guy for the job. Mahayni went on to successfully audition for the role in person, once on his own, and another with actress Dea Leane, who ended up playing Abeer, his love interest in the film. His audition with her proved they shared a special spark on camera, which ultimately sealed the deal. Mahayni got the part!
The film tells the story of a Syrian refugee, Sam, who is so desperate to reunite with the girl he loves and start a better life in Belgium, that he ends up signing away his most basic rights to freedom. He does so by allowing a famous painter, known for giving “worthless objects” value by turning them into art, to use his back as the canvas for a painting of the Schengen Visa. By depicting this extraordinary story, Ben Hania presents an extreme version of the real experiences of refugees, who are too often viewed as damaged goods – unwanted, mistreated and ignored by others. The premise of the film, in and of its own, is genius. Moreover, her brilliant direction nailing down every small detail, in addition to the actors’ performances, is truly astonishing. The Man Who Sold His Skin is an immersive and well-executed artistic masterpiece.
Surprisingly, however, one of the most farfetched elements in the film is inspired by a real-life occurrence. It turns out there is an actual “living artwork” named Tim Steiner, simply referred to as “Tim.” On his back, the living art-piece displays an elaborate, intricately detailed tattoo of the Virgin Mary designed by famous Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (who makes a stealthy cameo in the film). Tim was sold to a German art collector, and he currently physically sits at museums on a daily basis. Moreover, as hard as this sounds, upon Tim Steiner’s passing, his back is to be skinned and kept for showcase.
While the character he plays in the film is inspired by that true story, Mahayni finds that Sam Ali’s motivations are fundamentally different. He explains, “I read about the true story of Tim Steiner, but I can’t say that I studied him, because it’s secondary to what I had to do playing the character of Sam Ali, as written by Kaouther Ben Hania. But obviously, I was interested. This is a Swiss national who lived in London; he agrees to have a huge tattoo on his back and to sit for hours on end in museums, contractually. I mean, it’s his personal choice and he gets one-third of all the resale value. I don’t know what Tim’s circumstances were at the time, but, in the case of Sam Ali, he really needed to get to Belgium and had no means to get there other than this opportunity which presented itself. So, you have to put yourself in his shoes… We’ve all been in situations where we wanted to achieve a goal, which presupposes making an exception to certain principles that we hold, and nevertheless, we decide that the end justifies the means, and this is what Sam tells himself.”
While the novelty of a man being displayed as a piece of art is a vast part of the film’s intrigue, it is essentially a creative device that helps tell a multilayered story. “For me, it is a film that is ultimately about the relativity of freedom. The character starts out wanting to travel to Europe in order to win over the girl he’s in love with. He thinks that having a visa will allow him to conquer this love. That is the freedom he aspires to at that moment,” Mahayni explains, adding, “He’s also got his own internal contradictions, like we all do. He knows it’s against his principles, but he refuses to admit it. However, you see him kind of redeem part of his conscience and soul towards the end by eventually doing some altruistic acts.”
At some point, you may think there’s a specific bad guy in the film. Whether it is Jeffrey, the artist played by acclaimed Belgian actor Koen De Bouw, or his assistant Soraya played by iconic Italian actress Monica Bellucci, everyone has different dimensions in the film. You eventually walk away understanding there is no real villain. “The characters Sam ends up dealing with, even though they have financial means and are part of ‘the system,’ are themselves also slaves to it – be it Soraya, who is subordinate to the qualms of Jeffree, or Jeffree himself, who expresses towards the end that his driving fear is being ignored by said system,” Mahayni explains.
Acting opposite a star-studded international cast and with an Oscar-nominated director clearly challenged Mahayni to step up to the task. It also, undoubtedly, put insane pressure on him. “I felt hugely intimidated when I started working with Kaouthar, and I felt the same way with Monica Bellucci when I first met her. But, after we did some readings of some of the scenes we had together, I found her so pleasant, humble and patient. She’s very spontaneous too. There were times when the dialogue between us felt like it had something missing, and Kaouthar would give us freedom to deviate slightly from the script. We had so much fun doing that. There was one scene, which ended up getting cut, where she slaps me, and we had to redo that take seven times. She was so hesitant to slap me; it was too funny,” he recounts with a laugh, acknowledging that there are worse things in life than getting slapped by Monica Bellucci.
“Koen, however, is perhaps the most intimidating to act with, because he takes his time when he speaks. I admire that. Personally, I’m very uncomfortable with silence and gaps, and when you meet someone who, unlike you, lets the gap sink in, that’s actually intimidating. But it ended up being very reassuring, because I found that when you’re acting, the gaps help let the scene breathe and you can just get into it. On a personal note, all of the actors were just amazing. In hindsight, I had so much fun filming the movie, because it was my first experience doing a feature film and I was in almost every scene. However, there is a sense of anxiety that comes with being the lead actor. You have to learn to deal with it. I always try to remember that acting for me is a passion, which helps keep me present and in the moment. When I put too much pressure on myself, I find myself freezing and unable to perform, focusing on the stakes of each scene. From that perspective, it was nice to have the support of Dea Leane. We reminded ourselves frequently that we were doing this for the joy of it.”
While the film was produced on a limited budget, it easily looks like an insanely lavish production, thanks to the director’s intricate planning and careful execution. Filming took place in the South of France in Toulouse, then in Belgium where most of the museum scenes were filmed, and then in Tunisia for the scenes supposedly taking place in Lebanon and Syria. “We also cheated a lot of the museum scenes that we built from scratch, then embellished them with the paintings of Roberto Ferri; you will see those around a lot throughout the film,” Mahayni reveals. “I’m definitely impressed by the result. I look up to Kaouthar and I’m proud of all the work she’s done to create this masterpiece. To do what she’s done, with the help of Nadine Shafrooha and co-producer Nadine Attia, is just amazing,” he adds.
The film is now a certified critical darling, as evidenced by the nods it received at the Stockholm International Film Festival, El Gouna Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival, where it first premiered and earned Mahayni the award for Best Actor in the Horizons Section. The actor is slowly taking in all the recognition and processing the incredible reaction, including the film’s most recent nomination for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. “I try not to project too much and have too many expectations, but this was something that was beyond my imagination. At the first screening in Venice, we really had no expectations of what the final result would be, and we were in awe! Personally, this reaction and that first moment was worth way more than the Venice prize I won. That was the most precious moment in this experience so far. Everything that came after was just a cherry on top,” he exclaims.
What’s next for the breakout star then? “I don’t really know what the future holds. It’s tough to think about what’s really coming next,” he says, adding, “I stick to my philosophy of just going with the flow, and it has been going great so far!” True to form, if the flow is anything like Mahayni’s swagger curls and swanky suit game, you’re all in for a treat.