In this CairoScene exclusive, we catch up with Ashraf Hamdi – a rising star on both the Egyptian and international film circuits, who even has his own page on IMDB.
The ever-handsome actor has starred in some of the most interesting and thought-provoking films including Flowers of Kirkuk and Wingrave, flying the Egyptian flag wherever he goes. But – as we found out – it took a dull life in dentistry to make him realise his true passion for acting. We sit down with the man himself to find out how he made that transition, how good of a rapper he is and the lengths he’d go to in order to be with Keira Knightley.
How and when did you get into acting?
It was 2004 and I was in Germany when I decided acting was for me. I realised that even though I had gone through years of college, dentistry wasn’t for me anymore. I used to act and direct plays in the summer holidays but it was not until long after I had graduated that I realised it was my passion. I also used to have a hip hop rap and dance crew with DJ Feedo in the early 90s, but I outgrew that too…
What!? What was your band’s name?
Black Moon! We used to perform in this popular club called at the Movenpick hotel in Heliopolis. We used to be famous…
If someone were to come to you and say you could never act again, but Black Moon would be the most famous hip hop act in the world, would you do it?
Hahaha, we weren’t that good so they’d have to remix our old stuff to some Skrillex or something. We actually used to steal lyrics from East 17 and rap them. Sometime’s we’d have to battle other bands and we’d bribe the DJ to help us win…
Give us an original verse from the Black Moon days…
Do you ever get up in the middle of the night, missing DJ Feedo?
We are still great friends until now!
Have you ever thought of getting back together?
Maybe just to spoof ourselves…
So how did the transition from hip hop star to dentist to actor come about?
You know how it is in Egypt… Back then we didn’t have this openness of opinions regarding the entertainment business. If you told your parents you want to be an actor, they wouldn’t be very happy. So I went into the Faculty of Dentistry and for a few summers, I worked with an Italian entertainment company in Hurghada. At night we used to do musicals and we would choreograph our own dancing and lip-sync and act it out with lights and everything. It was kind of successful and I was the only Egyptian working with them back then. That’s why I would try hard not to fail any course in dentistry so I would have summer off and do what I was passionate about. Then, when I was done, I went to Germany and there I started to re-evaluate things. I had lots of time for myself and I used to think of stories for films and write them down. That’s where it begun.
Do you feel blessed that you’re white so you aren’t typecast as a terrorist?
Hahaha yes! My Dad is half Italian which helps. And I speak five languages: English, German, Arabic, French and Italian.
Did you have any acting breaks in Germany?
None. Usually in Germany, when you’re not perfect in the language, they don’t really give you a chance.
So how did you get your first break?
It was really hard. A friend of my mum’s introduced me to this Egyptian man who lives in Germany called Yousef Ghaleb. He’s close friends with the legendary director, Youssef Shahin. So in 2004, I travelled from Frankfurt to Munich to meet Ghaleb who was working in the German film industry. I sat with him and he knew what I did and he said that I have everything to be an international actor but his advice was to start my career in Egypt. So I started thinking about it and he put me in touch with Shahin, so I flew back to Egypt and met him. The first thing he asked me was “Can you dance?”.
Were you tempted to dance hip hop for him?
Hahaha yes, but I didn’t. He told me that I could be the next Omar Sherif but he didn’t have a role for me just yet. I thought he was blowing me off. I kept in touch with him, and eventually I decided to risk it all and move back to Egypt for good to start my acting career. My ex-wife wasn’t very supportive, she said there’s too many people trying to be actors and it would never happen…
Do you ever feel like calling her and being like, “HA!”?
