I met Mohamed Farag last year, just after the conclusion of his role as Ali Ruby, an addict and one of the lead protagonists in last year’s hit Ramadan TV series Taht al-Saytara (Under Control). I didn’t know whether to hate or embrace him for the character he so artistically and believably performed for 30 days straight.
But within minutes, it became clear Farag is not at all like Ali, nor is he like Hamada al-Far (Ott we Far), Zaki (Harag w Marag), Karim (Alf Mabrouk), Said al-Qashash (Al-Qashash), or Dr. Walid (Soqoot Horr). Off screen, the 33-year-old takes his work seriously, proves well-versed in Egyptian TV and cinema history, and speaks passionately about his peers. Mostly though, Farag is sharp, engaging, modest, and wickedly funny. This interview took place in early July, aboard a diving boat called MV Tala in the Hurghada Marina, at the tale end of a music and diving trip in the Red Sea. The interview was interrupted multiple times to accommodate for loud friends with their many “off-record jokes”. According to Farag, it was the “best and strangest” interview he has done yet.
Maha ElNabawi: How old were you when you did your first play?
Mohamed Farag: I was 13 or 14, grade 6 — the first year in primary school. When I finished thanaweya amma [high school exams], I entered the Institute of Cinema for a year. Then I left and began studying at the Faculty of Commerce, where I started participating in theater. That’s it, that was the start, the professional start, sixteen years ago in 2000.
ME: What was your experience with Khaled Galal’s cultural development program [under the umbrella of the state-affiliated Creativity Center]?
MF: It was a very important experience for me — staying five years, for the first time in my life to enter this type of acting preparation, to really be a professional actor where I learned acting, singing, dancing, photography — the full picture. It’s studying in an artistic way, it’s not a school, it’s a workshop — there’s no place for pen and paper, it’s coming from your mind, your character, your soul: practical, not theoretical. I learned something very important, which is artistic consciousness. How to bring your work and your character into realization. That’s the main and most important thing I learned.
ME: [Galal’s improvised 2009 play] Qahwa Sada [Black Coffee] — why was it so special?
MF: Qahwa Sada was for me personally, and my graduation class in the workshop, among the most important works that happened in 2008, 2009, 2010. And we were a group of young people, no one know knew us yet — most of us were being introduced to the audience but had been acting for six or seven years. It was a very important performance in the lives of the whole cast, after it God blessed us and my graduating class includes many important actors now.
ME: We’ve talked before about this new generation of actors you’re working with, is this what you were referring to?
MF: Yes, the class before us, my class, and the class working now (the third one), we’re all pretty much one generation. There are different ages, but we’re part of the same generation.
ME: Can you give me examples of some of the other actors to come out of this class?
MF: Hesham Ismail, Hossam Daager, Mohamed Salam, Mohamed Fahim, Mohamed Mamdouh (Tyson) — did you see [this Ramadan’s] Grand Hotel? Mamdouh (Tyson) was Amin in the show. He’s one of the most talented actors.
ME: Yeah, he killed it in Grand Hotel. Let’s talk about your transition from theater to film. It’s often the natural progression for actors. Why did you decide to make that transition — was it a director coming to you for a film, or did you decide to start auditioning for films?
MF: I was never very active in the process of casting because I’m uncomfortable with auditions. In 16 years I’ve done about five or six auditions because I get embarrassed.
ME: What’s the casting process generally? Is it that kind of culture where you hear of a casting call for a role and people go and audition, or is it usually that directors have every role cast in their mind?
MF: It depends, there could be a director that sees you in a performance and wants you for a role, or you can attend a casting and impress the director.
ME: Your role in Alf Mabrouk  resonated well with the audience, yet your comedic roles are scarce.
MF: For Alf Mabrouk, Ahmed Helmy, the star, and the director Ahmed Galal were watching Qahwa Sada live, and they caught my performance and that of Amir Salah Eddin, who’s the driver of the taxi in the film. This was the start, fromAlf Mabrouk. Then director Mohamed Yassin called me to play in [2010 TV series about the Muslim Brotherhood] Al-Gamaa [The Group], and it was one of my biggest and most powerful appearances. It was just one scene.
I played a youth who gets arrested at an anti-government protest with the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s not Brotherhood though, he had a bit of a beard but was going out to the protest because he’s extremely poor and has a lot of problems with the government — not religion or politics, like the Brotherhood. He explains in the scene: he’s with anyone standing against the government, Brotherhood or whatever other orientation, it doesn’t matter, he’s with them due to the many problems in his life — his family doesn’t have running water, education, and are living in conditions where everything’s rotting. That’s why he went up against the government, that was the moral. For me, it was incredible to see how this scene was received — so many people were talking about it, especially because the show itself was very widely watched and successful that Ramadan.
