Limbo star Amir El-Masry talks about his successful campaign for roles beyond Arab stereotypes
The British Egyptian actor – an advocate for the inclusion of Middle Eastern and North African creatives in British industry – gives a ‘moving’ performance in Ben Sharrock’s dark comedy about asylum seekers.
In Netflix’s romance / tech sci-fi series The one, Amir El-Masry – also seen recently on the HBO / BBC financial drama Industry and now appears as the frontman of Focus Features’ dark comedic refugee film Limbo – played a DNA expert called Ben.
It’s a fact that many might take as unimportant, but for the 30-year-old Cairo-born and raised in London, receiving the name was a major achievement and one he had to fight for, placing his case to convince producers who wanted to go with something more Mediterranean.
“Simple as it sounds, that says a lot,” he said, adding that it is “very rare” for him, as an Arab, to play a “Ben”. “What it does, subconsciously, is change people’s opinion of what someone looks like when their name is Ben, or James, or something like that.”
El-Masry hopes his victory in keeping the name (which was in the original script before it was cast) will offer encouragement to other beginner Arab actors. They too can hope to play a range of characters rather than fit into stereotypical roles, which he says he must have done early in his career.
It’s a career that might have seemed somewhat different without a chance meeting with perhaps the most famous Arab actor in Hollywood history – the late great Omar Sharif – in Paris.
In a series of too-perfect-sounding events, the screen icon struck up a friendly conversation with compatriot El-Masry’s father, an Egyptian, at the same time El-Masry, 18, was visiting. . father and son from UK ended up spending two hours with the Laurence of Arabia legend, who offered advice on navigating the industry and then gave them his own tickets to the premiere of his latest feature, 2008 Hassan and Marcusbecause he didn’t want to attend.
There the teenager was able to speak to the director, and from that conversation he landed his first on-screen role in the Egyptian family comedy. Ramadan Mabrouk Abul-Alamein Hamouda. The film – in which he played the spoiled rich child of a government minister – was a huge local success, winning numerous local awards and placing its teenage star at the top of many local directors’ wish lists.
But rather than seek to gain recognition in Egypt, El-Masry returned to London to study at the LAMDA Academy of Drama. It wasn’t until he left school in 2013 that he realized he was facing a different path from that of his fellow graduates, who he said “were having trouble getting in. in the room for Downton abbey“It wasn’t a problem for him – it was just never going to happen. Instead, El-Masry was seen for mostly terrorist-type roles – parts of two lines in films he admits to. left him feeling cold.
“I think it was just important to have housing at the time to survive,” he explains. There were a few notable parts, however, including one in Jon Stewart’s directorial debut. Rose water; Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker; and the BBC / AMC spy drama The night manager. But above all, he was going back to the casting directors, hoping they would give him a chance on something else.
Limbo – a festival favorite who received the coveted Cannes 2020 badge, landed two BAFTA nominations, and hits theaters on April 30 – was a role he really played after reading the screenplay from writer-director Ben Sharrock, the first to make him “laugh and cry”. El-Masry plays Omar, a Syrian musician who fled the deadly conflict at home in hopes of settling in the UK, but finds himself placed on a remote Scottish island with other asylum seekers awaiting processing of their request.
El-Masry admits he was “very hesitant” at first for fear that the producers would market the film with a cliché of a white savior. But Limbo does everything but bring Omar to the fore, with El-Masry skillfully moving between touching moments and absurd prank scenes (much thanks to the islanders), and – most importantly – giving his characters more depth than simple victims ravaged by war. “Throughout the film, Omar constantly talks about Syria in such a positive light and says he really wants to go back,” he says. In his review, THR said the actor “gives a moving, quietly hypnotic performance.”
As well as triggering an influx of scripts – “many that have nothing to do with the background” – Limbo also revived the El-Masry star in Egypt, where the film won first prize at the Cairo Film Festival in December. He recently returned to London after having shot a feature film in Arabic and now hopes to “keep his feet in both territories”.
El-Masry – who, on lockdown, helped launch MENA Arts, a UK initiative to build a community of connected industry professionals in the Middle East and North Africa and lobby for “greater inclusion” – will be the next star in Steven Knight’s BBC series. SAS: rogue heroes, recounting the formation of the British Special Forces Army unit during World War II. While this may sound like a project that could revert to stereotypical tropes of yore, he says the three-dimensional nature of his role is very refreshing.
“As far as his character, his Egyptian heritage, his way of speaking, it’s definitely new territory,” he says. “I have no problem playing anyone of any heritage, it’s about the character and if that poses a new challenge for you.”
This story first appeared in the April 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.