Aladdin's Mena Massoud is about to change everything
On a largely forgettable episode of the TV show Nikita, the protagonist secret-agent-turned-rogue-assassin is tasked with unravelling a deadly plot by a dastardly band of terrorists. Two vans trudge their way through the driving snow in what is supposed to be the Russian-Chechnyan border (actually filmed in Ontario, Canada) towards an unexpected road block. Three gun-wielding Arab men get out to see what the problem is, and if you pause it right there, that guy, that guy right there, playing ‘Al Qaeda #2’ and yelling “Yalla! Yalla!” as the bomb goes off, is a young Egyptian pre-med college student called Mena Massoud. Nobody knows it yet, but he is about to change everything.
There is nothing new about an Middle Eastern actor playing a bit-part terrorist or a taxi driver in a Hollywood movie— regrettably it’s a niche they have all sewn up—but one word will smash that stereotype this month: Aladdin.
On May 24, Hollywood powerhouse, Disney, plays one of its most important cards with the release of a live-action reimagining of Aladdin—one of the most beloved animations of all-time. The studio may have hired hotshot director Guy Ritchie to take on the project, and sprinkled the star-power of Will Smith as Genie, but it is in the casting of the titular role that Disney has made its most important statement.
“I thought they’d just give it to Jake Gyllenhaal again!” laughs Massoud referring to the casting of Gyllenhaal in the 2010 film Prince of Persia. His tone then immediately shifts to a more serious one, “honestly, it is a huge opportunity for me personally but, more importantly, it stands for something that is far greater than the art that is being represented on screen, it stands for ethnic diversity. Do you know how rare it is to go to a cinema and see Middle Easterners represented in huge Hollywood blockbusters?” Oh yes, we do.
MR MASSOUD WEARS CARDIGAN, T-SHIRT, TROUSERS AND BOOTS, ALL BY SAINT LAURENT. Photography by Doug Inglish.
Starting in early 2017, Disney undertook a huge effort—a six-month search spanning 15 countries —to ensure the casting process was carefully considered. “We had such an opportunity with this film,” Julie Ann Crommett, Disney’s Vice President of Multicultural Engagement told Entertainment Weekly in 2018 about the casting process for Aladdin. “If you think about the realities of portrayals of Arab people on screen, this is really the first time in a long time that you get such a positive and uplifting portrayal of the community. I think it will open up a lot of doors in terms of future productions copying us and finding people to cast.”
For the headline actors like Massoud, Naomi Scott (who plays Jasmine) and Marwan Kenzari (Jafar), the process was a long, drawn out one. “I saw that they were casting for the film online somewhere,” explains Massoud. He had recently graduated theatre school in Toronto had booked a couple of television shows, but mainly playing support roles named Salman, Jad and Hafiz.
“With Aladdin I thought, ‘Finally! Here’s a role in a Hollywood blockbuster that I could play!’ It was a time where I wasn’t auditioning for lead roles because they were just not being written for visibly ethnic people.” Massoud asked his agent to send in a tape of him and, despite checking in periodically, didn’t hear back for months. During that time he decided to move to Los Angeles where he quickly was cast in the Amazon TV show Jack Ryan. Four months later, out of the blue, Massoud’s agent received a call with an offer to fly to London to screen test with Guy Ritchie. He went, and would receive a second request to travel back to London shortly after. Eventually, a third call arrived confirming he had been cast. “I found out on the Wednesday, and by Friday I was packed and moving back to London for six months. It was pretty surreal. I didn’t have much time to psyche myself out about it, which was probably a blessing in disguise!”
As news leaked out that Disney had opted against the ‘Jake Gyllenhaal method’ and cast an unknown Egyptian actor to play Aladdin, Mena Massoud’s name was written on the notice board in the Esquire Middle East office. The countdown had begun.
On Esquire’s roving shoot around the sun-drenched, cinematically rich streets of Hollywood, Massoud is a bundle of energy. Wearing a black Saint Laurent shirt and tie, and leaning on the hood of a battered, vintage orange MG Spitfire, he is relaxed and chatting away with the crew. He talks quickly, laughs loudly, and even throws in the occasional pirouette. There is a genuine sparkle in his eye when he cracks a toothy white smile. In front of the camera, he has that switch like ability to instantly turn from playful to focused.
