It took the British filmmaker Guy Ritchie four months and 2,000 auditions to find the perfect actor for the role of Aladdin in his new, live action remake of Disney’s 1992 animation: an obscure Canadian Egyptian, 27, named Mena Massoud. The film premiered in France on May and had its Middle East premiere in Jordan on Monday. It will be released in 3D on 24 May.
And one of the best things about it is its star. In his interviews Massoud speaks of a sense of responsibility representing the Middle East in Hollywood, discusses his time at the Ryerson Theatre School and demonstrates charisma and humour. He represents a new generation of Arab immigrants who dared to dream, feeling no pressure to conceal their background or culture, but rather learned to act as mediators, a task that is especially difficult in Hollywood. According to Massoud, speaking (in Arabic) to the BBC Arabic website last week, “Maybe after people watch this film they will have more confidence in me playing other important roles and not only roles that tell Arab stories. The most important thing is for actors who look like me to play ordinary roles in Hollywood, to be treated like any other actor.”
Asked on the “Sway in the Morning” show if he ever felt pressure to change his name because “You know how sometimes people can judge you by your name”, he said, “I thought about it for a while when I first got into the industry, but I kind of decided not to and I am glad I did not.” Given the rare opportunity to be the star of a big Disney production when his name could only be seen at the end of the credits of a few films and TV series such as Nikita (2011) or Ordinary Days (2017), Massoud does not deny it was a challenge to make it in Hollywood because of his identity. Even the story of Aladdin, which he says he grew up with and dreamt of performing, reflects his life journey immigrating from Cairo to Markham, Ontario when he was three.
“Identity is one of the themes of the film,” he told Fandango correspondent Nikki Novak. “Aladdin is going on a journey to find his identity which is something that I went through and I am still going through. Aladdin looked like me.”
But being the most ethnically diverse film Disney has ever made, Aladdin also reflects his beliefs: “I am Canadian Egyptian, Naomi Scott is English Indian, Marwan Kenzari is Dutch Tunisian, Navid Negahban is American Iranian. It is an international cast. This is a step forward in the industry. We live in a time where a lot of ethnic groups don’t get representation and we have to fight for that.” he explains.
But he is also realistic: “I hope people see the film and support it and hopefully if it does well, then Hollywood can take a look at that and see that films like this that are led by Middle Easterners or Asians can do well so they say, let us keep making them. It is a business at the end of the day.”
Understanding the basics of how the industry works was what Massoud reach the point he is right now. The secret is how hard one can work to meet the demands of the industry. He knew at a very young age that to be an actor was all he wanted. He started acting by doing voices for friends and family to make people laugh, but when he had to choose between to continuing with science as his family wanted and following his dream he decided to drop out of science college after one year to study theater.
Then he started at the bottom of the ladder by playing small roles from 2011 till he responded to the casting call of Aladdin in 2017.
Knowing that the role would require many skills he did not have such as singing, dancing, camel riding and diving did not stop him since he did his best to acquire what training he would need even before real preparations for the film.
Massoud says he learned a lot from Will Smith, who plays the Genie in Aladdin, which also reflects how the young man thinks about his career.
“With 30 years in the industry the biggest thing I learned from Smith is to be yourself through the journey, there is nothing exterior able to make you happy in life but you’ve got to find that from within you. Stay true to yourself and go on this journey.”
He also has his own insights: “I grew watching Egyptian comedy films by the great Egyptian comedians such as Ismail Yassin and Adel Imam. The way they entertain the audience with not only their words but with their body language and facial expressions is totally different from that of the actors here. I played a lot of comedy roles in American productions. My role in Aladdin is also a comedy role. I believe I play comedy roles with a different taste that I learned from our own cinema and this makes it appealing in a different way,” he told the BBC.
One effect Massoud hopes Aladdin will have is to invite more people to see the Middle East from a different angle: “This film is inspired a lot by the Middle East. I hope it inspires people to visit the Middle East and see all the beauty that is there,” he said on the “Live with Kelly and Ryan” show.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A present-day Aladdin
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture