The Pretender – The up-and-coming actor shares his acting journey with DAMAN and the story behind his biggest role yet
Some call it luck and others call it perseverance but every actor dreams of a big break role that would pave their way to success. For Mena Massoud’s case, he landed one of the most anticipated roles in a Disney movie. When his name was announced for the role of Aladdin in the upcoming live action remake, people were a bit puzzled. Who is this guy and where has he been all this time? But Massoud actually started his acting career almost a decade ago, with roles in few TV series such as “Nikita,” “Open Heart” and “Saving Hope.”
The Egypt born actor knew that he wanted to be an actor at a very young age, but coming from immigrant parents, he was taught that the arts were only a hobby. He migrated to Canada when he was younger and his parents wanted him to be a doctor so he went to the University of Toronto to study neuroscience. But his dream of being an actor was stronger and after a year he auditioned for theatre school and he never looked back ever since.
DAMAN: Hi, Mena. Awesome to have you with us, how are you doing these days?
Mena Massoud: I’m doing well thank you for asking! Quite busy, but good.
DAMAN: Is there any special meaning behind your name?
Mena Massoud: My name actually means “amen.” I am named after the great Coptic Orthodox saint, Saint Mina.
DAMAN: Tell us, what was it that drew you into acting?
Mena Massoud: Pretend. I loved the idea of getting to pretend to be someone or something I was not. It was like putting on a mask and getting to do and say things I wouldn’t normally do or say. And it was an expression of my deepest desires, passions, fears and insecurities. It’s an incredible art form.
DAMAN: Now everybody knows your name, because of “Aladdin.” How do you feel about that?
Mena Massoud: To be honest with you, I’m not sure that’s true, or at least I haven’t experienced it yet. Many people still don’t know who I am and those who do say my name wrong a lot. I don’t mind that at all, I just mean to say that I haven’t really felt a change. Not yet.
DAMAN: What went through your mind when you first heard that you got the role of Aladdin?
Mena Massoud: I was incredibly excited and grateful, but I also think a part of me thought, “This is it, this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for your whole life.” I made a lot of sacrifices growing up and in my adolescence for my career and it felt like God and the universe were finally giving me a responsibility that I was excited to take on.
DAMAN: How was the casting process for the role and when was this?
Mena Massoud: This was back in June/July of 2017, and the casting process was intense, but I also felt lucky because it all happened in a condensed period of time. It didn’t linger on like some castings do for films like this. I had put my audition on tape and we didn’t hear back for about four months. and then out of no where, I was asked to put myself on tape again over the weekend, the next week I flew out to London for a week to test. I came back to Toronto to finish a film I was working on, flew back to London a second time for another test, and then we found out I booked it.
DAMAN: Did you watch “Aladdin” when you were a kid?
Mena Massoud: Of course. Many, many times. Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors growing up and he is an inspiration.
DAMAN: As a highly anticipated live action remake movie, do you feel pressured for taking the big role?
Mena Massoud: Pressure isn’t the right word. I feel a lot of responsibility but not pressure. I know Guy Ritchie and the studio spent a lot of time trying to find the right person and they wouldn’t have cast me if they didn’t feel like I was the guy. But I do feel a responsibility to not let fans of the original down.
DAMAN: What’s it like on set of “Aladdin”? Any memorable moments during the filming?
Mena Massoud: So, so many. We did a lot of incredible things on this film. I really got to sink my teeth into parkour and fitness and I absolutely loved that about it because it was an extension of my fitness routine that I already craved everyday. But also just the time I got to spend with such incredible artists like Guy, Will, Naomi and Jonathan our producer. I learned a lot from them and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with all of them.
DAMAN: How do you see “Aladdin” as a character in the remake?
Mena Massoud: Aladdin is a young man who is struggling to figure out his identity. He lost both of his parents very young, has had to grow up on his own and is trying to find his purpose in life – which i think is something everyone goes through especially at that age. But he’s also created a strong set of values for himself throughout his life and even though he loses himself a little bit throughout the film, those values of selflessness, love, honesty and generosity save his life and those around him.
DAMAN: How was working with Will Smith? Any special words of wisdom he shared with you?
Mena Massoud: Working with Will was a blessing I couldn’t have dreamed of. He leads by example and I learned a lot just from watching him work and how he treats his team around him. But he shared a lot of advice with me. He told me to remember what got me this far and stay true to who I am.
DAMAN: Were there any special preparations before the shoot?
Mena Massoud: Yes, a lot of prep went into this film. I definitely increased my workout regime with my trainer – we would lift weights five to six times a week. I had stunt rehearsal throughout the week, dance choreography, vocal rehearsals, script-work, scuba diving, camel riding, juggling – there was a lot but I loved it! I like being busy.
DAMAN: How did you react when you first saw the final cut of the movie?
Mena Massoud: It was a bit of an out of body experience to be honest. I still haven’t seen the final cut but the one I saw was almost finished. I was very proud of everyone who put their hearts and souls into this film. Everyone on the team just really loved this project and I think it shows on screen. This film was made with a lot of passion and I’m so happy to have gotten to work with all of these incredible people.
DAMAN: What is your favorite scene on the movie and why?
Mena Massoud: That’s hard to say because I loved so much of it. The cave of Wonders scene is one my favorites because it’s filled with discovery and magic and spectacle. I also loved the underwater scene because filming that was intense and it was definitely an adrenaline rush. And one of my favorite scenes is the scene when Prince Ali and the Genie first meet the royal family. That was a fun one and sums up my relationship with Will.
DAMAN: What are your biggest challenges as an actor?
Mena Massoud: The ups and downs of it are a challenge I think. You spend seven months working six days/week, 15 hour days, and then you go two months or more where you don’t do anything and then back for three months. You have to constantly revolve your life around your work and it’s a challenge. That’s why you have to be committed to it and love it more than anything.
DAMAN: Besides acting, what else are you passionate about right now?
Mena Massoud: I love training, cooking and riding horses when I have time off.
DAMAN: We noticed that you are the founder of Evolving Vegan. Tell us more about that.
Mena Massoud: Evolving Vegan is a company I started to help spread plant-based living around the world. When I first went plant-based I noticed a huge divide between hardcore vegans and people who wanted to learn more about transitioning to a plant-based diet. And they wanted to do it moderately and slowly and I noticed there wasn’t a place for that. So we travelled North America and found the best plantbased restaurants and are currently working on our first book. It’s going to have recipes, and incredible photographs and stories from all around the country and the ten different cities that we visited.
DAMAN: When did you decide to be a plant-based?
Mena Massoud: I transitioned to being plantbased in the fall of 2015.
DAMAN: How’s a normal day for you looked like?
Mena Massoud: On a set day, I will wake up; go to the gym and then head to set. Straight forward and simple. But when I have time off, I’ll wake up, make a coffee, catch up on basketball from the night before, head to the gym, come back and make myself a shake or lunch, take some meetings and then head back home, cook dinner and watch a film.
DAMAN: What is your hidden talent?
Mena Massoud: Actually I do voices. Watch “Mrs. Doubtfire” and you’ll know what I mean.
DAMAN: What’s the next step for your acting career?
Mena Massoud: I worked on an indie film called “Run This Town” which screened at SXSW Film Festival in March, and I’m going to be filming a series for Hulu called “Reprisal” for a few months, but after that who knows. We’ll see what happens.
DAMAN: One last question: Do you have a favorite quote or saying that keeps you going through busy days on set?
Mena Massoud: The Power of Now. I try to stay present, nothing else matters.
Photography Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
Styling Lisette Mora
Grooming Rachel Burney
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