You might think it’d be one of the parkour-inspired dashes through the fictional setting of Agrabah or maybe that romantic duet with Naomi Scott’s Princess Jasmine.
But for Mena Massoud, the Egyptian-Canadian star of Disney’s new live-action remake of Aladdin, it was all about “the jam.”
“A special moment for me was the jam scene, because it was almost fully improvised, and it was just a really collaborative, magical day on set,” Massoud said Friday, during a stop in his hometown of Markham, Ont., located just north of Toronto.
“[Aladdin director Guy Ritchie] just really let us play — he trusted us,” Massoud recalled, of the comedic scene, in which his character — transformed into Prince Ali — is formally and very awkwardly presented to the Sultan and Princess Jasmine.
“I was the head of my improv team in high school, so getting to improvise on a set like that with Will [Smith, who plays the wise-cracking Genie in the remake] — that’s something I’ll remember forever.”
“Be true to yourself and you can achieve your dreams” is a theme Massoud embodies both in his breakout role as Aladdin, as well as in his own life.
The 27-year-old actor has criss-crossed the globe in recent weeks to promote Aladdin, but brought the production home to Toronto this week for the film’s Canadian premiere.
“Toronto’s a great city that accepts you for who you are, no matter what culture you are [or] where you come from. So, I think it’s really helped me stay grounded and, whenever I come back, it helps recalibrate me,” said the avid Toronto Raptors fan and unabashed champion of Canadian film.
“It feels right, you know?”
‘A force of nature’
Born in Egypt, Massoud was just three when his family immigrated to Canada. From childhood, he says, he knew he wanted to be a performer: whether he was re-enacting roles from movies at home (Aladdin, yes, but also physical comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire, Rush Hour and Miss Congeniality) or starring as Peter Pan in elementary school.
By the time he reached high school, he was already a “shape-shifter,” who could perform everything, according to his former drama teacher.
Dori Elliott, who was among the masses of hometown friends and fans who gathered to celebrate Massoud at Thursday night’s Aladdin premiere in Toronto, recalled him as “this quiet, soft-spoken, low-key, introspective and respectful young man” — at first.
“He sort of flew under the radar until he got up to work. And at that point, he was like a force of nature. He was volcanic,” said the retired St. Brother André Catholic High School drama teacher.
“He’s the real deal.”
Though he loved performance, after graduation Massoud chose to study neuroscience at the University of Toronto. Soon, however, he realized his passion lay elsewhere and chose to make the leap into acting full-time, switching over to Ryerson University’s theatre performance program.
Following your dreams
Massoud shared his message about following one’s dreams to a special group of teens in Markham on Friday.
“I was told growing up that the arts were just a hobby — that I couldn’t do it as a career,” he recounted to a group of high-schoolers from his alma mater, after surprising them at a midday Aladdin screening.
Once enrolled in theatre school, “I put in my time, I worked hard and I followed my dreams. So, whatever it is that you guys want to do in your life, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do it, because you can,” Massoud declared, with emotion.
The words hit home for many students in the audience, including 16-year-old Sumaiya Shariff.
“Almost everyone in this theatre is an art student from Brother André, and the reason we came here is to celebrate the fact that he graduated from the drama department,” she said.
Despite originally pursuing studies in science, “he changed his mind. And that shows us that even if we have a dream that we think is too big, we can really achieve it if we think we can.”
And while some might consider follow your dreams a cliché, the sentiment is valuable and inspirational for young people, added St. Brother André principal Melton Moyo.
“As parents, we always want our kids to do what we think they should do. But he defied that, and he is doing very well. So congratulations to him.”
Importance of onscreen representation
As an actor of colour, Massoud understands the responsibility of playing a high-profile, beloved role like Aladdin — he reportedly beat out more than 2,000 actors for the part — and what he represents in an industry that still has much work to do in terms of inclusion and representation.
Egypt 🇪🇬 this one’s for you! <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Aladdin?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Aladdin</a> <a href=”https://t.co/T72pVDCwlH”>pic.twitter.com/T72pVDCwlH</a>
This was a moment to remember on the set of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Aladdin?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Aladdin</a>. Got the incredible Oxford Maqam band to play the legendary Egyptian musician/actor Abdel Halim. <a href=”https://t.co/Cb0qYTuE05″>pic.twitter.com/Cb0qYTuE05</a>
One of the things he feels proudest of is being an inspiration and motivation to “kids of colour, who don’t see themselves repped on screen a lot,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s enough to really celebrate, you know, the movement of one ethnic group. We’ve got to be able to get to a point where we represent everybody equally. And that’s going to take a while.”
The onscreen representation in Aladdin, for instance, is something else he’s proud of. The film’s creative team chose to reimagine the story’s setting of Agrabah as a culturally diverse coastal city on the Silk Road. The casting — which includes artists of Egyptian, South Asian, Tunisian, Iranian and European heritage — reflects that, he noted.
Massoud has seen some progress on how diverse actors are employed even in his relatively young career, where just a few years ago, one of his earliest on-screen appearances was as “al Qaeda No. 2” on the TV series Nikita.
More recent credits include playing CIA analyst Tarek Kasser in Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan and mayoral aide Kamal in the upcoming film Run This Town, inspired by Rob Ford’s turbulent tenure.
He is also set to star in the upcoming Hulu dramatic thriller Reprisal alongside Abigail Spencer and Rodrigo Santoro.
“I want to keep trying to show my range, expanding my range,” Massoud said.
“The beautiful thing about art is that there’s always somewhere to go. There’s always something new to explore and, as an artist, that’s just what I want to do. I wanna keep exploring new things with different directors with different producers and different styles and tones.”