For over 17 years, Syrian actor Basel Khayat has zipped from one project to the next. His latest TV series, Tariqi (My Path), in which he co-stars with singer Sherine, puts him in the same bracket as the stars of old.
Ahram Hebdo (AH): In your latest TV series Tariqi you play Yehya El-Meneissi, a strong character who's cunning and determined. Your role recalls those played by renowned late Egyptian actors Zaki Rostom (1903-1972) and Adel Adham (1928–1996). However, El-Meneissi also has a seductive allure worthy of someone like Rushdy Abaza (1926-1980). To what extent has this role allowed you to avoid clichés?
Basel Khayat (BK): The events in the series are set in the 1960s, a period I have not lived in and about which I knew little. I spent several months watching black-and-white films, familiarising myself with the social, political and cultural features of Egypt in that period. I admit I soon fell in love with the era. It seems everything was well conceived and designed, and people were immaculately dressed.
Yehya El-Meneissi is one of my most profound roles due, in short, to his stash of traits and emotions which often contradict each other. I wanted to portray that naturally, without gimmicks or clichés.
AH: El-Meneissi is a somewhat mischievous lawyer who walks the line between power and corruption. He is also a husband as jealous as he is romantic, and prone to violence. What did you have to do to convey all that?
BK: I always have difficulties talking about my acting techniques. I consider them the 'private sphere' of my profession. They are my little secrets [laughs]... A character actually requires physical and mental preparation on many levels. It's also necessary to steer clear of preconceived ideas in order to be faithful to the character himself. I also had to avoid being too structured. I had to give the work different dimensions rather than repeating the same thing.
For El-Meneissi I settled on a way of speaking, a way of walking – even a way of reacting to his wife Dalila's (Sherine) rebelliousness. I also bore in mind the director's vision. All of a sudden Yehya El-Meneissi gained sympathy with viewers and critics alike, despite his villainous nature.
AH: How did you find working with a famous singer who does not necessarily have much experience in acting?
BK: I'm a fan of Sherine and of her songs, so I was delighted to work with her. Sherine always draws on her emotions, not her experiences, when acting. That's why everyone liked her performance and found it quite touching. In front of the cameras we had a fiery relationship, but she is very professional, very human and very pleasant on set.
AH: You've been compared to the famous actor Rushdy Abaza, who passed several decades ago, a fact which prompted his family to invite you to play him in a new TV series. Can you reveal any details about this biographical project?
BK: I had the honour of meeting some members of Rushdy Abaza's family, over six months ago, to discuss the possibility of making a TV series about the actor's life and career. However, I have neither agreed nor refused, given that I don't find necessary or easy to produce such a biography. Nevertheless, it's a great honour for me to be approached by the family for this role. I myself am awaiting more details.
AH: What are your upcoming projects?
BK: I'm developing a drama with some action and suspense thrown in. There are emotional scenes which revolve around depression, like in real life. I hope the script will be ready in a few months.
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*This interview was first published by Al Ahram Hebdo, Al-Ahram's weekly French language newspaper.