With a slew of projects in the works, and a pretty impressive resume thus far, everyone's talking about Egyptian actress Amina Khalil. Farah Hosny sits down with the inspiring ingenue with an edge...
The first time I met Amina Khalil was in middle school. She was a few grades ahead of me, and being the triple threat that she is - acting, singing, dancing – she solidified her yearbook superlative spot as the resident Reigning Queen of the Theatre of our school. In an interesting turn of events, here we were, ten years later, and I was interviewing the former theatre darling for, unlike so many of us, having a unequivocally solid grasp on precisely what she wanted to do with her life.
"Ever since I was a kid this is what I've wanted," she says simply of her chosen vocation, as we sip on peach smoothies at Left Bank. In distressed, ripped jeans, a flowy blouse and wrists adorned with a mix between gold and braided hippie bracelets, the doe-eyed actress and self-proclaimed accessory-junkie, talks with an easy confidence that implies no cockiness, just a sense of self-assuredness. Which is apt, seeing as since the ripe old age of all of five years old, she had few doubts that the film industry was where she belonged; "Not only acting but it's this industry; be it directing, be it production, be it singing – it all goes under the umbrella of the performing arts," she says, "And I've pursued it not only as an education but this is what I wanted my career to be."
Landing her first movie role at the age of 12, she then continued to pursue her passion with a singular drive, studying it at university, and then travelling to take myriad of workshops and courses after graduating. "I went to New York. I did the whole starving actress thing," Khalil says with a laugh. "I worked as a waitress, I was working double jobs and stuff." Harvard sent her to the Moscow Art Theatre - "Everyone smells like vodka at 8 in the morning! It's not ballet class unless there's the stench of vodka all over the place," she laughs, putting aside any misgivings we had about vodka-loving Russians just being a stereotype. Studies completed, she returned to Egypt, acted in a flurry of independent films, and found success in a variety of Ramadan series, over two back-to-back years, acting in Taraf Talet, Sharbat Loz, Nekdeb Law 2olna Maben7ebesh alongside Yousra, shows which instantly shot her into the public eye. "The show had just been on for like a day or two, and I was going to the supermarket and suddenly someone recognised me, and I was like, 'holy shit! How do you know who I am!?'" she exclaims in surprise, eyes widening. "But it's nice,'" she adds with a nod, "it makes you feel like you're accomplishing something. I appreciate it."
Despite studying abroad, and being, for all intents and purposes, of the more 'Americanised' sector of society, she chose to return to Egypt to act. "I feel that you have to make it in your own country before you make it somewhere else," she explains. In the dog-eat-dog world of the film industry, Khalil not only managed to avoid the pitfalls – those horror stories of the industry that you hear about that accompany trying to break into the business – but also managed to set herself apart from a sea of trigger-happy plastic-surgery actresses by adamantly refusing to cave to pressures that she should change. "Look," she says contemplatively, "people trying to take advantage of you can happen in any industry. It's all about how you deal, how you are. And the position that you put yourself in from day one." And armed with a rather enviable sense of self, she refused to bend. "I didn’t try to be something I'm not just so I could make it in this industry. Eventually, people started respecting me for my edge," she says.
But to what extent is there pressure to change, we wonder? Khalil bursts out laughing. "They bluntly say it to you!" she exclaims, "You need to do your nose. Or you need to lose weight. Or you need to change the colour of your hair. Or make your eyebrows thinner, or thicker. Or make your boobs bigger. They're not discreet about it at all!" As we talk – besides the fact that she seems impervious to the Egyptian summer heat as we sit outdoors – she orders a full eggs Benedict breakfast, displaying an obvious defiance when it comes to people demanding that she regulate her weight.
That's not to say she doesn't foster her own insecurities about her appearance, but she's also willing to embrace her flaws, or at least, not let them define her. "I won't lie to you, there are moments where I'm like I hate my nose, I hate my nose!" she says, self-consciously touching what is perhaps her most controversy-inducing physical attribute. "But then I'm like no, just no. The repercussions of me doing something like this are so much worse than for me just keeping it and living with it. It will be against what I stand for. You have to be very comfortable in your own skin and it's okay 'cause every single girl in the world - unless she's Gisele - has problems and it's fine!" She laughs and runs a hand through her hair. "Just be yourself. It's all about your life and your morals and your ethics – that’s what matters; it doesn’t matter if you have a freaking stretch mark on your thigh!"
And it was just that subversive, fuck-the-system attitude with regards to conforming to the ideal beauty norms, that made Sprite come knocking when they tapped her for the 2013 Ana Keda campaign. In the ad she talks about people trying to change her, turn her into what she refers to now as 'a plastic actress' and makes a now infamous joke where she says "bezzemtko, di manakheer Barbie?" In fact, she considers that Sprite campaign one of the highlights of her career. "Some awesome stuff has happened to me, but the fact that they picked me as their celebrity endorsement for the year…that's big. It was one of the most amazing things that's ever happened to me" she says with endearing honesty. She pauses for a second. "The thing about that Sprite as is that it's takes you from yay you're getting work or you're being acknowledged for your work to, you can be a role model for other girls – or other people. You're sending a message now."
