At an early age Amir El-Masry decided to hitch his wagon to a star and make a big name for himself in acting.
His great ambition and strong determination paved the way to his success and a Best Actor Award from the British International Film Award (BIFA).
Following the international critical acclaim he received for his role in Limbo, El-Masry competed with his film in the 42nd edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) where he took home three awards. Prior to that Limbo was part of the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and also received the TCM Youth Jury Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Most recently, The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) named the rising star as one of the 2020 BAFTA Breakthrough participants, making him the first actor of Egyptian origin to be nominated.
Born in Cairo and raised in London, El-Masry is an Egyptian-British actor who has worked with acclaimed actors and directors both at home and abroad. Shortly after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, El-Masry launched his acting career with Jon Stewart’s debut feature Rosewater (2014). He has since starred in various popular works, establishing himself as an emerging British talent.
His breakout role came in early 2016 in the highly praised mini-series The Night Manager, alongside Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman. In 2017, El-Masry took part in Woody Harrelson’s film Lost in London, and the critically acclaimed, BAFTA-nominated mini-series “The State.” He went on to portray the character of Ibrahim in Tom Clancy’s TV series Jack Ryan, which has been nominated for three Primetime Emmy awards. He also took part in the BAFTA TV Award-nominated series, Informer.
Among his most prominent works is the lead role in The Arabian Warrior, the first American/Saudi feature-length film, in addition to his role in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. El-Masry’s latest series Industry is currently airing on HBO Max.
Egypt Today chats with the international star about Limbo, his cinematic views and his dreams for the future.
1-Limbo tackles a pretty controversial topic and you managed to convey the unspoken layers of trauma in Omar’s character. How did you manage to be so credible?
First thank you for the compliment. Before I read the script I was initially reluctant to take on the role because of the huge responsibility in portraying a real-life story, especially something that is timely and happening right now as well. The refugee crisis is a matter that is quite close to my heart, I have seen friends who have done similar things like what my character did in the movie, so I see it is an important and vital issue that we do need to tackle. The script written by Ben Sharrock thrusts Omar to the forefront of the story, reminding us that Omar has a rich cultural background in Syria and that he would happily have stayed there with his family, had it not been for the civil war in Syria.
In terms of trauma it comes from personal experiences and stories that I also had second hand from Syrian refugees who were kind enough to share their personal stories with me; they were really valuable sources and helped me get into character. In Scotland we sat down with them and we had two weeks of rehearsals.
2-What were the biggest challenges? To what extent did studying sociology help you pull it off?
The shooting conditions were very difficult, the weather was very cold because we were in winter in the US and Scotland. There were no trees to protect us from the 55mph winds and I had nothing on but a teesha and a thin jacket, but I wanted to at least feel small percentage of what Omar and other refugees had gone through. It was a grueling experience and one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. At the end of the day I have the privilege of going back home to my warm small tree house where I stayed, but for a lot of people these tough conditions are the reality they have to face.
Omar comes from a wonderful background, a musical background so sociology benefited me when it came to the idea of how to navigate between different cultures. I was also taught by musician Kheyam Allami how to play the oud. Of course oud takes about seven years to master and I had only two months but I was lucky enough to have regular trainings, about four times a week, with Kheyam and I practiced every day.
3-2020 marks your second year in a row taking part at the Cairo International Film Festival where you participated in the last edition with your Danish film Daniel. How do you feel you have changed in terms of your acting performance? How do you enhance your performance from one role to the other?
I was filming Daniel and Limbo back to back and both Sharrock and I were concerned about me shaking off the character of John JJ and stepping into the role of Omar. In Daniel I played a very immoral person and I had packed on a little bit of weigh and muscles which I then had to shed and I lost about 10 kilograms. In preparation for Omar I decided along with my director to isolate myself before Covid-19 and I took the long road to Scotland while I was driving to feel what it is like to be in complete silence with the time passing by very slowly. Daniel was a fast-paced film which required a lot of action sequences, in Limbo everything we did everything with purpose. Prior to being on set, everything was well rehearsed and our choices were made in advance. But we also left a little bit to spontaneity.
4-This year you made it to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) list of BAFTA Breakthrough participants, becoming the first actor to achieve this. What does it mean to you?
It is an incredible honor and great accolade to be nominated for a prestigious award like BAFTA and to be one of the only five nominee actors, to be a BAFTA breakthrough actor of Egyptian origin is something I am really proud of. Coming from an Egyptian background offers a lot of challenges that a white middle-class actor wouldn’t have experienced in the industry before. Wherever you are in the world I think we need to reflect society in a balanced way and I hope this offers more opportunities for people like myself.
That said, I never seek to be the first Egyptian or the first person to do something. I do it because I love my work and I want to challenge myself and also fight the narrative that we can only do one thing. I want to prove that I can be part of that work environment and I hope it is not just a moment and people like me are represented in a fair and equal way, but we still have a very long way to go.
