We talk to actor on the rise Ali Azb to find out challenges and, at times, the sheer abuse actors in Egypt often endure in order to actually make a name for themselves.
After starring in Netflix’s first ever Arabic mini-web-series, Ali Azb, who’d spent years perfecting his craft to become a serious actor, is not only being recognised on the streets now, but has his eyes set on bigger, better projects.
Azb is by no means a struggling actor or a cautionary tail. If anything, his story is an inspirational one that we can all learn from. Even if acting was never a passion for us like it’s always been for Azb.
Ali Azb seems like a man who wants, and is striving, to have it all. And it seems like everything he tries his hand at, he perfects. Azb, you see, keeps a job at a prominent agency as a copywriter, actually has his own agency too, and is an entrepreneur as well. He recently launched Dokantak.com, a startup focused on selling and promoting Egyptian-made products. So how does he have time to pursue another career and even kick ass doing it? Passion is how.
Many of my friends have had acting aspirations in the past. The scenario though is a familiar one. They try a bunch of gigs, some even go to acting schools. A road bump, or a hundred, later and they begin to develop other career aspirations and move on.
Ali sits in front of me to tell me his story and help me find out “What it Takes to Make it as an Actor in Egypt”, out in the sun, soft-spoken, extremely polite, and keeping eye contact throughout our chat. It’s hard to think this is the same man who in 2013 was on every TV across Egypt taking giant bites out of lion cages. That this whole comedic persona I’d seen in his Etisalat ad and on the Netflix mini-series is not the real man sitting right in front of me here.
Is This for You?
I asked Ali how he became an actor thinking I would get some poetic response that would change my views on the profession or give me some amazing insight. There wasn’t. Ali Azb’s journey into acting is your typical one. It took him a long time to get to where he is today. No one helped him. He doesn’t have a famous uncle or cousin who works in TV. He is, however, passionate. He loves his craft and views it as an artform.
“Since I was in the second grade, whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be, I would say an actor.” He tells me with an almost shy smirk on his face. “And that surprised people because the norm was kids wanted to be doctors or engineers”. Comedicaly, Azb, although has his sight set on different, more serious roles, has always been the funny guy. He recalls trying to get out of school (and succeeding) by acting his way out of sticky spots.
Don’t be Ugly
Being a persistent hard worker and taking your craft seriously to the point of obsession aren’t enough. Ali uses colourful language to describe acting as he tells me “what people don’t realise is that acting is an artform, and art is fragile like glass”. I smile and nod, keen to move on to talk about fame and crazy shenanigans he got up to. But he wasn’t having it, “you can’t treat glass badly and expect it to not break. Small time actors in Egypt put with abuse. Like having an early morning call times only to spend their entire days at a shoot and not film in the end.” And it gets worse as actors could get around EGP 500 per an intense day of work. Ali also tells me about a time he was at one of those crazy 21-hour shoots where some half-witted person tried so hard to convey to Azb that… how to put this sensitively… “too ugly to act”. And that’s how the pretty boy with acting aspirations put it to Ali Azb as he stood there after a long day of shooting. Ali said he will never forget that.
Just Say No
One thing actors need is thick skin to be able to deal with idiots like the ones who as Ali puts it “look great but are as stiff as a board” who tell him, and probably hundreds like him they’re too off-putting for the screen. The advice Ali Azb gives aspiring actors is JUST SAY NO. No to being treated like your work isn’t like that proverbial piece of glass that needs to be taken care of. No to the negative thoughts that may arise from constant pressure to give up. And no to playing to typecasting.
Although a comedic gem in the making, Ali wants more serious roles and is working towards them. With courses and experiences already under his belt, he tells me “I want to change the idea of acting in Egypt”. You shouldn’t hide your passion because it’s not prestigious enough or doesn’t quite yet pay the bills, but instead grow your passion and your art, your glass, and work hard until you get what you want. “Our production value in recent years in Egypt has gone through great changes for the better, but the acting is still stuck in 90s style mediocre scenes that rely on beauty of the talent and their makeup.” And that’s the acting scene in Cairo. Steve Buscemi is not your Tamer Hosny type and has accolades and worldwide notoriety. And a similar range to that of Azb. From comedy to the straight out terrifying.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
“Why not do youtube? They can be cool,” I ask him thinking maybe he should take charge of things and show his talent to the word. “I think making fun of people is easy. And that’s what most YouTube personalities tend to do. It’s a comedic platform for actors that relies on bullying”. And although we won’t see Azb starring in his own YouTube channel soon, he does believe in the democratising power of the internet. “Netflix is giving actors more roles, more opportunities for new ideas and roles. Away for the usual cliques of the Egyptian industry.” He tells me, “And that’s a step in the right direction to changing the Egyptian mentality towards acting.”
With his future in the industry now attached to names like Assir Yassin, Hend Sabry, and Marwan Hamed, and dark comedies, a genre that Egypt is starving for and should embrace, Azb’s career trajectory seems to be on track. He’s now in talks to appear in Turab Almas, a film I’m expecting to see open the Gouna Film Festival next year.
“Sometimes, a person could appear in your life, and change it completely to the better” he tells me with a shy smile as he lowers his gaze and looks at his feet which are at this point tapping the ground beneath them. I think Ali Azb is ready for a romantic lead.
Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Amr Medhat.