The story of Aladdin, Disney and Agrabah’s most lovable street rat is as memorable as the production house’s opening sequence. We are all aware of how Aladdin leaves his life of petty thievery behind because he believes that he’s destined for greater things. Over the course of his adventure, he comes across the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Jasmine and battles the powerful Jafar – with a little (okay, a LOT) of help from his friends.

Naturally, when Disney declared that they were looking to produce a live-action adaptation of the studio’s animated classic, opinion was divided online. While some were uber-excited about a vibrant new look to the timeless tale, others were worried how it’d turn out. The studio launched a massive casting search in 2016 and over a course of 12 months, they saw 2,000 actors from London to Egypt to Abu Dhabi to India. For Aladdin, they were looking for someone charming and self-deprecating who audiences could root for and who could sing and dance and execute the substantial amount of stunt work the role required. Mena Massoud was cast in the title role and received the call informing him of the good news on the set of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

The Egyptian-born actor (raised in Toronto) was drawn to the role for a number of reasons. “Guy (Ritchie, the director) wanted to shoot the film in a very real, gritty, fantastical kind of way while still focusing on the friendships and growth of the main characters,” says Massoud. “Guy has a very specific vision in his head of what he wants to do and how he wants to get to it, but he lets the actors play with it as well. I really appreciated the fact that he trusted us to bring his vision to life, which is such an amazing responsibility to be given.”

MW sat down with the actor for a digital exclusive and here’s what he had to say about diversity, his job and what makes Aladdin a memorable experience.

Aladdin

There are just a few weeks left for the release of your film. How do you feel?

Good, good. I’m ready for people to see it, I’m excited.

And are you nervous?

Um, no, I don’t think I’m nervous. It’s been so long since we’ve shot it and wrapped it, I think I’m just ready for it to come out and people to see it.

Do you remember what you were doing when you got the call confirming that you got selected?

Yeah, I was actually on set in Toronto. I was working on my last day on a film I did with Nick Robinson and I couldn’t tell anyone anything so when I found out, I had to pretend like nothing happened and go out and finish the day on set. 

So you must have obviously watched Aladdin as a kid  . . .

Yeah, of course. I think the first time I watched it, I was still in Egypt because I was born in Cairo and I moved here when I was two years old. 

Do you remember what you thought when you watched Aladdin for the first time?

The first time, probably not, because I was very young – maybe one or two years old but growing up, I loved the film for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons was that this was a character that I could relate with, that looked like me and reminded me of my family. There aren’t a lot of characters like that. The second big reason was that Robin Williams was playing the genie and he’s one of the actors I idealised growing up so those two reasons combined made it pretty special to me. 

Right now, who’s the one actor you look up to?

(laughs) That’s tough! I think it would be Daniel Day-Lewis. I really look up to him from a performance perspective but I also like what Ryan Gosling is doing these days. He has a nice balance of being a leading man and also playing artistic films. There’s so many . . . Christian Bale is amazing as well.

You’ve said that you were born in Cairo and that Aladdin reminded you of someone that you looked like and hence, you felt comfortable – was it difficult for you as a person of colour when you did your schooling in Canada?

I wouldn’t say it was difficult but it was definitely different. I was one of the few people of colour where I was growing up. I grew up about 30 minutes away from Toronto. I got bullied growing up because I had a lot of hair on my body, I was very hairy. I definitely got bullied so I felt that growing up, I knew I looked different and I had a different culture but overall it was a great experience. I wouldn’t say I got harrassed but I definitely got bullied but I think it helped become who I was and become a stronger person overall. I honestly wouldn’t change anything about it.

What would you say has been the most fun part about playing Aladdin?

The fun part for me was all the stunt work that I got to do. I got to really up my physical activity, I had a personal trainer who I was training with every day for six days a week and then I had my stunt team and we would work together quite a lot. That was the most fun part for me but I got to do so many cool things like camel riding and I learned how to juggle for the role as well and scuba diving and obviously the singing and dancing.

How was it like acting with Will Smith?

It was amazing. Will has extraordinary energy and is very generous and makes everyone happier as soon as he steps on a set so I’m just very grateful that I got to work with him and do the press tour with him.

How did Aladdin happen?

They went on a worldwide search and I think they were mostly looking for a singer for Aladdin and then they switched courses and were looking for an actor but basically, I sent in my general stuff with everyone else in the world probably and I didn’t hear anything back for about four months so I didn’t think anything of it. I kind of moved on and did Jack Ryan and I did a couple of other things. Then, all of a sudden, I heard back that they wanted me to do another take and I did another take.

I had a weekend to do that take and then they flew me out to London to test. I spent a week there testing – working with the choreographer and Guy Ritchie and the vocals. Then I came back to Toronto and tested again a second time and then I again came back to Toronto to finish that film I was working on that I told you about.

 

So which film was this?

It’s called Strange But True.

Do you remember the last film that you liked?

I really liked The Favourite from 2018 and I really like The Green Book. Those were my personal favourites from 2018.

If you had to pick one movie from 2018 that you wish you had acted in, which one would it be?

Probably The Favourite.

What was your introduction to cinema like?

You know I grew up watching Mrs Doubtfire. I watched a lot of Robin Williams movies, Rush Hour 1, Rush Hour 2, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. I grew up watching those. There was Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock. I was watching a lot of Arabic cinema but for English cinema, that’s what I would pick.

How was it romancing Naomi Scott?

It was great! I and Naomi are great friends now and we’re going on this journey together and that’s making us closer and she’s absolutely lovely, man. She’s just so nice and grounded. She’s a great woman.

Do you plan on coming to India soon?

I hope so! (laughs) I don’t know exactly where we’re going but I’d love to come and visit India. I love Indian food and Indian cuisine and I’m vegan so there’s a lot of vegan food in India. 

What’s next for you now?

I have a film called Run This Town that should hopefully be getting distribution soon and I’m also working on my next series with Abigail Spencer and Rodrigo Santoro called Reprisal. I’ll go off and shoot that in June.

Disney’s Aladdin releases on 24th May in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

 

(Header credits: Mena Massoud on Instagram)

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