To say Hollywood is at a turning point is an understatement. Calls for more inclusive casting and diverse award contenders can no longer be ignored. Arab actors are at the forefront of this transformation. The industry has often typecast them in minor characters defined by their cultural or religious background. But many players from the region made a conscientious effort to break out from the stereotypical tropes. Omar Sharif is often championed for beginning this movement toward change in the 60s – and his legacy continues with a new generation of stars.
The Oscar Winner: Rami Malek
“When you do something that people respond to, and then you start altering the blueprint for what worked, it’s pretty fear-inducing. But sometimes you have to do that in order to push the boundaries,” says Academy Award winner Rami Malek. Although the Los Angeles-born Egyptian got his start with a three-line appearance in the hit series Gilmore Girls, it was enough to put him on Hollywood’s radar. He earned a recurring role as a pharaoh in the Night at the Museum trilogy and landed a major part in the 2010 HBO miniseries The Pacific. But it was his Emmy award-winning role as a computer hacker in Mr. Robot that truly opened doors. Malek next landed the role of Freddie Mercury in the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, bagging Golden Globe, Bafta, and Oscar statues, making him the first Arab to win an Academy Award for acting. “I’m drawn to projects where I play complicated characters, but also where I can have some type of influence on affecting what we see as societal norms,” Malek explains. Taking this a step further, his next roles include Daniel Craig’s foe in the new James Bond film No Time to Die and as a detective alongside Denzel Washington in the upcoming thriller The Little Things.
The Comedian: Ramy Youssef
When he beat Michael Douglas, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, and Ben Platt for this year’s Golden Globe award for best actor in a TV musical or comedy, Ramy Youssef made the industry sit up – and not just because he opened his speech with “Allahu Akbar.” His eponymous series Ramy, inspired by Youssef’s own American upbringing as the child of immigrants, follows an Egyptian Muslim family in New Jersey as they navigate issues with which many Arabs around the world are familiar: multigenerational family life, religious prejudice, and shifting perceptions of identity. Youssef is not only the show’s lead, but also creator (with his parents), producer, writer, and occasional director, with a second season featuring Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali set to debut this May. “You sit in contradictions, and that has been the space that I’m trying to navigate. And that’s kind of the space that I bring to the work,” he has said. Ramy has been called “quietly revolutionary” by the New York Times, with the 28-year-old comedian admitting that with scrutiny comes pressure for a realistic portrayal of his experiences as an Arab Muslim in the US. “In terms of positive media, there’s not really a lot. In terms of nuance, there’s even less, so there is this weight that kind of sits on something that comes from someone like me, and there’s an anxiety that comes with that.”
The Up-and-Comer: Mena Massoud
Although Mena Massoud may be best-known as playing Aladdin in the 2019 live-action remake, the Cairo-born actor has far more in his repertoire, with roles in the series Jack Ryan as well as the political drama Run This Town. The 28-year-old is always on the lookout for roles that highlight the Arab experience without defining it in a stereotypical way. “When I started 10 years ago, my first professional job was as Al Qaeda No 2, and I had two lines. It’s gotten better,” Massoud shared at the Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai this March. He added, “I’m trying to be a voice for the North African Arab community. We’ve got to continue to fight for our place in the industry.” He’s doing this not just by acting – as a vocal vegan, Massoud launched food travel show Evolving Vegan, and a foundation to help young actors get their start in Los Angeles by providing mentorship, aid for training, and professional headshots.
The Action Star: Mohamed Karim
The 40-year-old former doctor’s foray into regional cinema may have been nontraditional, but his approach to Hollywood was similar to any other hopeful actor, even after a decade on Arabic screens. “People may think Hollywood’s doors are open to any famous actor who has a long cinema history in his home country, but things are much more difficult than some might think,” Karim says. “I went to more than 2 000 auditions that required a lot of preparations.” Although he spent his adolescence moving between the US and Egypt, Karim settled down in Cairo to study medicine. However, his passion for the arts never dimmed and he attended acting classes and got parts in commercials until his break in 2004 with the film Youm Al Karama. Karim has since starred in more than 30 movies and shows, garnering awards from the Monaco and Alexandria film festivals along the way. He also hosted The Voice: Ahla Sawt for two years but had his sights on global stardom – but not at the detriment of his culture. “Since I was born and raised in Egypt, I always consider our customs and traditions in the Arab world and the Middle East when I choose my roles in Hollywood,” he shares. “I refuse to play any role that might offend Arabs, such as the stereotypical roles of terrorists and extremists.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia