Razane Jammal is having a moment.
Jammal who says she is “wherever my next job is,” spoke to The National while filming on location in Istanbul, Turkey about the current success of both of her recent projects.
“It's been a very crazy couple of years,” she says. “But I'm very happy that the hard work has paid off.”
Crazy doesn’t truly encompass what Jammal has experienced over the past few years.
She plays Lyta Hall in four episodes of The Sandman, based on Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking graphic novel series. The fantasy drama horror is the story of the Sandman, a supernatural being who, while ruling the realm of dreams, can also visit and control the dreams of other people.
After he is captured and imprisoned for more than a century, the Sandman travels through timelines and realms to repair the disarray his absence has cost both in the dream and real world.
Landing the role of Lyta was an incredibly arduous process, with Jammal unsure which character she was auditioning for initially.
“I didn't know it was a DC Comic, I didn't know that it was for Neil Gaiman,” says Jammal. “I just knew it's something called The Sandman and didn’t connect the dots.”
As the superhero and fantasy genre expands over multifictional universes and across streaming platforms, it’s no surprise that Jammal was also in the process of also auditioning for an unnamed Marvel role.
“I got a Marvel audition at the time,” she says. “I spoke with the director and everything seemed to be going my way, until it didn't.”
While upset that the Marvel opportunity didn’t work out, as chance would have it, Jammal was approached to audition for The Sandman and was eventually cast as Lyta.
Being part of a show with a dedicated fan base, thanks to the hugely popular graphic novel series, is the perfect position for an actress of Jammal’s temperament.
But the moment she landed the role was bittersweet.
“My mum was sick and I was in Beirut at the time,” Jammal says. “I had to make the difficult choice to leave. I really thought I could go and come back and have her still there.”
Jammal's mother died last year while she was still filming The Sandman.
“We were filming during Covid-19 in London. We were following very strict Covid-19 protocols and I wasn't allowed to travel. So I didn’t go back home for eight months after losing my mum," Jammal says, apologising as she paused to gather herself.
Incidentally, Jammal’s character in The Sandman is a young widow who loses her husband in a car accident. While dealing with her loss, Lyta finds a husband in the dream world and fights to build a life with him there.
“My grief helped me understand Lyta Hall,” Jammal says. “I was a person that was losing her mum when I first started The Sandman. And then I lost my mum the day that I was actually filming the scene where Lyta was losing her husband. It was very intense.”
Jammal’s performance in The Sandman brims with intensity, and putting her personal grief in context adds a level of vulnerability to the role.
“My mum was the most important person in my life. She was a single mum, we had a very close relationship,” she says. “So, I understand why Lyta would want to be in the dream world. Because for a very long time, I just wanted to go with my mum. I wanted to check out, like I would be way happier being with my mum, anywhere.”
But acting also provided Jammal the means to work through her grief. Two weeks after finishing The Sandman, she threw herself into her role as Emily, a British aristocrat in Kira & El Gin.
“I did grieve, but I didn't do the grieving,” she says. “I don't think I allowed myself to live it fully until the end of the year. It had to be in stages. I couldn't experience it, my body couldn't handle it. It was like an exorcism.”
Based on 1919, the novel by Egyptian writer Ahmed Mourad, and directed by Marwan Hamed, Kira & El Gin is an action drama that chronicles the 1919 revolution against the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan.
Two men, Ahmed Abdel Hai Kira and Abdel Qader Al Jin, played by superstars Ahmed Ezz and Karim Abdel Aziz, team up to fight the occupation. Jammal plays Emily, the daughter of a British general who sides with the Egyptians during the revolution.
“I only had two weeks to prepare after The Sandman,” Jammal says. “I like to have excessive preparations and really understand everything about a character. Everything from the history of how women behaved 100 years ago, what it was like to be a British woman, what's it like to be an archaeologist? And I did all of that so that I can forget it the second that I'm on set and just focus on the emotions.”
She explains that it’s important for her as an actress “to prepare, but then forget everything” when she’s in front of the screen — a process that she says requires a lot of discipline.
“Everything about acting is discipline. When you're filming six days a week, how do you conserve your energy? How do you stay centred in the middle of so many different influences? How do you make sure that you’re healthy mentally, physically? Everything is a game of discipline when it comes to acting.”
Her body of work is proof of that work ethic.
Fluent in Arabic, French and English, Jammal's first foray into a serious acting role after completing a degree in business was in the French-German feature Carlos in 2010. This was followed by Cruel Summer in 2012, a short film by Kanye West and then Une histoire de fou in 2014 by director Robert Guediguian.
All three projects had their world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and Jammal hasn’t looked back since, choosing to follow acting roles wherever they may take her.
“This is the life I've chosen,” she says. “I don’t know if anything other than this is suitable for me. I love travelling, discovering new places and people, and I love my job. In this chapter in my life, I'm okay to travel around for jobs.”
In the Arab world, Jammal gained recognition for her portrayal of Maggie Maccaleb in Netflix's first Arabic original series in 2020, Paranormal, based on the hugely successful book series by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik.
Starring alongside actors Ahmed Amin and Ayah Samaha, Paranormal is the story of haematologist Refaat Ismail who finds himself in the centre of a series of unexplainable paranormal events which he must investigate, causing him to question his belief system.
Paranormal was very well received and marked the start of an influx of Arabic language productions beyond Netflix.
Jammal is feeling the benefits as a trilingual actress of these global movements in the entertainment industry.
“If the world wasn't opening up and becoming more inclusive, a Lebanese woman would have never been Lyta Hall,” she says.
“There is an opening up of everything and there are opportunities being created. The industry is changing. The sets are feeling more harmonious. There is a push that's happening from all aspects, a push forward. Whether it's for women, whether it’s to do with representation, Arab representation, [or] diversity, the acting industry is at the forefront of that change.”
Scroll through the gallery below for more pictures from 'The Sandman':