There is a reason why you will rarely see Ghassan Massoud in a role set in the modern day and that's because "the present is too depressing".
The celebrated Syrian actor made the comments in an engrossing Thursday evening In Conversation session at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which concluded its 36th edition yesterday.
The 59-year-old wasted no time in allowing the audience to pose questions based on his four-decade career that encompasses Arabic stage, film and television in addition to forays in Hollywood.
When asked about his preference for historical roles, he criticises the vapid nature of modern Arabic television and films.
“I find a lot of them ridiculous and I am just being very honest here. I also don’t want my children to be embarrassed of me. I raised them to be critical thinkers, and before the critics they will tell me straight away if I did not give my best,” he says.
“I portray big characters from the past because there is a depth to them and they embody certain noble values. It is rare to find such characters in modern dramas today. If you take a look at the shows that were a hit in the ratings you will find most of them offensive and devoid of any real values. I don’t want to feed that market, that’s for others. I want to take on roles that complement the ideals that I learned when I first took
Born in Damascus, Massoud took to acting as a university student where he studied the craft in addition to appearing in acclaimed Syrian stage adaptions including Russian novelist Anton Chekhov's 1895 short story Ward No 6 and Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta's 1985 novel, Ardiente Paciencia.
He explains that the art form taught him more than just honing his acting skills.
“The training of the stage actor is different than those in film and television,” he said.
“The biggest, and I would say the most important, is that it also taught us how to speak in fusha (classical Arabic). It taught use the depth of the words and how to apply them well. It taught us the command of the language as well as our facial reactions and our bodies. It is a richer and intensive craft.”
Those abilities were in full display in a string of television dramas focusing on Islamic history, including star turns as the Prophet Mohammed's companions Abu Bakr and Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr in the 2012 and 2003 blockbuster Ramadan dramas Omar and Hajaj respectively.
Massoud's taut and soulful performances managed to catch the eye of British director Ridley Scott, who cast him as the Arab ruler and Muslim military commander Saladin in the 2005 drama, Kingdom
Massoud said that role was an eye-opening experience.
“Even after accepting it, I was hesitant and cautious about the whole thing because I didn’t know what to expect,” he says.
“But I was pleasantly surprised because they were so respectful and viewed me as a full part of the team. After a week, it felt like I was acting with colleagues back in Syria or Sharjah.”
More Arab actors in Hollywood will not change perceptions of the region, Massoud says. It can only be done by producing world-class films.
"There are plenty of investors but you will find them placing their money in all other areas except for the arts," he said.
“There is still this belief that film and cinema is something related to leisure and play instead of being an important part of exploring and promoting culture.”
If the money was available, Massoud says he would launch into either one of his two dream projects; to play the role of Shams Tabrizi, the spiritual instructor of the Sufi mystic Rumi, or the great Arabic poet Al Mutannabbi: “I am ready and will dedicate everything I have to these projects.”
Massoud continues Sharjah International Book Fair’s tradition of providing a space for influential Arab actors to discuss the finer points of their craft and career.
Last year Egyptian performer Ezzat Al Alaili appeared, while his compatriots the legendary comic actor Adel Imam and film stalwart Mohamed Sobhi appeared in the festival in 2012 and 2015 respectively.