Wilmington, North Carolina is a town of tall trees and hand-painted airport signs: a serene, sleepy place of y’alls, sticky humidity and pretty coastline.
It’s an unlikely place to find the man who starred in a billion dollar film over the summer. And to be sure, it’s an unlikely place to find a man born in Cairo, whose face exploded onto screens across the world in a Disney film.
Shirt, necklace, prices on request, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Fiftysix Complete Calendar watch, price on request, Vacheron Constantin
Mena Massoud is here in the South, grinding out the final weeks of production on a new TV drama, Reprisal – his first project since the stupefying global success of Aladdin – which is due out later this year. Naturally, it was no small feat to extract him from set.
As he sits on the groomer’s chair, you spot something you don’t often see on GQ sets around the world: his hair type. It’s dry! It’s curly! It’s stupidly unruly! It’s totally fantastic. Yes, Massoud’s mop requires some serious taming. (As someone who carried something of an Arab ‘fro through his mid-teens, to see a head of hair that’s wild, thick, frizzy and wholly unpredictable on a mainstream film star still feels kinda alien.)
IRL, the 28-year-old is a little surreal: he looks every part a Disney prince, all granite jaw, floppy hair, and anime-proportioned brown eyes. Simply put, there was no better choice for an Aladdin – and he’s far from a third culture kid. Massoud is Arabic fluent and has revisited Egypt more than a few times, most recently for 2019’s El Gouna Film Festival.
There, he arrived to fanfare – that tends to happen after playing the titular character in a billion-dollar film. But Massoud travelled for a bigger purpose: to make sure another Mena Massoud can happen.
“It’s called the Ethically Diverse Artists Foundation,” he says of the charity project he launched last month. “I think there is a lot of infrastructure in place for Caucasians and African Americans, but the infrastructure and support system doesn’t exist for all other ethnicities and all other diverse artists.”
Blazer, shirt, trousers, boots, prices on request, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Patrimony Retrograde Day-Date watch, Vacheron Constantin
Massoud’s journey to leading man status will be familiar to those who follow stories like his. The early roles were meagre, one-dimensional, and, at this point, almost rite of passage for Arab actors: his first role was simply credited “Al Qaeda #2”. (Earlier in his own career, Rami Malek found himself on TV crime drama 24, playing a suicide bomber.)
“That’s how I had to start,” says Massoud as he munches his way through a vegan burrito at the end of his GQ shoot. “I’m grateful and blessed that I booked Aladdin, but ultimately it was because they were looking for a Middle Eastern actor. I want to get to the point where me, Rami Malek, Henry Golding, all these actors are just booking roles that are written for people, for human beings – whatever Joaquin Phoenix or Tom Hardy are playing. I want to be able to create a community that encourages artists to chase their dreams and further their careers.”
Let’s be frank: Massoud’s visit to the Disney universe couldn’t have gone better. He carried a thankless role – the kind of role that’s hyperanalysed and compared; where you’re given a “pass” for brilliance and wild criticism for failure. Massoud succeeded, proving himself a charmer, a comedian, a presence, a worthy leading man. Its global box office numbers were big enough to make a art designer strain to fit onto a poster: $1,050,219,183.
In many ways, Aladdin was life-changing. Yes, Massoud is now recognised, the world over. He’s boxed-in at aisles in midwestern Walmarts. He is a certifiable star in markets like Japan and South Korea. (At one stage of the international press tour, Massoud, overwhelmed by an public autograph session, walked into his hotel room, took a breath, and cried.) And, for any who chalks up his diversity talk as a bleeding-heart PR move, know this: Massoud was screaming for diversity before the world knew who he was.
“I was the only one [saying] that Aladdin was the most diverse cast a Hollywood blockbuster ever put together. Disney didn’t have my back. Nobody had my back, because they’ve chosen not to. It’s a decision they made because they didn’t want to open up that Pandora’s Box of politics,” he says.
“African Americans have been working their asses off to change this narrative, and now Middle Easterners have to do the same. We’ve had to literally change this narrative since 2001. It’s our burden. Rami’s doing this amazing thing – he helps. Any artist that’s Middle Eastern that does something good helps change that narrative.”
Massoud points out that “the whole campaign for Black Panther” was built around its remarkably diverse cast. The studio’s hesitance to scream louder about Aladdin’s casting still baffles him. “So, let’s champion him in the Middle East. But anywhere else it’s like, ‘We are not talking about it. He can talk about that, because he’s Middle Eastern.’”
Shirt, necklace, jeans, shoes, prices on request, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Fiftysix Complete Calendar watch, Vacheron Constantin
And this hits at the heart of it. In some ways, Aladdin is proving a fork-in-the-road: a moment for the young star to stick the landing. A moment for an industry to recognise the talent in front of it, or to return to something more familiar.
“Whether you agree with me or not, the fact is…since 2001 you’ve been getting this information that Middle Easterners are terrorists, Middle Easterners are bad, Middle Easterners are negative. Even if you are the most liberal person and you genuinely love all cultures, subconsciously you’ve been fed this propaganda,” he says. “I feel like it’s happening to me now. I don’t have any insider information, but I feel like studios are going, ‘Oh, we like Mena Massoud, he’s a leading man type, but can we really sell the name Mena Massoud to be the leading man of our movie? We can do it for Aladdin…but can we do it for Once Upon a Time in Christmas-land?’”
He says all of this without an inch of hesitation in his voice.
“Hopefully, one day Hollywood does decide to embrace me. I don’t say they aren’t. All I can speak about at the end of the day are the facts. The facts are, it’s almost October, the film came out in May, and I haven’t had a single audition or offer in Hollywood,” he says. “I really feel like I did carry that movie on my shoulders, and for some reason Hollywood is not embracing that.
“I loved Green Book from last year – Mahershala Ali has a great line in that film. ‘If I’m not black enough, and if I’m not man enough, what am I?’ I thought about that. If I’m not American enough, and I’m not Egyptian enough, I’m stuck in this fork in the road.”
For now, with a long road conquered, and a longer one ahead, this much is clear: there are more than a few reasons why Mena Massoud is enough. We can think of 1,050,219,183, for starters.
Jacket, shirt, trousers, prices on request, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Fiftysix Complete Calendar watch, Vacheron Constantin
Turtleneck, trousers, shoes, prices on request, Alexander McQueen
Jacket, $2180, belt (leather), $500, belt (nylon), $425, trousers, $1030, shoes, $870, Prada
Photography: Erik Tanner at This Represents
Styling: Keanoush Zargham