To understand the changing fortunes of Hollywood, look no further than breakout Egyptian-Canadian star Mena Massoud. Three years ago he was a jobbing actor content with picking up the odd role, ranging from an Al Qaeda operative in a 2011 episode of spy series Nikita to playing a re-occurring cast member in children's mystery drama series Open Heart.
Now he is the star of one of this year's most anticipated movies, playing the titular role in the live-action musical remake of Disney's Aladdin, alongside Hollywood A-lister Will Smith. Set in the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah – the original tale was published in the classic One Thousand and One Nights and set in a Chinese city – the story follows the relationship between street kid Aladdin and Princess Jasmine.
When the cast fronted the regional press in Amman earlier this month (the film was also shot in Jordan's Wadi Rum) hours before attending the regional gala premiere of the movie, it seemed Massoud still couldn't believe his luck.
He encapsulates the rapid evolution of his career in this telling anecdote: "The first iPhone I ever got was from Will when we started the movie, and it was for my birthday. I have upgraded now, but I am waiting for Will to sign the old one." Sitting beside him, Smith immediately shoots back: "Oh trust me, after this film comes out you are going to have a lot of iPhones."
A diamond in the rough
Massoud's rise is akin to a wild ride on Aladdin's magic carpet. With producers keen on assembling a diverse cast, a worldwide casting call was held in 2017 for the lead role and thousands of would-be Aladdins arrived for auditions in various cities, ranging from London to Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi. More than 120 actors, some travelling from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, descended on the UAE capital to showcase their skills and Massoud emerged from the competition victorious, pipping Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel and Emmy award winner Riz Ahmed (Venom) to the post.
Part of the reason Massoud succeeded is that he shares an affinity with Aladdin. Like the "street rat", Massoud is also confident that he has something to offer the world if given the chance.
"The biggest message of the film is that it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you have to learn that you are good enough and the thing that makes someone special, it's what's in their heart," he tells The National. "The whole idea of being a diamond in the rough. The film penetrates those messages through and through.
"I think it's time we start chipping away at the stereotypes in Hollywood about the Middle East, and the Arab World, because it's one of the most beautiful regions in the world."
A more emotional genie
It is that humanistic message that also convinced Will Smith to sign up to the project. Indeed, Smith's take on the Genie – which has him donning a wild ponytail while in "work mode" as a mammoth CGI-produced muscular spirit – is more grounded than Robin Williams's flamboyant take in the 1992 animated classic. "What Robin Williams did with the Genie wasn't just a good performance as a character. He revolutionised what actors thought we can do in these types of movies," he says.
"He opened it up in a way that was difficult to improve upon so I was trying to figure if there was still, as someone would say, some meat left on the bones."
Smith found that by plunging into the emotional depths of the Genie. There he found a character more soulful in nature. "When I look at the Genie and what he represents in a fantastical form, it's really a definition of unconditional love. When someone is going to dedicate all of their gifts and energy and time to trying to figure out how they can help someone have the things they dream,
that's such a wonderful energy for me to play with because that is what I am seeking in my life right now. I want to be able to give my gifts and I hope they will be received well and bring love and light into people's lives."
Princess Jasmine 2.0
British actress Naomi Scott also hopes her performance will resonate well beyond the final credits. And she may just achieve her wish as her take on Princess Jasmine is timely. Where the original film (voiced by Linda Larkin) had the royal wishing to see a life beyond the palace walls, Jasmine 2.0 is more feisty and has a keen interest in how her kingdom is run. "I was really specific about humanising her and giving the character her own narrative and journey. For me, watching the original movie growing up, she was one of my favourite Disney princesses, and I think I was really empowered, you know? But I think there's always room to progress those themes and make her even more ambitious," she tells The National.
“What’s really great about this version and this adaptation is that she wants to lead, and she really is the leader. And she really does showcase skills of leadership.”
Was she influenced by any powerful women in particular when portraying her new Jasmine? "I truly am inspired by women from all parts of the world; women I've met for five minutes and women that I've known since I was a kid," she says. "I wanted Jasmine to feel like she doesn't mind getting her hands dirty. I wanted it to feel like she had an adventurous spirit, and the royalty and the duty and the context of which she's in, that's not actually who she is. And I think that's true for any person who has that title. That is a part of who they are, but that doesn't just purely define them."
Hitting the right notes
As well as landing on the right emotional note, what was equally challenging for some of the stars was nailing their musical performances. With Aladdin home to some of the most-loved songs in the Disney cannon, including Princess Jasmine and Aladdin's duet A Whole New World and the Genie-sung romp that is Prince Ali, all three actors had to undergo intensive singing and dancing training in order to do justice to the score.
Smith labelled the whole experience as one of the most challenging in his professional career. "Thirty years in the entertainment industry and every talent I cultivated over the years was called upon in this movie," he says. "Everything short of boxing. If we had a boxing sequence then everything that I trained to do was involved in this movie."
With the film set for a lavish Hollywood opening ceremony tomorrow, Massoud says he is already thinking about his next move. While excited at the opportunities that are likely to come his way, he insists that it won't come at the expense of his rich heritage. "It has been a while since we've told stories like Lawrence of Arabia and cast them and told them appropriately. So I hope people look at Aladdin and realise that there's a plethora of rich stories that come out of the Middle East," he says.
"That is certainly something I'm going to be focusing on in my career with my production company. I think that things are going to change."
Aladdin is out on May 23 across UAE cinemas.