Mohamed Faisal Mostafa has high hopes for the UAE film industry and, with the recent announcement of twofour54's sprawling new studio complex in Abu Dhabi, it seems that optimism is well placed.
However, the roots of that confidence stem from much closer to home – with his own self-belief as an actor – which was only reaffirmed while working alongside Idris Elba on the set of Apple TV’s hit international series Hijack, currently airing on the streaming platform.
“I definitely learnt more about self-belief, more than anything. And I felt it grow as time went by working on the show,” Mostafa tells The National.
“By far, self-belief is the focal point in everything that you do in life. Even when I'm talking about having our local talent be able to secure international jobs. It doesn't start off with the industry being at a certain level or platform, it starts off with self-belief. And then everything follows.”
Hijack follows the story of Sam Nelson, a corporate business negotiator played by Elba, who must use his skills to find a peaceful solution to a hijacked plane travelling from Dubai to London.
When the show was suggested to Mostafa by his agent, he wasn’t completely convinced at first.
“I've got some dos and don'ts for jobs that I do as an actor. I don't want to fit into a typical stereotype that the western world sells sometimes as 'Arab',” he says.
“When I first saw the name Hijack, I thought maybe this isn't something that's going to be OK. But once I understood the role, once I understood the story and the cast and the size of the job, I thought, this is actually the opposite. It's not going against any of my values at all.”
Mostafa’s excitement about the potential of Hijack was on point. The seven-episode thriller has received positive reviews from critics and has ranked high on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, prompting speculation for a second season of the show.
Mostafa plays Abdullah, an Emirati air-traffic controller working on the ground, who suspects that something isn’t right and starts his own investigation. In preparation for the role, Mostafa kept it simple. He pictured his character and the setting but left room for something organic to happen.
“It's never the same until you're on an actual set,” he says. “As much as I had an idea of what I wanted to do, it kind of fell naturally into place, and ended up different to what I was planning once I was on set and I was told 'action'.”
Mostafa says that working with director Jim Field Smith, known for films and shows such as Stag (2016), Criminal: UK (2019) and She’s Out of My League (2010) was a “fantastic experience” and reaffirmed his instincts as an actor.
Despite being a director who knew what he wanted, Smith gave him the freedom to express himself in “the most natural way” while filming, Mostafa says. And while he sometimes felt he could have done with a few more takes on certain scenes, he was surprised to find that Smith was satisfied with only one or two shots.
Mostafa credits his acting discipline and approach to his older brother, Emirati director Ali F Mostafa, known for his films City of Life (2009) and The Worthy (2016). Mostafa started his acting career as a child playing roles in his brother’s early films.
“The advice my brother would give me, which ended up happening on Hijack, was 'less is more',” he says.
“And that got locked into my head. Just don't exaggerate, just be natural, be less, just be it. What you feel is supposed to be in the moment, be it.”
Mostafa’s experience working on an international production of this calibre has also reaffirmed his belief in the potential for a thriving film industry in the UAE as well as an ecosystem for young talent.
“When it comes to talent, we’ve already got it. It's already here. People are starting to create content here. I think the timing is now,” he says.
“There needs to be focus on the industry. There's a massive value for the industry here in the sense of creating content, leveraging talent, doing jobs internationally. We have production companies investing in international movies, so we should also be investing in regional movies simultaneously.”
Mostafa also believes that the way forward is it to create opportunities to train and grow the UAE's existing talent pool in collaboration with international productions.
He emphasises that if an international film is shot in the UAE, there should be local talent hired to work, train and learn on set. He says that it’s not only valuable to local talent but to international productions as well.
“You'll notice in American or foreign productions, when they shoot Arabic films, there are things that they miss,” he says.
“The authenticity of the Arab, the way the ghutra is worn. There's bits and pieces to make it more authentic, and that’s why you need that local guy to be there.”