Canadian “Aladdin” star Mena Massoud says his wild carpet ride to movie stardom has been bewildering, and humbling.
But the affable, Toronto-bred actor says it’s just the beginning of what he hopes is a long career that will include championing homegrown productions and supporting talent from a diverse range of racial backgrounds.
The Egyptian-born Massoud was relatively unknown before snagging the lead role in the live-action Disney remake of the animated children’s tale in theatres now.
He says he “lived in a closet” in a friend’s apartment to save money for a few months when he moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago, until he booked a role on the Amazon episodic thriller ”Jack Ryan,” which he shot in Montreal.
Now the 27-year-old finds himself in a big-budget feature helmed by U.K. director Guy Ritchie and sharing top billing with industry veteran Will Smith, who plays the wise-cracking, blue-tinted Genie.
Massoud seized on the revamp’s mission to feature a diverse cast and a more empowered female heroine, a headstrong Princess Jasmine with political aspirations, played by Naomi Scott.
He’s also mindful of an impressionable young audience that will be drawn to this film, boasting about a cast that includes actors with heritage from Tunisia, India, Turkey and Iran.
“‘Aladdin’ was one of the few things that I watched as a kid where I was like, ‘Oh, that guy looks like me and has a similar culture to mine,’” Massoud says in a whirlwind round of interviews in Toronto on Thursday.
“I mean, my first role, my first ACTRA gig where I got to join the union was ‘Al Qaeda No. 2’ on a show called ‘Nikita.’ So it’s been a struggle for people of colour and I don’t think it’s enough to celebrate one group of minorities. We’ve got to celebrate all diverse artists and actors and ‘Aladdin’ does that really well.”
— Disney’s Aladdin (@disneyaladdin) April 29, 2019
He admits it was challenging on many fronts to play a rakish thief who darts through crowded markets by leaping from roof tops while singing his heart out.
In addition to acting, singing and dancing, Massoud says he learned to scuba dive, juggle, ride a camel and perfect basic parkour moves including somersaults, cartwheels, flips and slides.
And then there was the day he was greeted on set with news he needed to learn to play the oud, a classical Middle Eastern string instrument.
“And I was like, ‘What?’” he recalls.
“And then … on the day-of, Guy was like, ‘You know what? We’re actually going to get Naomi to play it because it makes more sense if Jasmine plays it.’ So that’s show business for you.”
Such demands are all in service of a long-term career for Massoud, who says he’s dreamed of becoming an actor since he was a kid, even dropping out of a neuroscience program to study theatre at Ryerson University.
But he also has an eye on producing films through his own production company, and promoting a diverse talent pool in Toronto through a project he calls the EDA Foundation, or the Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation.
Its goal is ”to support and really make the path easier for ethnically diverse artists in Toronto,” he says.
Then there’s Evolving Vegan, a company he founded to promote veganism through an IGTV series currently on Instagram. There are also plans for a book and a travelling culinary TV series that would highlight more than 50 vegan and vegetarian establishments in 10 different cities across North America.
“It would kind of be like Anthony Bourdain, but vegan-style,” he explains.
Of course, there’s more on the acting horizon, too.
Next, Massoud heads to North Carolina to star opposite Abigail Spencer in the Hulu drama “Reprisal,” which he calls: “very different, very dark and dramatic.”
Amid all his interests, Massoud insists acting is his primary passion.
“I’ve always envisioned working with the best directors in the world,” he says, citing Christoph Waltz as inspiration.
“Christoph Waltz, you know, blew up in Hollywood at a very old age. He won two Oscars back-to-back so I thought, ‘You know what? Even if it happens when I’m 50, that’s fine.’ You know, I’ll always keep going, always keep trying.
“To have (‘Aladdin’) happen now is a blessing.”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press