Ahmed Malek leans slowly across the desk, his bushy mop of hair falling over his face as he inches the chair a little closer.
“Okay,” he whispers, guiding some rogue strands behind his ears. “You really want to know about camels? I have three things that can help you. First, you have to be friendly. Second, you’ve got to be firm. Third... third...”
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Malek has stretched himself with number three. He stands, hoping the upward motion might push the fact out the top of his brain. He sits back down, picking up a glass and peering through its bottom, but the knowledge gathered from The Furnace – his first film outside of the Middle East – is visibly disintegrating into the ether.
“I’m forgetting the last one,” he concludes, now rooting through the contents of an envelope he’s found on the table. “Let’s just go with two for now.” (He does eventually remember number three. It’s unprintable.)
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There are many great things about a conversation with the 24-year-old Egyptian actor, not least that he can appear a fizzing ball of contradictions. Bursting with energy but dogged by weariness. An old head in the midst of an existential crisis, yet able to relay life’s problems in the simplest terms. And just when you think you have him worked out, he reveals another side. But beyond the back and forth, one belief remains unshakeable: Ahmed Malek is so close to global success that his sizeable mane of hair is almost touching it.
One of a clutch of rising stars in the Middle East, Malek has grown up in front of the cameras. From adverts at the age of eight, to his first television series Ayamna el Helwa at 10, to a breakthrough role as founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2010 series, El Gamaah. But while his powerbase in the Middle East has long been solid, recent film-festival-darling roles in Sheikh Jackson and EXT. Night have gently nudged the international market, too. So, it doesn’t take long before you buy into his imminent global fame, as well. The biggest obstacle to it all right now? That dark green Egyptian passport in his pocket: 52 – mostly blank – pages that could yet define his career.
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“So, I had a call from the most famous casting director in Egypt,” he begins. “She said, ‘Malek, have you heard about Aladdin?’ Of course I had, everybody was auditioning for it. But apparently they had my name and wanted me to try for it. I wasn’t sure. I mean, look at me, I’m kind of white, right? I don’t really look that Middle Eastern. But she’s into it. ‘The Aladdin casting director – Lucinda Syson – wants to come and see you on set,’ she says. Next thing I know, I’m shooting and hear talk… ‘Hey, hey, there are foreigners outside, look.’ Amazingly, it was Lucinda, she came in, we spoke, she asked me to send a tape.
“I was there, man, I was shortlisted. The only guy from the Middle East out of three people left for the role, but when I was eventually asked to come to London I knew that was it. It would have taken me a month to get a UK visa, then a permit from the Egyptian army in order to travel. It was over. But, of course, Mena [Massoud] did a great job in the end.”
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These stories ring true of any actor trying to make a mark outside of the region. And while Rami Malek and Ramy Youssef have inched open the door for the Arab world, for the men and women plying their trade there, the threshold remains blocked by red tape.
“What they have done is great,” says Malek. But those guys were brought up in America. They have the tongue, the accent. I was brought up in Dokki, Cairo. This is my life, my home. I don’t know anything about anywhere else.
“Lucinda called me once more, this time for the Netflix series, Messiah. Again, they wanted me, again it fell through when the prospect of travel arose. I don’t want to sound like a victim. I’m not complaining, it’s just… frustrating.”
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But here’s where Malek’s story takes a different road, at least potentially. While it would have been easy to sit and stew, to froth and foam, Malek chose tactical retreat.
“I realised that I’d been working constantly from such a young age, and had this moment when I just thought, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ I really went into this deeply. How do I explore more, how do I break myself, mould myself? If I’m an actor, then what even is acting? I’m still looking for the answer to that one, actually. I have no f****** clue!” he laughs. “The search is ongoing.”
Malek’s odyssey could well be what distinguishes him from his peers. If it’s a project he believes in, with a director he trusts, he’s been known to do the job for free. “If it’s important to me, then the money doesn’t matter. Of course, if it’s an advert, or big studio movie, then of course, pay me… pay me A LOT,” he laughs.
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While the approach might not exactly swell the bank balance, it certainly enhances his credibility. “I started to get more jobs that looked like the type I wanted, alongside talented young directors. By being part of these projects I was unintentionally moving towards a more international market.”
Clash and Sheikh Jackson played well at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, but the four scenes in the movie EXT. Night changed everything. After showing at Toronto, Malek was named a TIFF Rising Star, which led to representation by New York-based APA Agency (Gary Oldman is an alumnus), and a whole new learning curve to get to grips with.
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“I die a little inside when I think of this,” says Malek, squirming, “but when Lucinda asked me to send that audition tape for Aladdin, I actually made up a whole production. I know, now, that you should just send a simple piece to camera. Then, however, I had three people involved; a director, an actress, we walked, we did a scene. Do I think that video killed it? YES!”
You could say that the final contradiction of Malek lies here. The desire to achieve global success versus the need to shun fame in all its forms. How one comes without the other is a question for another day, but for now, his thoughts on the ego of fame are clear.
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“It bothers me. I’ve had a taste of it and if you’re not careful it can swallow you whole. Art is about taking risks, it’s about being on the ground, about being dirty, being euphoric. Me, to avoid the ego, I dance. I joined a dancing school a while ago and there I’m just another student. Every day, I sweat, I push my body, I show my failure. I choose to blend in. That’s the only way to be authentic. Ultimately, you have to give a piece of yourself. That’s the only way for the audience to connect with you. That, to me, is the magic of acting. So, while being an actor from the Middle East might have its problems, I’ll continue to fight back in my own way. If only to prove that I’m still here, still surviving, still breathing... I’ll do my art.”
Photography: Stephanie Galea at Mink Mgmt
Styling : Keanoush Zargham
Grooming: Katherina Brennan at MMG Artists
Producer: Amira Elraghy
Fashion Assistant: Monaliza Wahba