Dubai resident to Marvel star: It's 'Moon Knight' actress May Calamawy's time to shine

The 'Ramy' and 'Djinn' actress appears alongside Oscar Isaac in the new Disney+ series based on the comic book character

May Calamawy at the premiere of 'Moon Knight' in Los Angeles. EPA
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When May Calamawy first auditioned for Moon Knight, she wasn’t familiar with this latest Marvel story to make the leap from page to screen.

“I didn’t know anything,” she chuckles, speaking to The National via Zoom from an apartment in New York so close to the subway, a rattling noise occurs every time a train goes past. “So I just started to buy a few comics. On the iPad, there is a Marvel app where you can read [them] all. I was just getting to know the world.”

She’s hardly alone. Created by writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin, and first appearing in the mid-1970s, Moon Knight is one of Marvel’s lesser-known characters, far removed from the widespread popularity, say, of Spider-Man or Captain America.

Yet there’s no question, Moon Knight is ripe for inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A former CIA operative, also known as Marc Spector, he gains powers of strength and agility from an encounter with the Egyptian moon god, Khonsu.

The links to Egyptian culture don’t stop there, with Mohamed Diab brought in to steer the show to the screen. For Calamawy, the chance to work with the Egyptian director behind such acclaimed, politically-driven films as Cairo 678 (2010) and Clash (2016) was a huge draw.

“Seeing the type of work Mohamed does … I was curious what he was going to bring from his experience to this project,” she says. “I knew that authenticity is a very important thing for him.”

While American star Oscar Isaac was cast as Spector/Moon Knight, Diab wanted to bring in someone of Egyptian descent to play Layla El-Faouly, a mysterious figure from Spector’s past. Diab was immediately impressed when he met Calamawy, best known to international audiences for her role in the TV comedy-drama Ramy.

“I think she’s going to be a huge star,” he says. “The moment she did the first audition with Oscar, the moment she read, she blew our minds … as she started the show, everyone wanted to write her more [scenes] and make her role bigger.”

Ethan Hawke, May Calamawy and Oscar Isaac play major characters in 'Moon Knight'. AP

Likewise, Calamawy felt that she and Diab were simpatico. “We had a really good relationship. We spoke on the phone, and I feel like we clicked instantly,” she says. Moreover, the more she dug into the world of Moon Knight, she realised just how unique an opportunity it was.

“I mean, I love Marvel, and I love how lighthearted it is,” she explains. “But when I started reading some of the scripts, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I feel like maybe this is gonna be a little bit different.’”

Certainly, that’s true. Spector is a character who suffers from DID (dissociative identity disorder), a very real condition that means he unwittingly adopts alternate personalities, including that of mild-mannered British museum worker Steven Grant. Isaac, who plays these many roles, has called Moon Knight the MCU’s first character study, although the fact Spector must contend with cult leader Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) suggests there will be plenty of action too.

Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight, the latest Marvel character to be given a series. Photo: Disney+

Calamawy, 35, spent two months learning how to perform stunts with a remarkable team.

“I had two stunt doubles, and we would just work every day,” she says. “It was so much fun. I mean, I’ve never worked out that much before. And I learnt so much. They would just push you, push you, push you. You just kind of have to get over that fear.”

It didn’t take long, with the physical side of her role really appealing. “It’s addictive,” she admits. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I love action now.’”

More than just flexing her muscles, for Calamawy it was the chance to tell a story inspired by Egyptian history and mythology. “It’s a dream to be able to represent Egypt in that way,” she says. “I was always like, ‘Well, I live in the States. And I don’t know if I’m going to work in the Middle East a lot.’ And so this has bridged that gap for me, in a way that’s fun. This is cool, because I don’t think we’ve seen Egypt in this way.”

The Egyptian-Palestinian Calamawy was born in Bahrain, and lived there until she was 17 before moving to Boston, initially to study industrial design. She moved to Dubai for five years, before returning to the US to pursue her acting career.

“I always wanted to work in the States and abroad,” she says. “There’s a freedom that you get over here with what you can and can’t talk about. And I feel like it’s just more of my purpose to be able to share everything.”

Her early break came with 2013’s Djinn, an Emirati supernatural horror movie directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper. But it wasn’t until she joined the cast of Ramy, which stars Ramy Youssef as an American Muslim living in New Jersey, that things accelerated. Playing Ramy’s sister Dena felt like a significant moment.

Hiam Abbass, Amr Waked, May Calamawy, Ramy Youssef, Rosaline Elbay and Shadi Alfons in the acclaimed series 'Ramy'. Photo: Starz 

“To be able to be Arab, and not be a terrorist [on screen] ... is kind of huge for Arab actors,” she says. “I’m grateful to hear that it has affected people and inspires people to share more.”

Calamawy is in the middle of filming the third season of Ramy, which she’s very excited about.

“It’s been two years since we’ve gotten back together. So I have a good feeling about the season," she says.

As for working with Diab again, she says she would do it "again and again".

“Yeah, definitely. All I want to do as a performer is be authentic, and share truth. And if we have an opportunity to unapologetically do that, I would love to. I would work with Mohamed again," she says.

With Moon Knight now set to launch on Disney+, how does she feel about it increasing her profile across the globe?

“I don’t know,” she says, slowly. “It’s a bit scary. It’s overwhelming, y’ know?

“It’s one of those things where you’re like, ‘I don’t know what to imagine, because I haven’t experienced anything remotely close'. So I have to just wait and see.”

'Moon Knight' is on Disney+ from March 30

Updated: March 29, 2022, 3:05 PM