It has impacted my career, putting me on not just a national platform in Britain, but on an international one as well because everyone in Hollywood is aware of the BAFTA breakthrough list, so to be among them and be considered as one of the most promising actors is a huge honor I never expected to win. Limbo has also been long-listed for most promising newcomers at BIFA, but what I care about most is the reactions of the audience, I hope that cinemagoers love the movie and praise it as the cinema critics did.
5-In Egypt your most recent role was Kazem in the series Princess Beesa. Do you enjoy performing comic roles?
I always look for stuff that challenges me so I love playing dramatic and comic roles. What I love most of all is portraying character of the everyday man who goes through everyday struggles, something that is reflective of society. I find that is the most challenging and rewarding thing to do, like in Limbo. Comedy is very hard, I find that comedy is harder than tragic drama; it is much harder to make someone laugh than to make them cry. I always look for something that rewards me in a different way or fulfills me in a different way.
6-Limbo tells the story of the Syrian musician Omar, and your first leading role in the American Saudi Film The Arabian Warrior was as a young Saudi soccer player. Do you feel that international cinema has finally started to view Arab characters differently?
I feel there is still a way to go in terms of stereotyping Arab characters, but I do feel that people are listening and waking up to that and wanting more. We have seen it with different cultural backgrounds, how much the positive impact that has economically when you reflect the culture in positive way in cinema or through the arts. I do feel that there has been a major improvement, I always personally look for truth but I also look forward to positive stereotypes. There has been huge progress, as we have seen actors like Rami Malek and Mena Massoud and Ramy Youssef portraying us in a positive light in the media and in what they do.
7-Since 2013, you’ve taken part in 24 international works. What’s the difference in terms of performance and techniques between working in Egyptian cinema and working in international cinema? Which did you gain more experience from?
My approach is how much can I get from the script and the amount of research I need to do [for each role]. At the end I am portraying a human being whatever the case, with all their dreams, hopes, aspirations and fears. I am totally committed to my work in any region, but in terms of which I gained more experience from, I honestly gained equally from all of them, each rewarded and fulfilled me in different ways.
8-Some Egyptian actors who succeeded internationally focus only on working abroad. Why are you keen to take part in projects in Egypt as well?
I’ve never felt Egypt was just a launch pad or the start of a race. I will always be grateful for what Egypt has provided me with and the support it gave me. Egyptian audiences are like my family because of their support for me whenever I perform a role abroad, so I will never turn my back on Egyptian cinema, not only because of loyalty but because of the tremendous and exciting work in Egypt. Egypt has a notable group of talented actors, actresses, directors, producers and cinematographers, so it would be silly to ignore that, I endeavor to always work in Egypt as much as working internationally. I want to continue carrying on the work I am doing, I hope to create work that people love, I love writing and along with my writing partner we hope to create work that is inclusive with all cultures. I hope to do this in parallel with acting but acting will always be number one for me.
9-Do you currently have any plans for an Egyptian cinema or series?
I’m always trying to find a suitable role, I was going to participate in an Egyptian series this year but unfortunately because this role clashed with another project I was working on so I couldn’t make it. I always want to work in Egyptian cinema and drama but it depends on the role and the schedule.
10-Having performed in several English plays as well, which do you prefer, movies, TV series or plays?
It is all acting and they all offer different exciting things but the common thing between the three mediums is that you have to focus on the character you are performing. Through plays you feel the electricity on the spot from the audience and how they immediately respond to your performance on stage, it is quite a unique experience. With cinema and television, I love the intimacy behind the camera, I love feeling natural in my performance.
11-Which project has been the closest to your heart so far?
I was lucky enough to perform different roles that are close to my heart, but the top four works would be Limbo, The Night Manager, Lost in London, and The State. They all offered me the chance to show my range and work with incredible filmmakers.
12-You worked with a number of acclaimed international stars. Who influenced your career the most?
All the stars I have worked with have influenced me in different ways. In The Night Manager working with high-profile actors like Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman definitely put my work on an international scale and the millions of views the series gained across the globe put me on the map and also allowed me to meet the industry professionals. I learned from being on set with Tom Hiddleston, how he prepares for the role, what he does to get himself in the mood before every scene. Likewise Woody Harrelson who taught me to leave a little bit of space for improvisation.
13-How do you evaluate cinema festivals like El Gouna Film Festival and Cairo Film Festival in the time of Covid-19?
I must say that I was hugely impressed with this edition of the Cairo International Film Festival and El Gouna Film Festival. It was the first time for me to attend GFF and I am not surprised that we have this level of professionalism in Egypt. These festivals are not less than acclaimed European festivals like San Sebastián Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. We really care about films and know how to show that we love cinema. I also admire the humanitarian aspect GFF has, CIFF is one of the oldest festivals in the world, I am so proud of the level we are showing to the whole world, and the proof is the number of international superstars who come to Egypt to attend CIFF and GFF.
14-Limbo was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Tell us more about that.
It was an incredible honor to participate at the Cannes Film Festival and extremely prestigious to be in the official selection. Only 30 out of thousands of movies are selected, and the Cannes Film Festival head and film critics said that Limbo could have won the Palm D’Or. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend because of Covid-19, hopefully I’ll be invited with the film next year if there is any possibility.