Her fans and viewers know her as a down-to-earth actress who emits strength, intellect, positivity and character. Her versatile performance skills have garnered her a huge pan-Arab following in a short period of time, winning her impressive accolades —she is the youngest-ever actress to walk away with the Faten Hamama award—like being named the most influential Arab actress by Forbes Middle East.
This month we get to know her on a much more personal level—as the romantic wife, dedicated mother, loving daughter and friend you can share a laugh with just as well as you could have a deep, existential conversation. And did we mention she’s also professional, punctual and just about one of the sweetest actors we’ve interviewed? Sabry took two hours out of her busy schedule, on a family trip abroad nonetheless, to answer our flood of questions; and the cherry on top of the cake is that she promised to call by 10pm, and call by 10pm sharp she did.
Born in 1979 in Kebli, Tunisia, Sabry studied law and completed a master’s degree in intellectual property and copyright law in 2004; but by then, she had already been acting for about a decade. She started her acting career in 1994 with the Tunisian film Samt El Qosour (The Silence of the Palaces) and starred in The Season of Men in 2000; both movies were directed by Moufida Tlatli. She was then introduced to the Egyptian cinema scene by Inas El Deghedy in 2001 with the film Mozakerat Morahka (The Diary of a Teenager), co-starring alongside Ahmed Ezz.
Over the years she’s worked on movies and dramas tackling the difficulties and stigma facing people, especially women, and she serves as the World Food Program’s regional ambassador. The starlet has received numerous awards for her cinematic career, artistic achievements and her role in tackling key social issues, including an award by the America Abroad Media organization in Washington.
Sabry got married in 2008 and has been blessed with two daughters, Alia and Laila, who are now 6 and 4, respectively. The WFP ambassador and the beautiful inside out Sabry gets up close and personal with Egypt Today about a more intimate, softer side of her and chats about her work, daughters and just how she manages to perfect it all.
You’re set to play Pharaonic queen Hatshepsut again in Elkenz II. How important is it to portray influential women on screen?
It was a big honor for me to play the role of Hatshepsut because she was one of the most prominent and powerful women in history. Despite this, she is quite unknown to most people; being such a strong and powerful queen, men tried to conceal her power and erase her from history. So in portraying her character, it was important for me to give her a human aspect; that of a woman with strengths and vulnerabilities. Though she was a ruler, she was a woman with a heart that is full of passion, and a character that is full of weaknesses. She had a huge impact on her country and on her people and the world in general. I like those role-model characters and I am very lucky to have portrayed Hatshepsut.
March marks both International Women’s Day as well as Mother’s Day. To what extent do cinema and TV play a role in portraying women’s issues? Can these platforms actually help address societal problems, offer solutions or even change mindsets?
It depends; cinema and TV in general can have a very liberating role when it comes to women’s issues. On the other hand, they can also have a very limiting and stereotyping role. Unfortunately, most TV series and movies portray women in a stereotypical way in that mold of the weak creature, who depends on men, who is not autonomous or independent and who always follows the male character or reacts to what the male character does and says. This is something that I am personally fighting against, so I always try to portray characters of women in power and in control of their own lives and destinies, or fighting their limitations and circumstances to get a better life because I think one of our duties as actresses is to inspire other women.
Many of your roles have promoted women’s empowerment. How do you feel about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements sweeping the globe?
I am a big and full supporter of #MeToo and #TimesUp. I find it very ironic that it is gaining momentum among Western countries—where, of course, there are huge gaps in pay and there are huge problems of harassment and workplace harassments—but not in the Middle East, where the gap is even bigger and harassment is not only in the workplace but also in public transportation and on the streets. The problem is bigger here than it is in the West, and yet it is not at all gaining momentum in the Middle East; so it really shows the silence that we impose on ourselves or that is imposed on us. I am a huge supporter of gender equality without pushing the limits to it becoming a general accusation against an entire gender.
Off screen, actors also serve a public duty; you’ve chosen to support the WFP as its ambassador to the region. Tell us about that and how it has affected your perspective on different issues.
Yes, I have been WFP ambassador since 2009, so it has been a long journey that includes field visits and learning more about what the WFP does worldwide, and especially in the region.
We are overwhelmed with the number of refugees and internally displaced people in the region due to ongoing wars over the past six or seven years.
We have presence in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen; we are simply everywhere, we are a neutral organization and we don’t take sides when it comes to political conflicts. We provide refugees in urban locations or refugee camps with the nutrition they need to be in average, good health.
But we also have other projects that are less linked to crisis, war zones or conflicts; these projects are in collaboration with governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine. So we offer food to schools and provide parents who send their children to school with food as well. We offer food in return for work or labor. We also try to help eradicate child labor by providing food portions to families to prevent them from sending their children to work. So it is a very large and broad operation, and that’s why I am very proud of being the WFP ambassador for the region.
In 2017, you topped the Forbes Middle East top 10 Arab actresses list. What did that award mean to you and how do you see your role as an influential actress in the region?
