From major franchises like Star Wars to his selection as a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, the rise of Amir El-Masry has been impressive. Many will know him from his turns on BBC One’s Industry and Netflix’s The One, but the Cairo-born actor currently leads the new BAFTA-nominated film Limbo, about a young Syrian musician arriving as an asylum-seeker on a remote Scottish island. Backstage caught up with El-Masry to talk about Limbo’s production, industry representation, and his top performance tips.
What was the attraction of a project like Limbo?
Ben [Sharrock, Limbo’s director] puts Omar into the forefront of the narrative – he gives him agency. We follow his thoughts and in doing so, we’re drawing an audience in who might be foreign to the subject matter. The film isn’t about the refugee crisis as such; it’s about a guy losing his identity. His identity – metaphorically speaking – is put to death and he is carrying it around with him in a coffin. As an actor, it is really hard to get in the room for a big part that tells this kind of story, but in a humane way – that gives it colour and texture. It humanises the subject matter.
What was your process for building such a rich and nuanced character?
With any project, I always rely on the script first. That’s my canvas, where I get all the information from for the character. I find facts about him in the script – what people say about him, what he thinks about other people, how he feels. Then I try to look up all the back-history, like if there is any given information about where that person grew up or an area I am not familiar with.
“I always rely on the script first. That’s my canvas, where I get all the information from for the character.”
With Limbo, I was very fortunate to sit down and talk with a Syrian Single Men’s group in Scotland. They were generous enough to give really detailed, intimate stories about what they left behind and what they want to do – their journeys.
I noticed another thing. Generally speaking, in Arab culture – and British, actually – we tend to use humour as a mechanism to look back at our plight. I felt it was necessary to find a bit of that because if Omar was carrying his emotions outwardly, the audience would tire very quickly. Generally speaking, humans tend to keep everything in the subtext.
How did you prepare for the Arabic and music in the film?
I speak fluent Egyptian but it’s sometimes assumed that because you speak Arabic, you speak all the dialects. But Syrian is more sing-songy and it was important for me to get all the nuances right – to break down what I know and build it up into something else. I was taught by Ben’s Arabic teacher in Edinburgh, who is Syrian, and she would tweak certain intonations.
Music-wise, I had two months to practise playing the oud, but it takes about seven years to master. I had a wonderful, patient teacher – Khyam Allami – who composed the music. There were moments where I was pulling my hair out, thinking: “This is not going to work!” But as an actor, you’re expected to be as authentic as possible as the character, and to hold your own in each frame. You just need to get the basics right, to hold it and to know how to make the simple notes. I spent every single day practising for two hours. In the end, I was having nightmares about the oud – it ended up becoming, like for Omar, a cross I had to carry.
You recently played Usman Abboud in Industry and Ben Naser in The One. How does the world of independent cinema compare with broadcast television? Is there anything you would change about your approach to the work?
That depends on the style of the piece. But generally, if the acting requires you to be authentic or realistic, the process in how you tackle the character is the same whether it is TV or film. It is about finding your wants, your needs, and your objectives in every scene, and how you feel about everyone around you. It’s good to have that in the back of your head in case you’re required to change and adapt, or ad lib or improvise. It’s all building blocks. Your process is your process when you’re back home. But it is allowing it to breathe as well –- to leave a little room for adapting. You don’t know what the other actor is going to give you, so just be prepared to throw everything out the window. It is within everyone’s right to do it how they wanted. It’s listening and reacting.
As an Egyptian actor, what changes have you seen in the industry for other Arab actors or performers from the MENA region?
Over the last three or four years, people have started to understand that just because you look a certain way, it doesn’t mean you can’t play western-sounding names, to put it bluntly. I have friends who don’t even speak Arabic, who are Arab or North African, but at the beginning of their careers would only be seen for accented roles. There is more creativity and awareness now – but we still have a way to go.
What is the most important top tip for an actor to remember?
Don’t underestimate your power! In any situation, whether it’s an audition or you’re on set and working with a veteran, you have as much input into any scenario as they do.
“You’re going to get more respect for stating your moral standpoint than by doing something which doesn’t feel right.”
Leave your ego at the door, but if you don’t feel comfortable about playing a character, don’t worry – that’s not going to be the end of your career. If anything, you’re going to get more respect for stating your moral standpoint than for doing something which doesn’t feel right. There is nothing wrong with talking about your feelings or what you want changed. When you feel strongly about something, people listen. Trust that.
You can watch Amir in The One on Netflix now. Limbo opened in US cinemas on 30 April and will be available in the UK on MUBI and in cinemas this summer.
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