Mohamed Karim makes his mark on Hollywood
In life, most people only get one big break. In the case of Mohamed Karim, he had two.
The 39-year-old Egyptian became a well-known face on Arab television screens following a decade of starring in Arabic films and TV shows. His role as the host of MBC’s The Voice Arabia not only saw his face beaming into a million houses across the region every week, but also secured his place as a bankable star with a sizable fan base.And then he sacked it in and left.
“Everyone around me flipped out,” he chuckles, recalling when he told his friends, family and agent that he was packing up and moving to Los Angeles to fulfill a dream. “I just thought to myself, ‘take the leap. If you don’t achieve your goals then at least you tried and you can’t regret that.’” For Karim that dream was to transition the success he had in the Arab world to Hollywood—to ‘break America’. It’s a lofty ambition that has done for the careers of most famous Arab-world actors not named Omar Sharif—but for Karim, it wasn’t about chasing fame, he already had that, it was about not having regrets.
“I know the U.S. I’ve been back and forward between Egypt and Los Angeles since I was a teenager. I went to school there and have been networking hard on the international Film Festival circuit for a few years,” he says. “The best thing about America is that if you are willing to work your ass off—and get a little bit of luck—then you will eventually get your chance.” Karim is a card-carrying subscriber to the American Dream.
A strong work ethic has never been a problem for Karim. “When I moved to L.A. I said to myself that I am going to work relentlessly until I have the same level of success in Hollywood as I have in Egypt. I’m not saying that because I want to be famous, but in my profession it is a sign that you have made it.”
Regardless of how familiar Karim was with his new surroundings, in the big, bad world of Tinseltown being successful at home doesn’t count for much. As an established star, he wouldn’t even have to audition in Egypt. People would send scripts with and a contract for him to sign if he liked the role. This was different. By his own admission Karim went to “2,000 auditions” each one he would be competing with “40 other ‘Mohammed Karims’”. But he kept on keeping on, spending days networking, calling in favours and even resorting to door knocking major studios like Paramount and Warner Bros. trying to get his foot in the door.
“The thing was I didn’t want to be typecast, and while I was getting the odd role here and there I would reject them because I didn’t want to play a terrorist or a diplomat,” says Karim. “My agent would say ‘listen, Mohamed, you need to take these smaller roles to help build your reputation here,’ but I would say, ‘that’s not what I came here for’.”
Karim is first to admit that pride played a large part in his stubbornness at the time. “It’s hard to explain, but my fans in Egypt expected me to move to Hollywood and then the next day be shooting a film with Tom Cruise! In reality it doesn’t work like that, but I didn’t want to let them down,” he explains. “At times it was really hard to keep motivated and I would find myself constantly second guessing the decisions that I was making. Should I just give up?”
Eventually, his ‘break’ would come.
Sitting on a sofa in the Esquire offices, Karim is buoyant. While we wait for the photographer to adjust the lighting for his next shot, he’s scrolling through the pictures on his phone. “Did you see this one?” he asks showing a video of him in Cannes with Chris Tucker. “This guy was really great too,” he says referring to the next shot of him with Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth.
Karim is in Dubai fresh off spending the week on the French Riviera where his first English language feature film, A Score to Settle, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The action film stars Hollywood royalty Nicolas Cage and Benjamin Bratt, with Karim playing the role of hardman gangster, Jimmy The Dragon.
“Booking this part was a dream for me,” he says, “not only was it the first major film I get in the US, but it was a role where I hadn’t been typecast as a generic Arab. It really was a dream.” Asked about what it felt like when he received the call back from the studio telling him he’d landed the role, Karim pauses for a few seconds and instinctively looks away as if to recall the memory, “If I’m honest,” he says. “I cried”. “It was a huge moment of vindication for me. I was right to have stayed with the hustle—and it showed me that was doing the right thing.”
During breaks in the photoshoot we continue to chat about his time in Hollywood and whether the U.S. industry is finally coming around to investing in ‘other’ stories. Karim cites the success of films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the growing interest of platforms like Netflix in the Middle East as an indicator that things are on the up, but he is still cautious. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not easy being an Arab actor in Hollywood,” he says, “but at least they are open to it now.”
By its very nature filmmaking has always been a high-risk industry. With feature films normally comes a significant financial cost and therefore decisions often come down to a careful combination of talent, timing and opportunity—especially when it comes to breaking into new markets. “It’s great that Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians were successful, it will hopefully encourage studios to tell more stories that aren’t just from the West, but on the flip side it means that now as an actor you’re competing with everyone globally. China, India, Africa—everyone. In Crazy Rich Asians, the lead guy [Henry Golding] was a TV presenter and had never done a film before. What that shows is that some studios are not prioritising name recognition, but talent.”
A Score To Settle is out on August 2.