I received it as a surprise and a huge honor. I may not have the biggest number of followers, or the biggest presence on social media, although I try my best. But what I post, according to Forbes Middle East, has an impact on the region; that is really what any actress or celebrity dreams of and looks forward to. So it only means that people who read my posts or watch my movies and soap operas relate to what I say and do; this gives me credit with the audience.
What is the most demanding role that you have played until now and which of your roles has touched or affected you the most?
Actually, most roles I have played till now were very demanding, and it has nothing to do with the genre. The role of Ola Abdelsabbour in the comedy series Ayza Atgwez (I Want to Get Married) was very demanding, despite it being a comedy role. Amina el Shamaa in Halawet el Dunia (The Sweetness of Life) soap opera was also very demanding because of the subject and the theme we were introducing, and because of how relatable Amina’s character is. The roles of Asmaa in Asmaa, Hatshepsut in El Kenz (The Treasure) and Horreya in Ibrahim el Abyyad; every role is demanding in a particular way and is different from the other. But if I have to choose, it would be Ola Abdelsabbour and Amina el Shamaa.
The role that has touched and affected me the most is Amina el Shamaa because of the people we lost to cancer along the way, and how relatable and relevant this role is.
What is your dream role?
I dreamt of performing the role of an ancient Egyptian queen, and it happened with Hatshepsut. I would love to play the role of a feminist like Huda Sharawy, or an Arab woman in the 1950s and 1960s who worked to make a great impact on changing mindsets and evolving and modernizing how the society views women. I also still dream to portray the great Umm Kulthum on the big screen.
Which actor, actress and director do you want to work with the most and why?
They are endless; I really hope I can act again with Maged el Kidwany. I never acted alongside Youssra, so I would love to do that too, and I wish I could have worked with the late, renowned actor Ahmed Zaki.
There are also many directors I would like to work with. I was lucky to have worked with Sherif Arafa, I loved working with him and would love to repeat the cooperation. I also want to work with Marwan Hamed and Yousry Nasrallah, and would have loved to work again with the late Mohamed Khan. There are also many other young people I would love to work with.
You’ve acted in period dramas and taken on comic, tragic, romantic and social roles. Which is the closest to your heart?
The closet to my heart are the social roles because of the relevance of the subject and the relevance of the treatment as well. Social drama always grabs the attention of the audience more and is easier to get more involved in because the viewer feels part of the relatable story.
Social can also go with many genres; Ayza Atgwez series’ success was due to the fact that it is not pure comedy or fantasy, but rather a social comedy. The series’ theme is very relatable because it discusses girls and marriage in a conservative society. Halawet el Dunia is also a social drama.
What are the one movie and the one soap you consider milestones in your career?
I am lucky enough to have many; for movies I can say Ahla el Awaat (The Best Times) and Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) were milestones in my career. As for TV series, of course Ayza Atgwez was a huge milestone, and so was Halawet el Dunia.
In 2017, you received a number of prominent awards; which one are you most proud of?
I was lucky to receive an award in Washington from the America Abroad Media Organization, and the award of excellence from Cairo International Film Festival, or the Faten Hamama Award, which is the one I am most proud of because this is the first time for someone who is not originally from Egypt to get this award, in addition to it being associated with an iconic actress that we all love and respect. So yes, I am very proud of the Faten Hamama Excellence Award.
Are you working on a TV series for Ramadan 2018?
No, I usually take a one-year break between TV series as they are hectic. I have a family, so I have to balance between work and family, so my next soap opera will hopefully be in 2019.
What are your plans for the future? Are you considering an international career?
I believe that I am leading an international career, I portrayed characters in movies that were internationally critically acclaimed. So not large audiences, but the press and film critics around the world knew about it, whether in Tunisia or in Egypt, so that is good enough for me. The rest is pure luck and timing.
How do you balance between the multiple roles you play in your life as an actress, mother, wife, daughter and even a friend? Which role takes priority?
My family is my absolute priority, which includes my father, my mother, my two daughters and my husband; all of them are my first priority. It is true that sometimes things get blurry but most of the times it is clear to me.
Balancing my different duties is actually very difficult; so I view myself as a chairman of the board of a company who should perform multiple roles at the same time, I also try to exercise sports, be a good friend and to have some fun from time to time. So the balance is quite difficult. I really feel for every mother who has a career, and despite this chooses to keep a life of her own.
How do you manage maintaining a tight ship at home and staying close to your daughters when you have such a demanding job with long, unexpected hours?
The first thing is that I explain to my family, especially my daughters, the hardships of my job. They know that it is tough and that I always try to do my best but sometimes, I find myself unable to do everything. My relationship with my daughters is built on honesty. I take them on set when they want to so that they learn about my life on set and so that my job is not just a mystery to them. I am a perfectionist, so I don’t know how I manage; it consumes a lot of energy from me but at the end, I manage.
Can you describe a day in the life of Hend during shooting season?
