x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Saudi Soprano

The new OSN drama Al Sultana has shaken up the industry with a plot following a Saudi woman who is both a mob boss and a devoted wife and mother. Saeed Saeed speaks to Layla Salman about her controversial new role.

The actress Layla Al Salman, who has been attracting rave reviews for her anti-hero character in the hit show Al Sultana. Antonie Robertson / The National
The actress Layla Al Salman, who has been attracting rave reviews for her anti-hero character in the hit show Al Sultana. Antonie Robertson / The National

It has been dubbed “the Gulf Sopranos”. Ever since its debut last month, the OSN crime drama Al Sultana has dazzled and confounded viewers by introducing a new anti-hero into the regional television landscape: a Saudi woman living a double life.

The programme also set a new benchmark for the regional television industry by offering high production values and a variety of international settings, with scenes shot in Dubai, Italy, Paris and Beirut.

For the Saudi actress Layla Al Salman, playing the title role – loosely translated, Al Sultana means The Baroness – has been an equal mix of exhilaration and challenge.

“It is definitely one of the most complex roles I ever played,” she says. “From the time I first read the script to seeing the first two episodes, I realised this was a character I wanted to play all my life. There are so many shades to her; she is definitely a powerful presence on screen.”

Like the late James Gandolfini’s award-winning take on Tony Soprano, Al Salman dominates the screen, eliciting fear from her adversaries and love from her ­children.

And although she brandishes a signature gilded pistol, Al Sultana is not always involved in the bloody business of running a crime empire. The violence is left to her goons, but not before Al Sultana administers a series of trademark tongue lashings to the unfortunate victims attempting to double cross her.

Al Salman quashes internet rumours that her character is based on a real-life underworld figure.

“The story is not true, but the characters of the show have personalities that we have all encountered in real life,” she says. “It’s a mix of the writer’s imagination and based on real people.”

Al Salman believes that her strong on-screen character shouldn’t be viewed as a revelation, as some in the media have done, explaining that many women in Saudi society are similarly strong and fearless.

“You just don’t know it because many writers and producers are showing males with such strong characters,” she says. “It is personally satisfying for me to finally see a chance given for female actors to portray such a character.”

It could also prove to be Al Salman’s most defining role in a career spanning more than two decades. Born in Saudi Arabia, she first caught the acting bug while attending high school in Kuwait.

“I was very passionate about it and in my school I would be the one organising the stage plays,” she recalls. “There was one Kuwaiti national day and I remember all the schools had to participate. One acting coach came and saw our little production and she recommended me for a cameo in a serial.”

That 1979 television appearance was her first and only acting role before a newly married Al Salman disappeared for two decades to concentrate on raising her family.

She returned in 2000 and rebuilt her career through a series of performances on television and theatre in Saudi.

She says her approach to the craft has not changed, despite the absence.

“There is a script and you always try to put a little bit of your own self into the character, to make it deeper,” she said. “I feel I understand Sultana. In a role you try to find the essence and in Sultana it was about the balance of being strong and dominant when it comes to leading a criminal organisation and being a soft and compassionate mother. You keep working hard until you strike that balance and everyone enjoys the role.”

• Al Sultana screens on OSN Ya Hala! HD from Saturday to Wednesday at 9pm. You can also catch up on missed episodes on the on-demand online service OSN Play. For details go to www.osn.com