Meet Khaled Abol Naga, Egypt's International Treasure

I need a hero. It's the reason I watch films, looking for what politicians, warmongers, our so-called diplomats and those giant corporations haven't given the world yet. And probably never will.
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Khaled Abol Naga photographed by Brigitte Lacombe, courtesy of Doha Film Institute

I need a hero. It's the reason I watch films, looking for what politicians, warmongers, our so-called diplomats and those giant corporations haven't given the world yet. And probably never will.

It's no surprise I turn to movies to find my heroes. Most often, it is the lead actor who becomes the romantic hero of my dreams, or the skilled filmmaker that simply conquers me with his or her heartfelt message. But at times, it can be a small, tailored role played by a big actor, that manages to melt my heart and fill my imagination.

Starting January 8th audiences throughout the Middle East and Gulf region will know exactly what I mean, when the first true Arab blockbuster, From A to B will be released. While the three male leads of this road movie with a conscience, and a sense of humor, are at once delightful and entertaining, there is one character in the film -- the senior Syrian Officer -- who left me in tears, heartbroken and elated at once.

That cameo belongs to Egyptian star Khaled Abol Naga, a man who is elegant and down-to-earth, informed and unassuming, all the while exuding a healthy dose of mystical.

Although I've long been an admirer of Abol Naga's work since watching him in Ahmad Abdalla's groundbreaking Microphone, which he also co-produced, I only very recently got to finally interview the handsome Egyptian actor. Abol Naga and I organized the meeting personally, no publicists or extras to distract us from our leisurely talk which took place on a balmy evening, in his room, during the recent Dubai International Film Festival. Ali F. Mostafa's From A to B screened at DIFF, after it world premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival earlier in the fall, along with another film starring Abol Naga, legendary Egyptian filmmaker Daoud Abdel Sayed's Out of the Ordinary.

One thing that is constant with Khaled Abol Naga is his courage. He doesn't shy away from defending the defenseless and that sometimes, as happened recently, gets him in trouble. But from our talk I realized he'll never stop being an activist, and his work as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, which he's been since 2007, more than proves that. So, hero found.

You are known for these wonderfully offbeat roles, in films that are non-traditional for Egyptian cinema. How do you choose them?

Khaled Abol Naga: Really I don't come up with the character, it's rather that throughout the years by making the choices I made I created an image of what kind of characters I could or would or should play. And I think little by little people, especially the new wave of young film directors, are trusting me more than I ever imagined in doing the kind of roles that I would have never really thought of. But they had this faith.

What is your philosophy of acting, your personal discipline when playing complex roles like a 62-year old terminally ill man in Villa 69 or a Palestinian sniper released from prison in Eyes of a Thief?

Abol Naga: My rule number one is trying to be honest to the character as much as possible, and if I'm honest with the character, I think you not only become honest to one story, you become honest to more than you are aware of. In Villa 69 it was being honest to Hussein and this grumpy old man who thinks that he will be happy if he has everything he liked around him, his music, his books, even his ex-girlfriends. He thought this is it, this is happiness for him, he was content with that, he thought he was, until someone he didn't really care about -- this young stupid spoiled kid moves in and he happens to need him, need his advice. And the moment he decides to give him advice and help is the moment when Hussein felt alive. That is the essence, that is the philosophy that I thought was the challenge for my role. It's not the make up, it's not the age, it's actually there...

Could that be the key to life too?

Abol Naga: That moment when you believe, when you find out that all that we thought makes us happy is not. The only time we feel our lives make sense is when we find someone who needs us and we can help.

Do you pick films thinking that the work you do and the projects you are choosing can help change the world?

Abol Naga: Absolutely! It has to change me and if it changed me I might have a chance to change people. By change it can be a feeling, the language of film and art is human emotion, it's not Arabic or English or silence. This is why film travels, across cultures and people -- an occupier in Israel will see the movie and might have feelings for his fellow humans under occupation and that's when art can do something that politicians can't do, or don't want to do and I think that's enormous.

What was it like working on From A to B?

Abol Naga: They came to me and the movie was such a nice comedy, in the midst of an Arab Spring, new faces, new kids, new actors, and I thought it was going to be very fresh, very funny. They brought the scene to me, and they were not sure if I was going to say yes or no, so they kept leaving that scene loose to rewrite. They said, we want you in a cameo, and I said OK. I can do a cameo... But why don't we do something with it, give it some weight. Because the movie is quite light, and I think at some point you need to hit something.

You made me cry, if I think about that scene, I still get emotional. And you almost ruined Ali Suliman for me, he's usually the soft sensitive one.