I think after she saw that I was in this Italian movie, she realised that I could achieve my dreams! When I told her I was moving back to Egypt, she didn’t want to come with me. movie in Italy she was like wow you achieved your dream. So yeah anyway I decided to go back and she wouldn’t go back with me and said to continue doing dentistry. So I made this comparison in my mind.. me as a famous dentist with all the money in the world or struggling actor and I was trying to find happiness so I realized I’d be so much happier as a struggling actor…
But you got your first break as a presenter not an actor…
I came back to Egypt and I thought about going the ‘Matt Damon Route’ which is writing a great script and then giving it to people and saying I want to be in this film. So I did that, and joined Mohamed Hefzy’s Workshop. I studied screen writing and became the supervisor of his workshop. I heard about an audition for an independent film in English and auditioned. I got the part as the main role in Wingrave, which was a super-low budget film – I was only paid 3000LE for this art-house style horror film that I didn’t think would go anywhere. But it got picked up and was sold on DVD in the States and didn’t do badly at all. Plus I got my first appearance on IMDB as a professional actor which was fun! I did an interview about the film in a local magazine and OTV called me and asked me to audition for a new breakfast show they were doing that was supposed to be hip and edgy. I decided to just go for it for more exposure and I got the part.
What was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you live on air?
Sometimes I’d mess up lines, but we learned to make fun of ourselves because it was a live show and usually when you make a mistake and you try to cover it people don’t really like you. The most embarrassing thing was when girls would call the show and ask for my personal number.
Have you ever gone on a date with one of your fans?
Yeah… I remember it was during the OTV days. She met me somewhere and said she was a fan and gave me her number. We just went for dinner or something.
When did you feel like you’d “made it”?
My first big part was a role in Yousra’s TV series Khas Geddan, but I don’t consider it my big break. I have 2 defining moments: one was the first international film I was in, Flowers of Kirkuk; a really big Italian film. They auditioned was with every big superstar in Egypt and I got the role. Classifiedwould also be my favourite project so far and it was the first action mini-series to be made in the Middle East. It was unique and shot well and I also wrote it myself so it’s very close to my heart. It was even nominated for a Cannes Lion award. I also did a Behind The Oscars series for Fox Movies which was fun and I directed a shot a short film called For Every Action which I’m very proud of. We shot it in just a day and a half.
What role would you love to play one day?
An international spy. Something like the Bourne Identity.
If you had to choose between making loads of money but only act in commercials for MaxiBon or have the most exciting role of your life but it’s in a theatre that no one goes to, which would it be?
I would definitely go for the theatre because I want my job to satisfy my artistic soul. I did ads before though; a 7 UP commercial for which I got paid very well but it’s not my thing.
If you could act with any actress in the world who would you choose?
Keira Knightley for sure, I love her.
If you could play in a film with Keira Knightley but you would have to play a gay retard, would you do it?
If any one could play you in your biopic who would it be?
What approach to acting do you think is best?
It depends on each person… Some people just go buy a book and choose one method but I think you need to use your past experiences and emotions for it to be convincing. Plus, using method acting and researching the role well is important.
Have you gone back to the stage since being in film?
Once with the Royal Court of London. They were here with the British Council and they chose four actors to read plays written by Arabs.
Are you worried about censorship in Egyptian TV with the current political situation?
Of course, but it depends because censorship was always there. If it gets worse than the sexual part then I would be worried. The type of education that the new generation has makes it more likely to abuse bad language and habits in art, and they might even get too extreme with it. Of course there should be freedom in film, but they should be taught how to effectively use it starting from their basic education.
Who do you think is the most talented upcoming Egyptian actor or actress?
Dina Sherbini is really talented. As for men, you’re getting guys coming back from the dead, so to speak, like Amir Karara, who’s finally got his big break and has shot to stardom.
If you could change one thing about the Egyptian film industry what would it be?
We should start to think much more about going global instead of just concentrating on making money. Lots of Egyptian films have a message and everything but it’s not appealing when it comes down to cinematography; they’re just dull. So I would try to make the industry commercial but also full of artistic content.
Any upcoming projects?
These days I’m shooting a TV series with Khaled El Sawy called 3ala Kaf El 3afreet. It’s going to be aired next month on El Nahar channel. I’m also working on filming a fashion film.
Okay we’re going to wrap up by testing your acting chops with some improv…