I question her about other highlights of her career. She ponders the question for ages. "I don’t know," she says finally, "I think it’s the fact that I keep getting work! That to me is a highlight – that to me is yay me! If I keep getting work that means I'm doing something right." She seems somewhat shocked at her success, but she's worked with some of the biggest names in the business including the likes of Hussein Fahmy and Sameer Ghaneim, and has also displayed her onscreen prowess to the extent that Adel Imam specifically requested her for the role of his daughter in this year's upcoming Ramadan series, Sa7eb El Sa3ada. "It was…it was a lot of things," she says slowly, of shooting with the onscreen legend. "I felt proud, that he'd asked for me. I was scared – because you really have to prove yourself, big time!" she laughs. "I mean who are we kidding, you'd be weird if you're NOT worried!"
Other than freaking out when she's faced with a cinematic superstar, we wonder if stepping in front of a camera eventually just ceases to be daunting to a seasoned professional, or whether you can still get jitters at this stage of the game. "Look, I get nervous when I'm about to do a scene that's hard, like where I'm screaming or crying," she explains. "When you act it can get really intense, so you can be afraid to be that vulnerable and it's only when you're that vulnerable that truthfulness comes out and that you… You rock the scene ya3ni!' she says with a laugh. "Like there was a scene in my last movie where my boyfriend beats the shit out of me basically, and it's scenes like that that you can get afraid of."
How real are those scenes, I ask her out of curiosity? "Some and some," she says with a chuckle, "Most of the slaps are not real. But everything else is. Like, you can't mime a push, or a hand grab, or a hair grab. If someone throws you on the ground you can't mime that." I ask her whether she's ever gotten physically hurt in the process. "Yeah!" she exclaims, pointing to a tiny scar on her forehead, and touching the bridge of her nose. "Here and here. I broke a wooden table in half with my head!" she says, cracking up and launches into the story of the six stitches on her temple where, on opening night of a play, a pre-rehearsed fight scene went awry and she ended up smacking her head on a table, and continued unaware of the massive bump that formed on her temple. "My dad was in the front row having a heart attack," she laughs. "So yeah, this is my stage scar and this is my film scar," she says, almost proudly and then shrugs, "It could have been worse!"
Front-row parents were staple in Khalil's life, an almost unusual occurrence, especially in a country and society that essentially looks down upon acting. "My parents, specifically, were very, very supportive of my dream. I mean, I think if you stick with something from the age of like, 5 until the age of 21 when you graduate, I think it's there to stay". Other family members displayed less leniency towards her chosen career path. "My grandma frowned upon me for a while! My aunts and uncles were all like, 'What would people say? What would the bawab say when you come home at five AM?'" she says, reiterating a shared notion amongst the parental generation of Cairo.
Eventually, it became a matter of like it or not, she was doing it anyway, thanks to an unparalleled passion for her work, though she's the first to admit it's not all sunshine and rainbows. "You have to really, really, really love it," she stresses, "because we work hideous hours that any sane human being would not be okay with. We work for 17 or 18 hours nonstop. You don’t have a life and you miss so many events and weddings and funerals and everything, because you're shooting." The same industry that she adores, she easily criticises."It is a heartless industry. They don’t give a shit because there's 150 million pounds on the line and if you don’t shoot, they're gonna lose a crapload of money!"
Nevertheless, the hours, the pressure to change, all of it, has hardly deterred her. But despite a continuous flow of work, the actress admits she's definitely been typecast. "I'm always the mo7tarama AUC girl," she moans with a laugh. "I want to break out of that mould and do something very different." Essentially, she says with endearing honesty: "I just need someone to take a risk on me." Even when she starred in Al Mahragan, a movie all about underground Shaabi music, she was cast as the AUC graduate, though she does admits that filming it altered her view of things somewhat. Being raised in the glass bubble that is Cairo's upper class society, she says "I was the perfect example of someone who needs to see this film, you know? Someone who doesn’t know anything about Shaabi music, who was to a certain extent, judgmental." After immersing herself in the role, listening to the sounds day in, day out, she says "it's actually good!" sounding almost surprised at her admission. "We, the 2% percent that read CairoScene and Enigma and don’t listen to this kind of music, but ommet lah elaha ellah ala does! It has to be respected as a genre of music, as a prominent part of our culture." She now proudly announces that she has the entire soundtrack of the movie on her iPod.
Even though she's says she has no regrets about her career path, there's also a flip side to the recent fame she's acquired. "I have a major issue with all the people who make my fake Instagram accounts and stuff," she says. "I'm appreciative to the fans who are following or those who make pages, but I don't want anyone impersonating me."
Though she's accomplished quite a lot by the age of 26, Khalil's still hungry for more, admitting to having a "girl crush" on Nadine Labaki and hoping to work with her some day, and seems to still be weirdly grounded – it's almost strangely healthy that she attributes a large part of her success to education. "Don’t let fame be your catalyst; let good work be your catalyst," she says simply, "Fame is something that comes kida 3al mashy," she says, snapping her fingers to emphasise her point. "And it can go in a second and if you fuck up, you're screwed." At the end of the interview, she scrunches her nose self-consciously. "How did I do? Did I answer everything okay?" she asks, pretty much proving she's about as unpretentious as it gets.
In a CairoScene exclusive, Amina Khalil sets the record straight on her social media account.