Abol Naga: We thought we would make it opposite this time! I'm a big fan, I'm a huge fan of Ali Suliman's work. I thought it's something interesting about also when you're tired in the middle of this war and you actually become human. Tiredness makes you human.

There is a profoundness in what you say that is always missing from the pieces I read about you, maybe it's because I don't read Arabic?

Abol Naga: I don't really do a lot of interviews. Because really I don't know how to talk about my movies, unless someone saw my movies. And most of my interviewers in Arabic they don't see the movies. I don't get it.

Now onto the basics. Where were you born and grew up?

Abol Naga: Where it all started! (laughs) I was born the 2nd of November in Cairo, the suburb of Heliopolis which keeps revisiting me in scripts. I have many brothers and sisters and there is a big age difference between us. I was brought up with the daughters and sons of my sisters and brothers. My real father and my mom were separated but I had many fathers and brothers and mothers. I think it was important to form who I am because when you have so many opinions telling you what to do, you either conform or rebel. And I conformed as a kid until I think prep years, I was 16 or something. And then all of a sudden I was doing things that I never expected I would do.

Like what?

Abol Naga: I started writing underground magazines in school, writing about teachers... It was a very rebellious magazine and very funny as well. We were in class 2B, second preparatory, so we called it "2B or not 2B".

Acting wise, who were your inspirations, who did you imitate in the mirror when you first started?

Abol Naga: Myself. I tried not to imitate, I learned from an early moment and I think I owe this a lot to my mentor, Dr. Mahmoud El Lozy. I happened to walk into a play he was acting in and I knew that moment -- something changed in me. I was an engineering student, being a teaching assistant in a physics lab at the University and I just happened to know for sure, you know when they say you have a calling. This was the moment. I stood there in the theater and I remember very well the scene. He was standing there, saying nothing, and not saying a word he was communicating something. And the people after a good 30 seconds of silence started clapping. I got it. But he did nothing. This guy had such an impact on me as a mentor, but he was never really my mentor. He talks, I would just sit listening to his class. He's the reason I have this understanding of how acting, performing can be sacred in a way.

How did you become so perfectly bilingual, with no accent at all when you speak English?

Abol Naga: My mom decided to put each kid in a different school. (Laughs) So Tarek went to a very Nasser-like school, mostly everything is taught in Arabic, they are taught languages but very minor, and then the girls had to go to French school, to speak French because girls had to... I don't know why. By the time she got around to me, she decided to put me in a private English school St. George, which happened to be Dutch originally but they basically concentrated on languages, though it wasn't that good... My fellow St. Georgians don't speak very good English. For me I think it's because of the acting thing. I got offered a role in a movie, it was a big role, my first role, in a film called La Folie d'Amour "the craziness of love" as a kid. It started this sponge thing, any actor will tell you it's like a sponge, so at an early age I started looking at people, absorbing how other characters behaved and I think that helped a lot later on. So one of these things was languages. At an early age doing this movie helped a lot I think to try to absorb the languages. That's why lately I've been thinking why am I not doing films in other accents?! And I tried to tell all my friends, give me a role, give me a small role in a Syrian film.

Or an Ang Lee film!

Abol Naga: I wish that had worked out. The casting director Avy Kaufman, I met her in NY for casting something else, but then later on she was casting for Ang Lee's project that was not made, Tyrant and she said, "Ang Lee wrote me a letter, do you want to read it?" And I said yes, he said unfortunately I'm dropping the project but there is one person I want to say something to: "I love love love Khaled Abol Naga!" -- three loves. I love his work. I love love love Ang Lee too!

I want to stay away from anything political, but could you touch lightly on your recent issues in Egypt?

Abol Naga: I usually don't talk about anything political at all. I usually talk about people in unjust situations. And that I cannot not talk about. The whole thing started by me talking about the Egyptian families that were moved away from their home on the border, and I thought that's so unjust, you can't do that?! And that's how it started. I don't understand politics, if you tell me what's the difference between Marx and whatever, I don't get it.

If you had to describe yourself in three words what would they be?

Abol Naga: Brave, honest, emotional. (Laughs) Maybe that's my negative side... No maybe the three of them are negative! I think being brave to me sometimes translates as being in your face. I'm not diplomatic especially when someone is in an unjust situation... I've never hit anybody or had a fight as a kid until one day I found myself doing it. And the reason was someone was being unjustly treated. I become very angry when I feel there is someone being unjustly treated. And that triggers this thing in me, and I think from an early age I knew I have to control it.

Top image courtesy of the Doha Film Institute, trailer courtesy of Image Nation Abu Dhabi, all used with permission.

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