From after-school drama classes to performing alongside renowned Egyptian and international stars, the 27-year-old actor Amir el-Masry has just landed his first lead role in the Saudi-American film The Arabian Warrior, which will premiere this month.
Born in England in 1990, Masry (Arabic for Egyptian) has made quite a shift from his previous studies of criminology and sociology at Royal Holloway University. His first acting role was in a school play at 6 years of age, and he ventured into Egypt’s professional acting field many years later to star with veteran comedian Mohamed Heneidy in 2008. Soon after, he was standing opposite international stars, such as Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, working his way to becoming a young Hollywood sensation.
Mastering his first role as Ramzy, the rich spoiled son of the minister of education in the Egyptian comedy Ramadan Mabrouk Abou El Alamin Hamouda starring Heneidy, Masry caught the audience’s attention and won the “Best Young Actor” award at the Egyptian Oscars in 2009. In 2010, he appeared once again as the careless university student, Nabil, alongside acclaimed actress Yasmine Abdel Aziz in El-Talata Yashtaghaloonaha (The Three Are Deceiving Her).
From there, the rising star joined the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) to advance his skills. He graduated in 2013 and, a year later, he appeared as Alireza in the American movie Rosewater, his first major role in Hollywood, with Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia. In 2016, he participated in the American TV mini-series The Night Manager, where he appeared in two episodes as Youssef, opposite Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. He later performed in a number of English plays, most recently Goats.
His latest movie, The Arabian Warrior, to be released toward the end of this month, tells the story of a young Saudi Arabian studying in the US and trying to make it as a professional footballer against his parents’ will. El-Masry speaks to Egypt Today about his short, yet impressive, acting journey, his hopes and dreams.
Tell us about your first acting experience.
I discovered long ago that acting was a gateway to escape and be someone else. I was a rather shy kid growing up; I remember when I was 6, my mom took me to after school drama classes in the hope of getting rid of that shyness. They were holding auditions for the end-of-year performance, a play called Town Musicians of Bremen about a rooster, a donkey, a cat and a dog escaping their homes in the search for freedom in Bremen as musicians. I played the cat. It was out of my comfort zone as a 6-year-old, but as soon as I went on stage it became an addiction.
You studied criminology and sociology. How did such studies affect your performance as an actor?
I was always fascinated by the way our law is structured and why certain people get branded as criminals whilst people who are committing crimes on a global scale remain in positions of power. Despite what we perceive to be a crime, it is important as an actor to always find the human side and empathize [with the character], even if we disagree with a lot of their moral decisions. I thought that this degree would therefore give me the [needed] intellectual structure, as well as enable me to learn about people.
The great late actor Omar Sharif was the first to discover you; tell us more about your relationship with him, his influence and his advice to you.
When I first met Omar Sharif, he greeted me as if I was family. He was someone who really loved people; when he found out that we were [both] Egyptian, we bonded instantly. The main piece of advice he gave me was to start in Egypt and get that experience under my belt before trying to have a career internationally. Rather than attending the premiere of his own movie, [he sent me] instead, and I learned a lot by being shoulder-to-shoulder with all these amazing filmmakers. I felt too undeserving to sit in Omar Sharif’s seat, so I sat on one of the steps next to the writer and director of Hassan w Morcos, starring Sharif and Adel Emam.
Tell us more about the two Egyptian movies you participated in.
Ramadan Mabrouk Abou El Alamin Hamouda came about from a meeting in Paris. The writer and I were talking and he mentioned that they were looking for someone to play this kid who attends the British School in Egypt and speaks English really well. They didn’t specify at that point whether it would be a main role or just one scene, but I didn’t hesitate nonetheless when he offered me the chance to do a screen test with Heneidy in Cairo. After the test went well with Heneidy, Wael Ehsan, the director, offered me the part of Ramzy. When I asked for the script to work on until the shoot, he told me, ‘I want you to improvise around the dialogue, and just be yourself.’ I had been a big fan of Heneidy growing up, so for my first experience in Egypt to be with him was really special. Concerning El-Talata Yashtaghaloonaha, I got a call from a producer telling me that Abdel Aziz saw Ramadan Mabrouk and wanted me in her movie. It was a really great honour working with another huge star in the Arab world.
Photo courtesy of Amir el-Masry
What is 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?
There really isn’t much difference from an actor’s standpoint. Egyptian cinema is very advanced and professional in terms of how they go about things; that prepared me well for when I went to work on foreign projects. I remember when filming Ramadan Mabrouk, the cast and crew of Transformers were in the studio next to us, and even they were impressed with what we were doing. That made me feel very proud.
You started working with internal international films in 2014, performing the role of Alireza in the American movie Rosewater. Tell us more about this experience.
The casting directors of Rosewater came to see a show of mine when I was training at drama school. They asked me to audition for the film and [said] that Jon Stewart would fly in to personally to meet with me and a few other actors. From the second I met him, he was incredibly fun to be around, and made what could have been a long shoot [one that ended up being] full of laughter. I learned that, when tackling a serious subject matter, it is vital to treat it with as much integrity as possible but never take yourself too seriously.
Tell us about your part in the American TV mini-series The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.
Something that a lot of people don’t know about The Night Manager [is that] in the last episode of the series, the scene with Tom Hiddleston in the kitchen was completely improvised. Susanne Bier was very passionate about the whole experience being a collaboration, so we sometimes came up with our own suggestions, whilst at the same time honouring John Le Carre’s amazing original story. It was also refreshing to play a chef and learn the busyness of a five-star hotel’s kitchen.
Having performed in several English plays as well, which do you prefer; movies, TV series or plays?
As long as the project moves me in some way, makes me feel something strong or challenges me, I don’t really have a strong preference. Film is definitely my first love. Having said that, you feel this electric [energy] when you’re on stage that you can’t get when working on a film or in TV. I especially felt that when I performed recently at The Royal Court in London.
How are you preparing for your first experience in a leading role for The Arabian Warrior?
When I read the script and auditioned, I knew it would be really special. Aymen Khoja and Allison Walter have done a great job creating this world that merges the West and Middle East together, tying it with the universal love of football. It will be something that a lot of people will relate to no matter where they’re from—we have all felt like we needed to prove something
to someone or been the underdog in a situation [at some point in our lives]. In terms of preparation, I trained regularly and went on a strict diet to look and feel like someone who wanted to be the next Ronaldo of the Arab World.
What are your future plans?
I have a few things coming out this year besides The Arabian Warrior. One is a new series called Jack Ryan starring John Kransinski, and then there’s also two BBC shows called McMafia and Age Before Beauty, so I am excited for them to come out.
Which project has been the closest to your heart so far?
I recently got to do something very special that merged both performing live like on stage with film, when I worked on Woody Harrelson’s film Lost in London. It was shot and performed live in 550 cinemas across America and England in one take. The film also starred Owen Wilson, so it was great to learn from those two comedy heavyweights. Another project that was very special to me was The State, directed and written by genius Peter Kosminsky, one of the most emotionally exhausting roles I’ve played, but one that carries a very strong message.
Do you currently have any plans in Egyptian cinema?
When the time is right and the right project comes along, I would love to take time out from working abroad to work in Egypt. It would love to go back at some point.
Who is your favorite actor or actress, and the director you hope to work With?
Tough one — but Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and are all up there. I would have loved to work with the late Ahmed Zaki. As for a director, I would love to work with Martin Scorsese.