Mena Massoud on Rami Malek: "Is he going to start telling Arab stories?"
- Mena Massoud stars in Guy Ritchie's live-action Aladdin that releases on May 24, 2019
- It stars Mena Massoud as the titular hero, Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) as Princess Jasmine, and Academy Award-nominee Will Smith (Gemini Man) as the magical Genie
- He previously starred in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
- The songwriters working on Disney's upcoming live-action Aladdin remake have revealed they've written two new songs for the movie
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.”
"Black Panther made $1.7 billion. That showed Hollywood that people want to see those types of stories told. I want that for the Arab world."
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.
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.”
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.