My scene was in episode 7 [the seventh day of Ramadan]. By the ninth day, feedback started coming in, in newspapers, TV shows, social media — wow — it felt like all of Egypt. By the 20th day, people were calling me, telling me, “Farag, you have to get on YouTube, type in the name of your scene, and check out the number of viewers watching!” I was shocked. The show was a powerful start.
ME: Yet in Alf Mabrouk, it was a more comedic role. Do you have a preference for comedy or drama?
MF: No, for me, it’s not determined like that — I don’t plan each role based on whether it’s a comedy or drama. I love comedy very much, I played a lot of comedic roles in theater — I didn’t do many tragic-drama roles. But when I started getting known in the field, and started to appear in TV and movies, I played some dramatic roles, some tragic roles, some psychotic roles, so I moved away from comedy and I miss it nowadays. Two years ago, I thought I had to get back into comedy.
ME: Yeah, you have a good sense of comedy, off and on screen. I think it’s one of the hardest crafts to develop.
MF: To create a comic situation is a talent. The Egyptian people have a very high sense of humor, so it’s really the way of the people. Knowing how to utilize this in an artistic way, or form, is not for everyone.
ME: There’s a high standard of comedy here.
MF: Of course. Comedy is the hardest form of drama – how to pull out a comedic situation and make people laugh is not something easy. It needs several attempts, and thought, and a sense of humor, and guts.
ME: And cultural language, pop culture trends, and so on.
MF: Yeah, comedy is also a language that anyone in the world can understand. It’s not about me just playing a funny role — that’s why I did in Ott we Far [Cat and Rat, 2015]. It was one of the most important movies for me, because it’s a comedic role from beginning to end. Even if you see the picture of my character, you’ll be like, “Wow is that you?!”
ME: In Qashash [a 2013 thriller], you were the hero. Would that stop you accepting secondary roles in the future?
I agreed to take on the film because it came at a time where I needed to open myself up more — I have the energy, but I needed a bigger push. So the way I saw it was, if it didn’t push me forward, it wouldn’t push me backwards. I also wanted to prove, regardless of the movie, that I could manage playing the lead in the film.
ME: Is there a role you have in mind that you’d love to play?
MF: Nowadays, there is no specific role. I just want to get inside a lot of characters because there are a lot characters that need to be played — they have a history, a story, a lot of situations that are amazing in a professional way and a dramatic way. But I usually don’t like to take the easy road — I don’t enjoy it — it’s always been this way.
MF: Because people had already read the book, they got excited to see the movie. It’s the book that got people into the movie. My experience with Heptawas a supporting role, but when they called me, I didn’t have any conflict at all working on this film, even if it was just one scene. On the contrary, it’s an experience. And there were other actors in supporting roles who are superstars, like Nelly Karim, Sherene Reda, Hany Adel — we had a lot of people with us. We had Anoushka!
ME: Anoushka! She’s also killing it!
MF: She’s a superstar.
ME: She’s made such a comeback.
MF: She’s brilliant. So we had a lot of superstars in supporting roles, and none of them had an issue with appearing in a small role in this film because it’s a good movie — it’s a very good story, and it’s different. And that’s why I latched onto it.
ME: Yeah, it’s really different. I think once it’s subtitled, people outside of Egypt could really relate to it — all these microscenes.
MF: The whole purpose was to get the audience to come back to the cinema without any action scenes or commercial tactics. It’s a very good movie, a very good story. The first week it brought an unbelievable amount of money in — the film now has surpassed LE20 or 25 million [at the box office]. I loved my experience with this film, and I’m so happy that I worked on it, because this film should be considered an important work within the history of Egyptian cinema.
ME: It’s cool to find you collectively in cross over movies and shows. It’s not surprising that one of the biggest Egyptian films of the year, Hepta, was performed by much of the same cast as Grand Hotel, one of this year’s most acclaimed Ramadan series. I know this is nothing that new, but there’s an obvious chemistry with this generation [Dina al-Sherbiny, Amr Youssef, Amir Salaheldeen, Mohamed Mamdouh, Ahmed Dawood, Sherene Reda, Jameela Awad and Nelly Karim].
MF: The only thing that makes anything a success is the chemistry. It’s a very important thing, when you have days going on and on and on. Not even just in work, look at couples, relationships, everything. If you have no chemistry, you have no success.
ME: In Fasel wa Naood [We’ll be Back After the Break, 2011], you played a very special police officer — funny, clumsy and lovable. Was that your decision, or how was the character written?
MF: That’s how the character was written. But when they cast me, I also had to include my own comedy in the role, which was a police officer with a sense of humor. Not the serious cop. There are a lot of police officers like this — he could also be a funny police officer, they exist, so why not try it out.
ME: It’s funny, the representation of Egyptian police officers in cinema and film. It’s usually always the image they want you to think of — authoritative, don’t fuck with this guy.
