Tunisian entertainer Dhafer L’Abidine refuses to be typecast. Having wrapped up a new film as both actor and director, he talks dreams, determination, and Arab storytelling that transcends boundaries.
Dhafer L’Abidine has just pulled an all-nighter, having finished filming at seven in the morning. But he’s calm, collected, and emanates an unassuming cool as he speaks to Vogue Man Arabia for the month’s cover story. He’s currently filming a remake of the 1972 classic Anf Wa Thalath ‘Oyoun [A Nose and Three Eyes] written by literary giant Ihsan Abdel Quddous. He’s set to play the lead role of Dr Hashem, a serial womanizer torn between three very different women. With cinematic legends Mahmoud Yassine, Magda, Mervat Amin, and Naglaa Fathy at the helm of the original film, the actor and his co-stars have some considerable shoes to fill. “No, I’m not worried at all,” he laughs. “I try not to think about how it’s going to be compared. People are already excited about it, and I want them to enjoy it. Of course, I’ll do my best, but you can’t please everyone, and you can’t control how viewers are going to react. In essence, the story is the same, but this version has been modernized and the characters are authentic to now.”
Despite an illustrious career spanning two decades and more than 70 film and television credits to his name, including Children of Men, The Da Vinci Code, Sex and the City 2, and numerous Arab works, the 50-year-old’s road to success has been a winding one. Born and raised in Tunisia, L’Abidine was the fourth of five children in what he describes as “a happy, tight-knit family.” As a boy his eyes were opened to the world of cinema at his parents’ video rental store, where he would sit for hours watching movies and rewinding VHS tapes. “I loved watching action [in] all kinds of films – De Niro, Al Pacino, and Marlon Brando. But even though I was fascinated by filmmaking, I always thought I was too shy to act.”
A naturally sporty youth, L’Abidine instead tried his hand at swimming, athletics, and judo, but found his passion in football, proving himself a force to be reckoned with on the pitch. Soon, he was one of Tunisia’s brightest young hopefuls, playing for Espérance Sportive de Tunis and then ES Zarzis in the Tunisian national league. “When I started football, something just clicked. I knew that was what I wanted to do, and I never looked back,” he reminisces. Despite his undeniable skill and immense drive to get to the top of his game, fate had other plans. By the age of 25, due to a knee injury and legal issues with his club, L’Abidine’s career was cut short, and his dreams of global football stardom were dashed. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about football,” he says earnestly. “I still play when I can, and I still support Taraji and Liverpool.” L’Abidine was left at a loss, but his first encounter with the camera was on the horizon, ready to place him on the road to acting. “I landed a modeling job for a British commercial that was being filmed in Tunisia and it went really well.” Shortly afterward he met director Moncef Dhouib, who took him under his wing. For the next 18 months, he worked as a runner and third assistant director, discovering the inner workings of cinema from the bottom up.
With a taste of what might be, the 27-year-old L’Abidine packed his bags and headed to London to study directing. “When I looked at the prices of directing schools, I decided I’d best stick to acting for the time being,” he laughs. With no source of income, speaking minimal English, and hurtling towards his 30s, the gravity of his choices hit home. Two years of hard work at central London restaurants helped to save money for acting school. In his last term at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama at Midland University, he was struggling to pay his final installment when he scored an audition for hit drama series Dream Team, on British network Sky One. It seems like an act of fate that he would cut his acting teeth in a show about football, and the irony doesn’t escape him. “Funnily enough, the week I got the call that I’d landed the role, I’d already phoned the restaurant I’d worked at in London to see if I could get my job back washing dishes and waiting tables.”
The show was the launch pad that would propel him to become an international success. It was also during filming that he met his future wife, British actress and singer Joanne Farrell. His voice brightens as he speaks of their first encounter on set. “We met, I saw her again outside, we got on well, and that’s how it began.” Despite his animated tone, he remains guarded about his private life. The couple’s daughter, Yasmina, has inherited her mother’s talent for singing but is yet to express a desire to go into show business, he says. “I’ll support her whatever she decides to do. If she wants to do it, I’ll help her fulfill her dreams. But for now, I’m there to help her learn, evolve, and become a good person.”
