Mena Massoud, the Canadian-Egyptian star of “Aladdin,” is showing cinema-goers a whole new world and a new fantastic point of view as the breakout star of the Disney animated classic turned live-action movie.
In his first big Hollywood role, Massoud is helping transport the entertainment world on a magical carpet ride to perhaps its latest stop on the diversity map: Arab and South Asian representation.
“When I was growing up, I couldn’t go to the cinema and see anyone who looked like me, so we’re really trying to change that in this film,” the actor told HuffPost Canada from a hotel room in Toronto, his former hometown, where he returned to attend a special screening of “Aladdin” ahead of its North American premiere.
If 2018 was dubbed the year of Asians, a la “Crazy Rich Asians,” as well as a notable year for African-Americans with “Black Panther,” “Aladdin” showcases a population rarely seen on screen in a positive light: Arabs.
“I started off here in Toronto, my first ACTRA gig was Al Qaeda #2 on ‘Nikita,’ and it was difficult,” said the young actor.
While this iteration of the film, a remake of the 1992 “Aladdin,” remains a Middle Eastern story told by white guys ― Guy Ritchie is its director, a choice many found odd — Disney has said that it undertook a huge effort to carefully cast this film.
Watch the “Aladdin” trailer. Story continues below.
Julie Ann Crommett, Disney’s Vice President of Multicultural Engagement, told Entertainment Weekly that the casting process spanned 15 countries over six months.
“If you think about the realities of portrayals of Arab people on screen, this is really the first time in a long time that you get such a positive and uplifting portrayal of the community, and so it presented such an amazing opportunity to cast a whole cast of people who were from the region or to present a whole cast of people who are diasporically from the region,” Crommett said in EW.
The “region” Crommett speaks of is the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah where Prince Ali meets his forbidden love interest Princess Jasmine.
The film stars Massoud, who was born in Egypt and immigrated to Canada at age three; British actress Naomi Scott, who is of Gujarati Indian and British descent, and Dutch-Tunisian actor Marwan Kenzari.
Controversy swirled with this remake, with folks criticizing everything from the need to make a live-action film of the beloved animated film, to bringing on “Sherlock Holmes” director Guy Ritchie, directing his first romantic Disney fairytale, and Will Smith as the blue-hued genie getting jiggy with wishes.
However, despite the controversy, Massoud still sees the remake as much-needed and beneficial.
“(Hollywood is) starting to move in the right direction,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. There’s still Middle Easterners and Latinos and Asians and tons of other groups being under-represented, so we need to level the playing field as much as we can.”
To help him level his own playing field, Massoud relocated from Toronto, one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world, to Los Angeles for his acting career ― a move that came with its share of trepidation as the son of traditional immigrant parents.
Massoud told Here Magazine that he felt the pressure to become a doctor or engineer, like many children of immigrant parents, but acting was in his blood. So he switched from studying neuroscience at University of Toronto to a theatre degree at Ryerson University.
He then worked to save up money to move to L.A., and it’s a move that seems to be paying off. Along with this big-time role as Prince Ali, Massoud will also play the lead role of Rumi in the upcoming animated feature film “Lamya’s Poem.” He also stars as Tarek Kassar in the series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.”
And with his recent successes, he wants to give back, especially to people of colour trying to make it in competition industry that doesn’t always favour them. The actor said that he’s starting a foundation in Canada called the Ethnically Diverse Foundation.
“We’re trying to give back to artists of colour and make the journey for them a little easier.”