How do you accept or not accept a part? Is the cast important to you, or the director, or both? You mentioned before that it was important for you to play the role of a good, honest doctor versus a bad or unethical doctor in Soqoot Horr. Could you explain this a bit more?
MF: I don’t like to do things that are clichéd, I try to avoid them at all costs. I don’t know if the audience likes this or not, but that’s all I’m really thinking about when I’m performing a role. Of course, I don’t like to do roles I’ve done before, or at least not in the same way. For example if I do another police officer role — I did it before, so if I do it again, of course I’ll do it differently, because police officers and people in general are all different forms and colors.
The main thing is the script and how good it is. And the cast — when I work with them, I need to be comfortable personally before artistically. I need to be comfortable with the cast, and then see how the script is. If they bring me a script that’s extremely important, and I’m not comfortable with the cast, it won’t work because I won’t enjoy it. I like to enjoy my work, I don’t do it just for money. Of course if I work, I take money, but it’s not my sole motivator — I work to enjoy it.
ME: What director do you hope to work with?
MF: Thankfully, I’ve gotten to work with some really important people in the industry. Of course there are still many more I’d like to work with, like Sherif Arafa, Daoud Abdel Sayed, Mohamed Yassin. Tamer Mohsen, again — I worked with Tamer on three of the most important works in my life. People like this are very talented, so you can work with them more than once of course. Ahmed Galal, Khaled Maraye, there’s a lot, it’s endless.
ME: Last year in Ramadan TV you were an addict, this year you’re a therapist [in Soqoot Horr]. Tell me, how do you prepare for these roles specifically? How did you prepare for Ali versus Dr. Walid?
MF: Last year when we did Taht al-Saytara, I played the role of Ali Ruby, an addict. Until that point, I had yet to play the role of an addict, a heroin addict to be precise. I’ve never in my life done heroin — I don’t know what happens when people take it, I don’t know what it does, or how it makes you feel. But I saw a lot of my friends who were down, or died. I know about some of these situations. So I sat with doctors, and clinicians, we watched a lot of films, a lot of internet research — it was a very professional process.
ME: It must have been exhausting. I’m sure at some point you started to feel different.
MF: Thankfully it was really well received by Egyptian viewers — it was almost as if Egypt had won the World Cup, in the sense that the show got a big response across the country. There was a lot of talk about it. And I think the whole cast enjoyed the experience.
ME: It really brought into the household this very important conversation we all need to have in Egypt, which is: heroin, addiction and mental health. Why do you think Ali and Hania’s relationship resonated so deeply with young Egyptians?
MF: Ali and Hania [Jameela Awad] were like a new couple for the audience, with this form. In reality, this life exists, people live it, but no one really sees how these kinds of couples live. That’s why it was very “wow” to everyone. The viewer became intimate and involved with this couple, they love them in the beginning, and due to that love they grow to hate Ali Ruby by the end. The addiction level reached such a deep point that, in order to get his bad stuff through these characters, they hated Ali so, so, so much for what he was doing, and for what he did to Hania. That was one of the most powerful parts.
The other thing is Jameela Awad is very, very artistic, talented, and such a hard worker. She’s incredible. It was her first time acting on TV. That’s also why it was a big hit.
ME: And the chemistry between you guys was excellent.
MF: She is my friend, so the chemistry was there.
ME: I think that’s one reason people got so invested in the relationship, it was so believable.
MF: Jameela signed the contract for the show and started shooting before even telling her parents. Her parents are artists — her dad is a director, and her mom was an actress, so she’s from an artist family.
ME: What is your favorite character you’ve played? What’s the production you enjoyed the most?
MF: I love Ragab al-Farkh in the show Badoun Zikr Asmaa , written byWaheed Hamed and directed by Tamer Mohsen. Hamada al-Far, who’s in the movie Ott we Far, also written by Waheed Hamed and directed by Tamer Mohsen. Ali Ruby of course, from Taht al-Saytara. I don’t really do roles I don’t like, but of course at times there are some characters that hold a specific place in your heart.
ME: Other than the shows you’re in, which show do you like this Ramadan?
MF: I watched Afrah al-Qobba, and Wanous. Grand Hotel, of course. Those were in my opinion the most important ones this year, of what I watched.
ME: Last question. I only just moved back [to Egypt] seven years ago and only started dedicatedly watching Ramadan series about three years ago, so I don’t have the best context, but it feels like these Ramadan series have really picked it up in the past few years? I know they have always been big, and a cultural staple…
MF: For me, since the beginning of 2010, 2011, the style of the TV series started changing — there’s better quality, more artistic professionals, new camera techniques, even in the writing and the acting. The new generation that we’ve been talking about has raised many talented and important people, in front of the camera or behind the camera. There are dramatic works that are speaking to the Arab region as a whole, not just Egypt, there many pathways and styles, new directors, good scene design, costumes. We have a lot flourishing in our work these days.