MR MASSOUD WEARS SHIRT, TIE, TROUSERS, BELT AND BOOTS, ALL BY SAINT LAURENT. Photography by Doug Inglish.
He identifies as Egyptian, but is a Canadian citizen. Born in Cairo to Coptic Egyptian parents, the Massouds immigrated to Ontario when he was young, making a conscious effort to retain close ties to their culture. Massoud and his two elder sisters were raised speaking Arabic at home, and instilled with a deep connection to their home culture, partly by the food they ate and films they watched. “I grew up watching really prolific Arab actors like Adel Imam and Nour El-Sherif,” says Massoud, “but there were some American films in there too.” Like any kid growing up in the 1990s, there was a rotation of VHS tapes that constantly did the rounds. In the Massoud household those were Mrs. Doubtfire, Rush Hour, Miss Congeniality (“because I have two older sisters!”) and Aladdin.
Of those four tapes, half of them feature Robin Williams—who Massoud credits as being his biggest source of inspiration for him as an actor. “He just had such versatility,” he says. “He was the funniest guy in the world, but could also do dramatics like no other. In my generation you were either in the Robin Williams camp or the Jim Carrey camp. I loved Robin more because I feel he brought such a truth to everything he did. Mrs. Doubtfire is hilarious, but there are also moments in that film that break your heart. It symbolises everything that I want to achieve as an actor.”
Some of Massoud’s other inspirations were a little closer to home, such as the Egyptian great Omar Sharif. “I look at what Omar Sharif was on the cusp of doing,” he says. “He was such a huge star in the Arab world and it was always a dream of his to come to be in American cinema—I just think that by that time he was too old to really make that impact. That is what I’m working towards, making that impact.”
As we’ll find out over a few hours in Massoud’s company, those elements of drive and determination are very much central to the 27-year-old’s character, and have led him to the position he is now.
“I love shooting in LA,” he says. “It’s funny because when I first moved here in early 2017, I lived in a closet. Literally.” He recounts the story of how he rented a closet in someone’s room and slept on a blow-up mattress because it was all he could afford. “I just knew that I had to move to LA to further my career. I had to give it my all, and if I ran out of money then I’d just figure it out.”
And figure it out he did. “It totally just blows my mind, because two years ago I didn’t have the money to go out much, and at night would come back to sleep on the floor in a closet. Now, I’m doing a photoshoot on those same streets for the cover of Esquire Middle East wearing all these designer clothes—it signifies all I’ve ever wanted, and how far I’ve come.” We joke about how the styling is going to tempt him into buying a whole new wardrobe with his ‘sweet, sweet Aladdin money’. “Ha! I love the clothes, but I can’t afford to buy them for myself! I’m not making that Hollywood-star money…yet!”
Unlike many A-listers that have worked with Esquire in the past, Massoud’s confidence comes across as endearing, rather than arrogant. He is aware that he is at the beginning of something potentially huge—and culturally significant—but is equally aware that nothing should be taken for granted. “For me it’s all about believing in yourself, like, really believing in yourself, because nobody else does,” he says with clear emphasis. “When I first told my parents that I was going to stop studying neuro-science in college and become an actor, they were scared. They were happy, but they were scared for me. I think those things go hand in hand, because if you’re scared then you don’t really believe in it. If you really believe in your core then you know that it’s going to happen. That is what belief is.”
Flash back four years and Mena Massoud’s mum is crying. It is midnight and she is sitting across the family dining table that is heavy under the weight of a huge spread of freshly prepared food. Lamb, beef, turkey, lasagne with béchamel, all painstakingly prepared by her and, while everyone is tucking in, her son is sitting opposite her eating a bowl of plain rice. He has just told her that after 23 years he is giving up eating meat. For a family-focused Egyptian mother of three, it is too much.
MR MASSOUD WEARS SHIRT BY YOU AS, AND TROUSERS BY JACQUEMUS, BOTH AT MRPORTER.COM. Photography by Doug Inglish.
“My mother is the sweetest person alive, but I have shocked them a fair few times in my life!” Massoud says with a chuckle as he recalls the story of telling his mum that he was thinking of becoming a vegan. “I’d told her earlier that day that I’d wanted to transition into a plant-based lifestyle so I was giving up eating meat. I think she thought I was joking so she kept trying to call my bluff!” It turns out, that Mena Massoud very rarely bluffs. In fact, mirroring his decision to pack up and move to Los Angeles, when he puts his mind to something it generally tends to be either all or nothing.
