x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Amr Waked: An actor angling for success in English and Arabic

With his major role in the Golden Globe-nominated Salmon Fishing In The Yemen and current performance in the revolution-set Winter of Discontent, Amr Waked has become one of the few Arab actors to successfully straddle both Hollywood and Arab cinema.

The Eygptian actor Amr Waked, left, accepts an award at the Dubai International Film Festival in December. Karim Sahib / AFP
The Eygptian actor Amr Waked, left, accepts an award at the Dubai International Film Festival in December. Karim Sahib / AFP

In Winter of Discontent, the emotional, revolution-infused Egyptian film that screened at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, Farah Youssef plays an established state TV news announcer in Cairo struggling to express her support for the regime on air as she hears events in Tahrir Square unfolding outside. Forced to downplay the protests to her viewers, she eventually snaps under the weight of her own conscience, quits the show and, with the help of her boyfriend (played by Amr Waked), films her own mea culpa for having lied to her country. Both then join the demonstrators in scenes actually shot in Tahrir the day before Mubarak stepped down.

It's an intelligent and thought-provoking dramatisation of an issue that no doubt affected many working in Egypt's media at the start of 2011. But for Waked, who has risen to become one of the most recognisable faces in Egyptian cinema at home and abroad, it's an issue that is still not resolved two years later, and almost two years after he famously called a boycott on the Cannes screening of 18 Days, a film he claims was made with people who had supported Mubarak's regime.

"These people never apologised," says Waked, who also co-produced Winter of Discontent. "They were thinking that going to Cannes on a revolution red carpet that would help wash away their sins, but I don't think that's right."

When Cannes announced that it would be honouring Egypt, just months after Mubarak's resignation in 2011, with the world premiere of 18 Days, a portmanteau about the revolution filmed by 10 directors, few expected any controversy. But Waked - who also appeared in the film - spearheaded a boycott of the screening, citing the "presence of certain artists who previously hailed the old regime and have not reconciled with the people", believed to be Marwan Hamed and Sherif Arafa, who had filmed TV spots for Mubarak's party.

"I wasn't rude or anything," says Waked. "I was just saying that you can't do that without having a proper position, and that's what a lot of media people did. A lot said: 'We've been feeding you lies and cannot do it anymore.' But where was that from those guys? It was non-existent. And, I'm sorry, I'm not going to walk with you to help you."

18 Days, which was billed with such promise in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, still leaves a bitter taste in Waked's mouth. "It turns out this film was made simply for these people to walk on the red carpet, to call themselves revolutionaries," he says, adding that he himself was conned into being a part of it.

"I was pushed into doing this film, convinced that the revenue would go to the parents of the dead from the revolution and the injured so we could help them financially somehow. But until today, they haven't seen a penny of it. It's been two years and nothing has happened."

Winter of Discontent, which premiered in Venice, can be seen in a way as Waked's way of making creative peace with himself, a film that highlights the brutality of the regime that eventually led to the uprisings. "It's about the backstory, not the front. It's what happened in the houses of the Egyptian people and how these people reacted. And, in a way, that's the real story of the revolution, of what happened in Egypt," he says. "There were people who were for the revolution, but couldn't participate because they were scared, or they were too old, or they felt threatened. I think all of that is important to record."

Despite an abundance of documentaries that have been released since the Egyptian revolution, there are still relatively few dramas concerning the events, with Winter of Discontent joining only Yousry Nasrallah's After The Battle as titles that have attracted sizeable interest. But Waked believes these narratives will be important sources of reference in the future.

"Ten years down the line, you'll never pick up a BBC report, but you might pick up Winter of Discontent," he says. "I think it's a very good way of expressing what happened and making a lasting impression, as opposed to an immediate news report that explains it to you from a political perspective."

Ten years down the line, Amr Waked could well be a household name beyond his home country and the region. Alongside the local productions such as Winter of Discontent, 2009's The Traveller, in which he starred opposite Omar Sharif and 2003's Deil el Samaka, which saw him take his first lead role, Waked has been appearing with increasing regularity in major Hollywood titles, becoming one of the few Arab actors in recent years to have successfully made the leap overseas.

In 2005, he appeared with George Clooney in Syriana as an Egyptian Muslim cleric at the centre of an illegal arms trade. Just a couple of years later, he played Saddam Hussein's defecting son-in-law Hussein Kamel in the BBC/HBO drama House of Saddam and in 2011 joined a lengthy line-up of stars for a minor role in Steven Soderbergh's virus-thriller Contagion.

But perhaps Waked's most famous role to date for Western audiences was that of Yemeni angling fan Sheikh Muhammad in last year's romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, starring alongside Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

"I do get many offers, and many are extremely disappointing and I reject most of them. But every once in a while you find a little jewel somewhere in a script," he says of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which was adapted from the 2007 novel by Paul Torday. And the film's success - it picked up three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture Comedy or Musical - is giving Waked further options as an actor.

"A couple of years ago, I didn't have that privilege to pick and choose roles, and be sure that what I chose was going to be mine. But it's different today, a little bit, especially after Salmon Fishing's success and now the Golden Globe nominations."

With his international profile rising, Waked could well usurp Omar Sharif as Egypt's most famous lead, a man who recently said that it "was not logical that another Arab would become a star in Hollywood".

But if and when he does, Waked's not likely to be taking any career tips from the 80-year-old. "No, I have my own path," he laughs.

aritman@thenational.ae