After five years in the UK, L’Abidine headed home to Tunis to play the role of Daly in the television drama Maktoub and was immediately catapulted to heartthrob status. His unplanned return to the Middle East and unexpected success in Tunisian television found him booking roles across the region, in part thanks to his friend and compatriot Hend Sabri suggesting his name for a role in 2012’s Egyptian drama Vertigo. “I always knew I wanted to make work that represents me,” he says. “I wanted to tell Arab stories and push myself with new accents and languages.” Unfazed by the challenge, he has successfully acted in English, French, Italian, and Spanish, and is working his way across the Middle East, adopting a range of Arabic dialects, as needed.
The polyglot actor has perfected colloquial Egyptian and Lebanese to a T thanks to his work on commercial successes such as Layali Eugenie [Eugenie Nights], Khat Dam [Bloodline], and ‘Arous Beirut [The Bride of Beirut]. He now has his sights set on conquering the Saudi dialect with upcoming film To My Son. “I think any dialogue is difficult to begin with because it’s not just about speaking. You need to sound authentic even when you’re doing high energy, emotional scenes. I don’t think I’m particularly talented at it. I believe it’s just about putting in the work. The more you do it, the easier it gets because you understand the logic of it.” Co-written, directed, and starring L’Abidine, the Saudi production is his second directorial endeavor and was filmed primarily in Abha. To the artist, the more demanding the task, the more exciting. “It’s all part of the evolutionary journey. I need to find a new direction and somewhere else to go. It feeds my excitement for the job.”
For this cover shoot, the actor was photographed at the Ca’ Sagredo, a 15th-century palace and more recently a luxury hotel and museum just off the Grand Canal. A man on the go, the actor leans towards a streamlined style. L’Abidine’s role as an ambassador for Cartier, since 2021, is perfectly matched. In an ongoing commitment to the arts, the French maison is a main sponsor and official partner of the Venice Film Festival, honoring exceptional filmmakers from around the globe. It further supports the industry with the Cartier Glory to the Filmmaker Award, which was given to director Wes Anderson at this year’s festival. L’Abidine says he considers the exchange of ideas and expressions at such events to be both relevant and important. “Cartier has been very supportive of cinema since its earliest days, the first film being The Son of the Sheik with Rudolph Valentino; and it’s still doing it to this day with the Venice Film Festival. I’m thoroughly enjoying working with the brand and supporting independent filmmakers; it’s been a great experience.”
The actor’s eagerness to be part of the modern creative renaissance happening in the region, and his desire to tell engaging stories from an Arab perspective, led him to take his place behind the camera. In 2021, L’Abidine’s directorial and screenwriting debut, Ghodwa [Tomorrow], won the International Federation of Critics’ Prize at the Cairo Film Festival and was in the official selection at the Red Sea Film Festival, where it was also recognized as one of the most important films of the year. Set a decade after the Tunisian Revolution, the film leans into the socio-political, telling the story of a struggling father and his teenage son and the systematic injustices they face. With the ever-present force of family driving him forward, the artist dedicated the work to the memory of his parents. His journey had come full circle.
“We’ve always had very interesting film industries across the Arab world, whether in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, or the Gulf. They’re very film d’auteur and on a very different scale compared to the West, and this affects their reach. But recently, we’re seeing a higher quality work crossing over. People are interested in what’s happening in Saudi Arabia and the investment in the film industry there. I think it’ll affect the Arab industry as a whole. There’s a lot happening in the Arab world at the moment. It’s exciting!” When it comes to the future of film in the Middle East, L’Abidine dreams of making work that transcends cultural boundaries. “I would love to get our stories not just watched, but understood by the rest of the world. To reach a point where someone from a different culture can relate emotionally to a story from the Arab world.”
Contrary to the leading-man gravitas he exudes, L’Abidine is keen to dispel the myth of his dry character. “I’m such a private person and I don’t really share much on social media. So, when people get to know the real me, they say, ‘Wow, you actually have a good sense of humor!’ which makes me wonder, ‘Did you think I was boring before?’” he laughs. So how would he describe himself? A persistent dreamer, and a family man, walking an unexpected path. “People will always judge by appearance. In this industry, it means you get typecast. I think it’s one of the reasons that I always pushed myself to do varied roles in different accents, and to write and direct, to prove that I can excel at other things. That’s the challenge of the job, to get out of the pigeonhole.”
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Fashion market editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Hair: Nicole Poede
Makeup: Elena Zhosan
On-set production: Luna Loreti at Magma Productions
Producer: Sam Allison