Veganism has become a huge part of Massoud’s life. When we catch up on the phone in early April he says that he is planning on spending the month ramping up the work on his side business Evolving Vegan, ahead of the global promotion tour of Aladdin in May. He has been plant-based for four years, and credits it for helping change his life. “I used to feel sluggish and heavy after every meal,” he explains, “and as soon as I went plant-based that disappeared, no matter how much I ate.” He attributes the gradual change in diet for giving him more energy and more mental clarity. Again, tapping into that ambitious drive of his, he explains how he wanted to capitalise on the platform that Aladdin has given him to start a business in another area he is passionate about. Evolving Vegan is a community that looks to promote a healthy vegan lifestyle, by offering advice, suggestions and recipes on how to “transition” to that lifestyle gradually.
“People think that when it comes to veganism you have to go all in. Bang! No honey, no leather, no milk. So we want to show people that it can be a gradual process. You don’t have to be perfect, and can always work at slowly transitioning to that way of life—because even if you start by adding a couple of vegan recipes into your weekly rotation, you’re going to be start benefiting your health and the planet, so everybody wins.”
Mena Massoud knows how vital this month is. As he sets off on the globe-spanning Aladdin media tour alongside Smith, Scott, Kenzari and Guy Ritchie to promote the film’s release, the importance of its success goes far beyond a simple Mark Kermode review or a Rotten Tomato rating.
“The only way to make a difference in Hollywood is for people to go out and support the artists that they want to see,” he says. “The film industry is a business, so if Aladdin comes out and it doesn’t make as much money as they are all hoping then, the studio may start thinking that people don’t want to hear about these stories; or maybe people don’t want to see a Middle Eastern actor in the lead role of a film. The reason why there is a growing number of African-American roles in Hollywood today is because Black Panther went and made $1.7 bil-li-on at the box office,” he says with emphasis. “That, to Hollywood, is a sign that people want to see those types of stories.”
There is more than a nugget of truth in what he says. In terms of actors with Arab ethnicity in Hollywood, there has never been a better time for them, but that bar is not set particularly high.
MR MASSOUD WEARS SWEATER AND SHIRT, BOTH BY BOTTEGA VENETA. Photography by Doug Inglish.
In February this year, Rami Malik made history by becoming the first ethnic-Arab to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role portraying British musical icon Freddie Mercury. It was a monumental nod to a region rich with cinematic history and, according to Massoud, could potentially kick-start something “much bigger”, if it was to be capitalised on properly.
“Rami winning is obviously a very positive thing,” Massoud says, “but whether it is a high-water mark for Arab actors, or at least actors of Arab ethnicity, remains to be seen with what he does in the next three or four years. I haven’t met him, and have heard he is a really lovely guy, but I also hear he doesn’t really speak Arabic, so it depends on what direction he goes next.Is he going to start telling stories from the Arab world? Is he going to portray those kinds of roles? Is he going to give back to those communities?” Those are all things that Massoud says he is already thinking about. “Again, Aladdin offers this incredible opportunity for me to use as a launch pad to tell incredible Arab stories and showcase Middle Eastern culture to the whole world.”
MR MASSOUD WEARS JACKET, TROUSERS AND BOOTS, ALL BY SAINT LAURENT. Photography by Doug Inglish.
The conversation evolves to where he sees his career going “P.A.” (read: Post-Aladdin), and we are not surprised to hear several projects already in the pipeline including thriller Strange but True, political drama Run This Town, and Lamya’s Poem an animated feature based on the life of the 13th Century poet Jalaladin Muhammad Rumi.
Clearly a student of the industry, Massoud explains that he likes to look at people’s careers that he admires to analyse the choices they made. “Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor, but for most of his career he was playing a lot of similar roles because people assumed that he couldn’t do anything else. As soon as he was given the chance on Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective, people were like ‘holy crap, he is amazing!’, but the truth is he was always amazing, he just didn’t get to showcase it.”
And that is the crux of it. While the live-action reimagining of the beloved Disney film looks set to dominate global box offices this month by equally appealing to nostalgia-hungry audiences and introducing the story of the ‘street-rat-turned-prince’ to generations of younger viewers, the bigger picture of what Disney, Mena Massoud and the progressively creative region of the Middle East are hoping is to showcase Arab talent in a positive leading role. A role that will hopefully create, dare we say it, a whole new world.