Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek opens up about his struggle to reconcile his artistic integrity with his newfound fame, and the trappings of success.
“What the fuck is a star? Anyone could be a fucking star; it means nothing. I'm against the concept of it. The Kardashians are stars – what do they do? What is it to be a star? It's a misinterpretation from society that makes you ‘something’,” says a frustrated Ahmed Malek as he pushes a pillow off his bed and reaches for a box of cigarettes, Merit Blues. Despite the 24-year-old actor’s reluctance to lean into the limelight and embrace his newfound status as a so-called ‘star’, its searing glow encircles him right now, jailing him in a halo of attention – one he doesn’t particularly want.
The actor’s emotionally-charged depiction of the charismatic Adam, a lovestruck, somewhat lost, privileged teenager who falls in love with Habiba, a girl from a lower class neighbourhood and leaves his entire life to be with her in this Ramadan’s most talked about mosalsal, La Tottfea El Shams, ignited the interest of an entire nation. At every dinner table in Egypt, Malek’s impressive acting was a topic of discussion. The entire country mourned when they thought his character died. Social media veritably exploded with praise for his portrayal of Adam. Girls nationwide collectively swooned. YouTube videos were made in his honour. Memes were created. And the last time I spoke to my best friend, she said wistfully, “I just want someone to love me the way Adam loves Habiba.” She’s married.
Like it or not, Ahmed Malek has officially been stamped into the collective public consciousness as a Famous Person. But that’s just the thing; he doesn’t like it. “It scares me and I find it very overwhelming,” he says of the sudden fame that’s been thrust upon him. “I'm very introverted. I'm a shy person so I get really nervous and I can't deal with it at all.”
The enigmatic actor is not actually new to the scene, however. He starred in two of last year’s biggest films; the big screen adaptation of best selling Egyptian romantic novel Hepta, and Mohamed Diab’s critically lauded drama Eshtebak (Clash), so he’s long been somewhat in the limelight, but it is this Ramadan that the wattage truly intensified.
I'm very introverted. I'm a shy person so I get really nervous about all the attention and I can't deal with it at all.
His path in the performing arts, however, started far before that. “I think I’ve been a performer since I was a kid. I used to perform for my family all the time. I’d drive them crazy,” he laughs. “One time, I was a doctor for a week. I’d fill up bottles with Dettol and pretend I was inventing some cure or something.” The first time Malek stood in front of a camera was in the first grade, and it snowballed from there. A series of TV commercials as a kid led to him being cast in the Al Gama'a, a show about the Muslim Brotherhood directed by Mohamed Yassin. This evolved into a smattering of roles, Ma’a Sabq Al Esrar, Hekayet Hayah, and El Gezira 2. And all of his performances have been praised, for the candour and conviction with which he portrayed each character, nuanced depictions that are devoid of the bloviated overdramatic essence many Arab actors fall prey to.
Somewhere along the way though, he realised he wasn’t sure how or why he’d fallen into acting, and he took a deliberate break. “I paused after El Gezira 2 and asked myself what I was doing and why I was acting. That's when my journey to discover the art of acting began, in a more profound and honest way, not in its commercial sense,” says Malek, as he fiddles with a pair of earphones. Vintage postcards and art house movie posters scatter the white walls of his bedroom, where he sits cross-legged on his bed in sweatpants; his desk in the corner is stacked with books like Plato's Five Dialogues, a biography about Mao Zedong. “I don’t want to fit in the traditional image or typically commercial career path in acting, in which looks, appearances, and the audience’s perception are the most important factors,” he continues. “I began wanting to understand and present real art.”
An actor is an artist and an artist is a citizen and a citizen is a human being in this world at the end of the day.
Unable to attend The High Insitute for Cinema and unable to afford AUC - the only two institutions in the country that teach acting, the actor began studying his craft independently. He spent months reading voraciously about method acting, immersing himself in books, delving into the works of Konstantin Stanislavski, and taking numerous workshops, trying to attain what he calls “an honest performance, where the actor wears a face not a mask,” essentially pursuing acting for the sake of art, not for the sake of celebrity.
And it appears to have paid off, as his performance as Adam this year was one of the most highly lauded of his career – thus far. But along with the certain respect he has begun to gain as a serious actor, come the trappings of fame. “We have a problem in acting; it's polluted by the stardom and celebrity status – no one looks at the art itself,” he says. And in Malek’s case, a certain degree of infamy has accompanied his steady ascent to supposed ‘stardom’.
He’s garnered something of a reputation as a party boy in certain circles – a parallel, ironically enough, found in his character Adam. “Of course I have a huge problem sustaining my public image. I'm trying to convince myself that you live the way you want to live, and you just be who you are, but it's impossible. It's really hard; people will always be pointing at you and you will always be walking with a big spotlight up your ass. It's annoying,” he says irritably. There’s a Jennifer-Lawrence-esque rawness to Malek, that lack of filter that sometimes comes with youth and inexperience, and general discomfort with a spotlight being so harshly honed in on someone when stardom slaps them in the face all of a sudden. But his stripped-down candour is less goofy, more serious. He’s being honest, not using comedy as a shield to mask his discomfort.
We have a problem in acting; it's polluted by the stardom and celebrity status – no one looks at the art itself.
And his honesty, that lack of a filter, have landed him in hot water in the past. The actor stirred up political controversy, had his permit suspended, and was nearly arrested in January 2016 for handing out balloons made of condoms to the police officers in celebration of Eid el Shorta (Police Day) – a.k.a the 5th anniversary of the January 25th revolution – and filming it, an act he later publicly apologised for. “I see that every human has the right to express their political views, actors or otherwise. An actor is an artist and an artist is a citizen and a citizen is a human being in this world at the end of the day. But when you’re dealing with such a sensitive issue, sometimes it’s better to keep controversial opinions to yourself because they could have an incredibly negative impact,” he says. “So I learned my lesson – which everyone knows was a hard one, and since then I’ve tried to keep my political beliefs to myself because your opinions could offend someone, even if it’s unintended or satirical.”
At the end of the day, the actor is still trying to find his footing, veering between the understanding that he needs to be careful about his voice and image, and wanting to say and do what’s on his mind; balancing between wanting to create art, and accepting that his chosen form of it comes with a degree of public notoriety which he doesn’t want.
I began wanting to understand and present real art.
There is a gaping chasm between who he is, and who his chosen career – and the strings it dangles from – will allow him to be; and that dissonance between Ahmed Malek the person and Ahmed Malek the public figure is one he is still trying to manoeuvre. “I'm just trying to follow my own path,” he concludes. “And I'll figure out what it's going to be. I still don't know.”
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Photography by Mohamed Mortada