One of Egypt’s most successful artistic exports in this day and age, Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93, Green Zone) has been giving Middle Eastern characters much-needed humanity in the world of Hollywood blockbusters. And it’s no surprise – a man that says “politics is in everything,” he comes from a family of activists that were suppressed by successive Egyptian regimes, and is now one of the most determined voices in our country’s revolution. One of the brains behind the latest creative campaigns, Masmou3, designed to strike up dialogue on our ever-divided streets, Abdalla has his hands pretty full, what with directing and producing two independent movies, starring in an upcoming animation (as a Sufi bat, nonetheless) and speaking out against the binaries that plague our development. We talk to the man with too many labels to count about fame, foreignness and the feeling of wearing a brand new pair of socks…
Let’s start at the beginning; as a little brown boy in London how did your passion for film and theatre come about?
First of all, I’ve never described myself as a little brown boy in London. My passion started because one day a teacher came up to me and told me he thought I’d be good in a play he’s doing. I told him he was mad, but I went to the audition and got the part. I remember the first rehearsal was in a classroom where all the chairs where moved aside to make a square in the centre of the room. My character was in the first scene and I remember that square suddenly becoming a space in which the rules were completely different and I was in awe of it. I had that kind of pleasure you get when you’re playing a game. I was very lucky because I had another teacher that used to take the class to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At the time, we had a very successful theatre company made up of a bunch of schoolboys. We had four consecutive five-star reviews in the papers, which is unheard of. One of those reviews was a play that I directed called Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, which made me the youngest director to ever get a five-star review on The Fringe. I then went off to university where I did lots of theatre and I founded a theatre company, which was also very successful and won various national awards. From the time of that first rehearsal, in that square, I knew that I found the thing I wanted to and loved. And it was the exact opposite of what I thought I would do, which is why I loved it.
What is it that you expected to do?
Both my parents are doctors but I was never pressured to become a doctor. In fact, they thought it was a bad idea but I thought maybe I wanted to go into it. Being what you would, and I wouldn’t, describe as “a little brown boy,” at home, you tend to get help from your parents in the sciences and maths and I was, at a certain period, better at those subjects than I was at, say, English or History. Then came the time to choose my A Level subjects and that coincided with when I was interested in theatre, acting and literature, so I decided to go with the exact opposite of the scientific route that was presumed of me. Not by my parents but by the “white” culture around me. So I decided to study English, History, Religious Studies and French.
Do you think not having a defined identity, being an Egyptian born and raised in the UK, has helped with your acting?
Actually, I have a very solid identity. Both my parents are Egyptians and I grew up speaking Arabic. But I had pretty much textbook British education; I went to a state primary school and a private secondary school and then Cambridge University.