'Experience is a privilege': Salwa Mohamed Aly on her 30-year-long career

May Sélim, Tuesday 22 Jul 2014

Ahram Online talks to Salwa Mohamed Aly, the established figure of independent theatre and the actress who excels in supporting roles on the silver and the big screens

Salwa Mohamed Aly
Salwa Mohamed Aly, still from an interview posted on YouTube (Jan 2013)

Despite the tension on the set during the filming of the Shams television series, she is at ease. In the hands of the hairdresser and makeup artist, she treats all with kindness. She emanates positive vibes wherever she goes and develops a visible friendship with the younger actresses and production assistants.

Egyptian actress Salwa Mohamed Aly is the queen of secondary roles. In both cinema and television, we often find her as the protagonist's mother or best friend. This petite woman, with the familiar air of a person we come across every day, never fails to nail the dramatic roles she takes on her shoulders.

"I made my debut in theatre and I'm proud of it. Television series are like a daily newspaper, while films resemble a book that we keep in a library. Theatre is life!" Aly commented to Ahram Online.

Away from stardom on the screen, Salwa Mohamed Aly is primarily an actress at the avant-garde Al-Talia Theatre. We remember her as Regan in Shakespeare's King Lear or Ghada in Miserable Dreams by a Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous (1941–1997). She left an equally strong imprint with her roles in director Ahmad El-Attar’s My Uncle from America (2000) and Mother I Want to Be a Millionaire (2004 -- roles which have only confirmed her unique qualities as an actress.

"At the time, I thought I played well, but I was not great. Today, I know I have good experience, but I'm not completely satisfied," Aly said, leaving us to wonder whether the comment was an expression of her modesty or her wisdom. Then, suddenly, and without much thought, she declared that she "won't talk about an artist who fails to satisfy; I do not like clichés and ready phrases."

Today in her fifties, the actress does not attempt to impose the image of a star or a sophisticated intellectual, preferring to describe herself with, "I am what I am."

During Ramadan this year, Aly plays in three television series aired at different times: Shams, Emberatoreiyet Meen? (Whose Empire?), and Sadiq Al-Omr (Lifelong Friend). "I have guest appearances in the first two series and an important role in the latter, where I play the first wife of general Mohamed Abdel-Hakim Amer (1919 - 1967)," she clarified.

"Each time I receive the script of my scenes, I feel a great joy." Although Aly remains optimistic, she does not deny that the journey in television series might be a challenge. Due to the limited time, actors often do not receive the complete scenario before the shooting begins, something that seems to become a new characteristics of the Ramadan season. Moreover, many scripts continue to be developed almost concurrently with the shooting.

"The actor accepts to play a role without reading the whole work, and has to rely on the vision of the director and screenwriter. The rest is left to chance," Aly explained, without regret, before adding: "Even at the level of compensation, often we cannot determine the amount in advance. At the end, it's all quite confusing: should one accept or reject the role offered? Then, finally we give in, as those are the prevailing rules. Otherwise we would stay at home."

Fate had pushed her to theatre early. Having completed her baccalaureate, she wanted to study at the polytechnic but was not accepted. So, without really understanding what it was, she appeared for the entry exams in Cairo's Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts at the Academy of Arts.

"Before going to the preliminary entry interview, I was surrounded by young people who expressed their passion for theatre. During the entry assessment, one of the professors asked me why I wanted to study drama. I simply replied that I did not manage to get accepted in other faculties," Aly recalled how the professors laughed, thinking she was trying to crack a joke. And so she was accepted.

The actress goes on to underline how proud she is to have had eminent theatre figures as her professors: Galal El-Charkawi and Aly Fahmi, among others.

She continues to recall her first stage appearance by saying "Towards the end of my first year, I rehearsed for a role in Akhenaton by Agatha Christie, directed by my friend Mokhles El-Beheiri. Two days before the performance, I panicked; I locked myself in the house. Beheiri had no time to find another actress, so he came all the way to pick me up from home."

Aly's performance was acclaimed by the public and, to her surprise, she was equally applauded by her professors. "This is when I gained a lot of confidence. Mokhles El-Beheiri made me discover my talent as an actress. I remain very grateful to him," she added.

Her passion for acting and love for theatre evolved from one year to the next. "I was a young student who had nothing to do with the art world. Gradually, I learned to tame it. Classical and neoclassical plays reminded me of the best days of my childhood. At the time, my parents attended theatre performances, including those directed by Saeed Abu Bakr, known for many adaptations of Molière."

Aly graduated in 1983 and, today, recalling the years spent at the Academy of Arts, she admits to also having experienced difficult times. "I did not have the physique of a seductive girl. Directors looking for a new talent were more interested in blondes. Petite brunettes like me were often offered the roles of maids." Finally employed by Cairo's avant-garde Al-Talia Theatre, the actress began to experiment and discover new genres.

Following a series of successful performances, in 1989 she married director Mohsen Helmi, the father of her twins Mariam and May. When her responsibilities as a mother forced her to stay at home for more than five years, she took this opportunity to pursue higher studies at the Academy of Arts, at the Higher Institute of Art Criticism. "I could not just stay home and nurse the babies. The studies I pursued in parallel allowed me to dissect drama," Aly said.

Upon her return to the stage, as well as to film and television, she began looking at things differently. The character of Aunt Khairiya in Alam Simsim (Egyptian adaptation of the series Sesame Street) will remain etched in our memories despite the fact that the actress openly states that she hated her part: "Behind the scenes, while I played an important role in a Shakespeare or Saadallah Wannous, spectators came to see me to take a picture with me. With Aunt Khairiya, the viewers wanted to cherish her only in their memory."

The past two years, Aly took parts in films that have caused a vivid response from the critics: Asham: A Man Called Hope (2012) directed Maggie Morgan, Fataat Al-Masnaa (Factory Girl, 2013) directed by Mohamed Khan and Hany Fawzi's film Asrar A'eleiya (Family Secrets).

"Having experience is a privilege," Aly explained, adding that she is not afraid to break taboos, or rebel against something. "Art is a revolution -- if artists do not possess the courage to present something novel and incite change, who else will?"

Thus last year, under ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, she was at the forefront of the artists protesting in front of the Ministry of Culture and its then minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz, accused by the artists and intellectuals of standing against Egypt's culture. "I still refuse the repressive role of censorship against art," Aly asserted.

After Ramadan, Salwa Mohamed Aly will participate in evenings dedicated to reading theatre plays so as to further explore the world of artistic interpretation. "It gives me such a joy when I manage to touch the imaginary only with voice. I allow the public to dream as I indulge myself in a true style exercise," she concluded with the resolute tone of someone used to, and fond of, taking on new challenges.

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