I don’t sleep, it is usually 24 hours of hard work, and the few hours I spend at home I try to spend with my girls. It is basically sleepless days and nights, a lot of waiting on set, I try to read or watch something. But it is during shooting seasons that I am more focused because when I am not shooting, I usually do more things; so it gets even busier and more chaotic.
Tell us more about your day-to-day life. Do you wake up early with your kids to prepare them for school? What’s your morning and night ritual as a mother?
I wake up early and I drive my girls to school but not every day, of course. Morning rituals include working out as well. Then our night routine is that I read a story to my daughters, or we watch something together before putting them to bed, and then I’d also go to bed early.
Tell us about your support network. Who helps around with your kids when you are spending long hours on set?
I have a great support system, my mother helps around with the kids; without her I wouldn’t have been able to juggle both. My husband is always very supportive, he usually spends a lot of time with them when I am on set.
How has motherhood changed your personality?
Motherhood made me more grounded, but also more anxious; but sometimes it calms me down and pushes me to save my energy for the little ones.
What are the principles and values that you are keen to instill in your daughters?
They are many; but basically I try to instill values like always being kind, nice, polite and empathetic with others, especially with people who are different from them or those they can’t relate to.
Are you friends with your daughters or do you think that there should be a limit between a mother and her children that they shouldn’t cross?
I always try to be a good friend to my daughters and build a strong relationship with them so they can tell me everything, and in return, I also tell them everything. I think there should be a limit between the mother and her children only in terms of respect but not in terms of what should be said. I believe children should be able to reveal everything and express all their feelings in front of their mothers, there shouldn’t be any secrets between us.
What are the main parenting obstacles you face while raising your daughters? How do you overcome them?
I faced many parenting obstacles; sometimes you fluctuate between being too strict and being too flexible or passive. You also never know what is the right balance between exerting authority and letting go a bit. I don’t always overcome these obstacles, I am not perfect, I will always have my weak points as a mother, just like any other mother; there are no perfect parents.
What are the tips that you want to give other mothers to help them while dealing with their children?
To believe that there is no perfect parent and to be ok with making mistakes. There are no set guidelines to be a good parent; you learn with time.
This generation is clearly difficult to deal with; and most millennials feel a sense of entitlement to everything: How are you managing that?
I am not yet dealing with this age as my daughters are still young but I am bracing myself for what is to come. I think empathy is the key to fight the sense of entitlement, exposing children to different situations, different social circumstances and different worlds; exposure in general is key.
How has your work with the WFP affected your attitude toward motherhood and the extravagant demands of today’s kids?
The good thing is that my daughters are fully aware of what I am doing. I talk to them a lot about the kids I meet and encounter during my trips with the WFP and the refugee camps. So they know that they are lucky compared to other children and they know that they are only lucky by coincidence and that anything can happen at anytime to anyone. It is very important to give them that sense of empathy toward others because others’ situation is not that far from them; making them feel that we are all interconnected so we can make someone else’s life better.
How do you feel generations have changed? And are we better off as women with more rights than our mothers and grandmothers?
I don’t think so, actually, and my TedxWomen talk was about that. I think my mother’s generation was better than ours, we received most of those privileges on a silver platter but they had to fight to join universities, work after marriage or convince their parents that life is not only about raising children. We are lucky to have this generation as our mothers and grandmothers. So I think that they should get more credit than us; the path that they took, nobody took it before them, so they became multitaskers, they made careers, they raised us, they raised a generation that is now running this world. We are better off in terms of having more rights and privileges than they enjoyed, but I don’t think we are better off as women than the previous generations.
Screen Sensation Hend Sabry’s Most Iconic Roles
Sabry collaborated with Khaled Abul Naga, Salah Abdalah, and Shaaban Abdel Rehim in Mowaten Wi Mokhber Wi Haramy (A Citizen, a Detective and a Thief), directed by the veteran Daoud Abdel Sayed. Abdel Sayed surprised everyone by nominating her for the role of an Egyptian girl in the movie; and by then, Sabry had put all her studious skills to work and perfected the Egyptian dialect so well that we often forget she’s Tunisian.
She went on to play many acclaimed roles in films like Halet Hob (A State of Love), Ahla El-Awqat (The Best Times), Malek Wi Ketaba (Heads and Tails), Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), Asmaa, Al Gezira (The Island), Heliopolis, Banat West El-Balad (Downtown Girls), Ouija and Genent Al Asmak (The Aquarium). She also starred in various TV series, including Veritgo, the satirical take on post-revolutionary Egypt Emberatoreyet Meen and various others. Her latest movie, El Kenz, portrayed a snippet of the life of ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut.
On the small screen, Sabry presented issues like the stress on women to get married and the difficulties they face in the process through her role in Aiza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married). Her latest TV drama tackled the journey of a cancer patient through the various stages and the impact the disease has on a patient’s loved one through Halawet El Donia (The Sweetness of Life).