A Saudi in Hollywood: Mohammed Al Turki
In San Sebastian to promote Nick Jarecki’s tense thriller Arbitrage, which opened the north Spanish city’s prestigious film festival, Mohammed Al Turki was invited by Richard Gere to join him, Gere’s family, Jarecki and a few others for an evening meal.
“So we go to this really small restaurant and Richard is hugging and kissing everyone there like they’re his family,” says Al Turki, speaking from the London’s rather gentlemanly No. 11 Cadogan Gardens Hotel, where Esquire’s photoshoot has just taken place.
“We were taken onto the roof, with a view of the whole town and one table set up especially for our group. And I was like, ‘What am I doing sitting on the roof of a restaurant looking out over San Sebastian and hanging out with Richard Gere?”
The short answer is that he was one of the film’s producers and Richard Gere was its lead star. But it’s a fair question more generally, not least for a twenty-seven-year-old from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a country where film stars, film producers and film festivals aren’t exactly in high supply.
But while Al Turki might not have followed the usual career path for your average Saudi male, his rapid rise into Hollywood has opened the door for several other unlikely moments since he first emerged as executive producer for 2010’s indie festival favourite The Imperialists Are Still Alive!.
Aside from Gere, there were a few ‘Zac Efron moments’ last year from the set of At Any Price, shot in the heart of the Iowa’s sleepy farmlands. “We were the only guys working on the film in the same age group. One day [Efron] asked me, ‘Do you play PlayStation?’ and the next thing I know we’re walking around Walmart searching for one, because there was nothing else to do,” he laughs.
“And then we wanted to go to Chicago one night to get away from the cornfields. It was just me, Zac – oh, and Heather Graham, who’s also in the film – and in this club we were sent a US$100,000 bottle of champagne from a Russian guy sitting at the table below. The receipt was on TMZ.”
Then there’s the time he took Michelle Rodriguez to his home country and caused chaos in various parts of Riyadh. “She has a huge fanbase in the Philippines and in Saudi there are a lot of Filipinos,” he says with a smile. “Everywhere we went, every single Filipino would come up to her. We were staying as a guest of the royal family and getting Twitter bombed from people saying they wanted to see her.
So, to be nice, we told them where we’d be eating breakfast and about fifteen Saudi girls showed up with posters and pictures. They were screaming and were so excited.”
And we should probably mention Paris Hilton, with whom he went to a party at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She grabbed him while being interviewed by TV cameras on the red carpet and spoke of her pride in his achievements. “I knew her before she became the Paris Hilton,” he admits. “We have this brotherly, sisterly bond. When I was younger, my family always used to go to LA, so I’ve known the Hiltons from way back.”
It was these overseas jaunts that – aside from adding to the Rolodex – helped spark the film-lover in a young Al Turki. This was aided by his “movie-fanatic” parents who would sit him down each Friday night for a double-bill, often of family favourites John Wayne or 007.
“I remember coming to London when I was about ten, and the first thing my mum bought was Time Out magazine. She’d open the listings pages and say, ‘Okay, choose the movies you want to see.’”
Having studied film in London, Al Turki had a brief stint working for an oil and gas company before being introduced to Zeina Durra while on holiday. The UK-based director was working on The Imperialists Are Still Alive! and this meeting might well be referred to as his Film Breakthrough Moment.
“I blame it on luck,” he smiles. “I had an opportunity to work on a very small project, a very small-scale independent film. And it was all over the festival circuit, got a lot of critical praise and opened the doors to do other stuff.”
In just three years since that meeting, this “other stuff” has included working with Richard Gere on Arbitrage, and with Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham on At Any Price. Then there’s What Maisie Knew, based on Henry James’ novel and starring Julianne Moore; independent comedy Adult World.
“I honestly never thought I’d be doing up to ten movies in three years,” he says, adding that he’s just finished working on the eighth and has signed up to do two more. “My career is going in the right path, but it does scare me.”
Al Turki recalls a recent appearance on an Arabic version of The View, in which he was introduced with a video montage entitled ‘A Saudi in Hollywood’ that featured clippings and videos of his work and appearances at press conferences. “I was sitting there and didn’t realise until that minute that I had done all that work.”
Article was originally published in August 2013. This is A Look Through our Archives, a regularly content series that sees us publish the best features and articles from the past 100 issues of Esquire Middle East.