She's captivated Egypt with her gritty depiction of teenage struggle in this Ramadan's Taht El Saytara but Jamila Awad is already looking to her next role. Valentina Primo meets the literal drama queen, while our fashion team led by stylist Gehad Abdallah brings out her darker side...
It’s way past midnight on a hot Ramadan evening when I sit down with Jamila Awad in an ageing villa in Zamalek. She's taking off her make up and slipping off her high heels as the cameras finally stop clicking at our seductively dark fashion shoot. Suddenly, she's transformed from a punk-ish video vixen to a true Egyptian girl-next-door. There’s a candid glow when she speaks, almost as if she 's unaware of the millions of viewers tuning into TV every night to watch her lose control in Ramadan’s hit series, Taht El Saytara. Stealing the spotlight on screen, the young actress has entered show business with a staggeringly difficult and sensitive role: her alter-ego Hania juggles sex, lies and drugs in a life that's spinning out of control. But who is the woman behind Hania’s mischievous eyes?
We settle down for some watermelon and coffee, as Fajr time approaches and it's time to get those last few bites before sunrise on one of the final days of the Holy Month. “I like to fast,” she says. “It is important because you learn self-control and become stronger, and that helps you not fall into addictions. And I don’t only mean drugs; even love can be an addiction, sometimes.” The thought takes us immediately back to her character, Hania, whose conflict with drug addiction condenses, in a personal story, the rocky road teenagers go through in their search for identity.
Up and down like a roller coaster, Hania’s rebelliousness has won the hearts of Egyptians young and old. But her secret getaways and eagerness to experiment could not be farther from Jamila’s real life. “I am rebellious like her, and very outspoken when it comes to rights. I can also have her energy, but our principles are totally different,” she says. “I would rebel, but for a cause. She is rebelling against loneliness and is trying to find herself and to find love. She is trying to belong.”
Starring alongside Tunisian sensation Dhaffer L'Abidine and her childhood idol Nelly Karim, Jamila landing the role was half-destiny, half-chance. “I have admired Nelly Karim since I was a little girl; she was my role model since I first saw her on TV. I wouldn’t even be able to say her name but I would cry out whenever someone changed the channel if when she was on. She was something magical to me,” she says with dreamy eyes.
“But I hadn’t told anyone that I wanted to act. So when an acquaintance called me to suggest participating in a casting with Tamer Mohsen to perform with Nelly, I felt it was a sign,” she says. An upcoming sensation amongst young and old, Jamila seems to have the acting itch in her blood: her mother Randa Mohamed Ali is a Lebanese-Egyptian actress, while her father is famous director Adel Awad, who gave her the first memories on set as she wandered through cameras rigs and light panels as a little girl. Strangely enough, none of her parents knew that she was auditioning for the role. “Speaking of destiny, my father directed Nelly’s first movie,” she says with an infectious smile.
There is more than an incredible talent for drama to this young star, however. Her passion for politics and human rights led her to participate at the Model United Nations and represent different countries worldwide. “I have a lot of interests and a lot of passions, and I don’t know if acting is going to be fulfilling all the time. It is not a stable career, and people are always going to judge you for different reasons. I try to focus on how I am going to benefit people and, wherever I see best, I focus on it as a priority,” she explains.
A former student of political science at the British University in Egypt, Jamila recently switched to studying Mass Communications, in a constant search to explore a career that suits her life goals. A woman brimming with intrigue and eagerness, Jamila’s main loyalty is to her humanity. “Whenever I find a job what is going to fulfill me as a person and make me pursue my aims in life, I will go there. But meanwhile acting is something that I really enjoy and that helps me get my message across. I also have a passion for directing, but I don’t think I can do it just yet.”
She looks up as she imagines her future dream role, enveloped in a seemingly different dimension. “I prefer inspirational characters,” she says without a thought. “I don’t know where TV is going, but I like ideal things, things that gather humanity and people around good causes. I prefer to lift people up than going down to their problems; maybe when they feel inspired I can make a difference.”
Aware of the pains and struggles of an acting career where there is no schedule or time off, her energy and her search for improvement help her push through. “Sometimes I work while studying. It is a very tiring profession, you are up all night and giving it all, or you are working for over 24 hours and you actually don’t even realise it because it is something you do with all your heart,” she explains.
Jamila’s character, a 16-year-old girl fallen to drug addiction and a poisonous entourage, was a challenging role for the young actress who listened to the stories of former drug addicts to get in tune with the mindset of a young woman fallen to dependence. “This does happen, sometimes to even younger girls. Hania does not represent anyone in specific, but you can find a lot of similarities with many people which we have all come across in our lives. We put this all in Hania to deliver the message,” she says.
The topic, once a taboo, reflects the difficulties of a generation wedged in between conservative morals and the thrill to experience more. “Drug addiction has always been there, the dilemma is whether we should project this on TV or not. I didn’t experience it with a close person to me, but after preparing for the series I became more aware and realised many people I knew were addicts, by analysing their actions.”
In preparing for the role, the cast sat down with ex narcotic dependents to write down details and grasp the mindset they would have to embody. “They tell stories and you get involved in understanding someone’s mentality,” she says. “I never thought that a man who really loved a girl could sell her for drugs. I would have never understood it until I heard it from someone who really experienced it. But I feel that all humans must have something in common, and that keeps you in touch; it let's you feel someone’s injuries and feel closer to them.”
The sun is almost up as we say our goodbyes. As she plays with a fork and an empty plate, Jamila checks her endless phone notifications. “I am really grateful for the people that sends me messages about my work. It gives me a lot of positive energy and makes me want to do more,” she smiles. Looking into the future, she confesses she has several proposals on the plate, although she hasn’t met with directors and there is no official contract yet. “I don’t worry, God is putting everything in my way; I just do my hard work when it comes,” she concludes.
Photos produced exclusively for CairoScene by @MO4Network's #MO4Fashion
Styling & Art Direction: Gehad Abdallah
Photography: Lobna Derbala
Styling assistant: Karim Rahman
Hair & Makeup: Mohamed Al Sagheer
Shop the shoot at Boho Gallery
Special thanks to Ashraf Hamdi