For the past couple of years Egyptian star Mohamed Karim, who is known across the Middle East as a former host of talent show “The Voice of Arabia” and for roles in popular Ramadan soaps and local pics, has been pursuing a Hollywood career. He recently landed a plum role alongside Nicolas Cage in Highland Film Group’s indie action thriller “A Score to Settle,” directed by Shawn Ku, whose debut “Beautiful Boy” (not to be mistaken with the current Felix Van Groeningen pic by the same title) made a splash. Karim started dreaming about Hollywood while attending his final high-school year in L.A. He talked to Variety during the Cairo Film Festival about his struggles in the U.S. biz with racial stereotypes and why he’s happy to start breaking them with “A Score to Settle,” expected to hit U.S. screens next summer. Excerpts.
First off can you talk to me about your role in “A Score to Settle”?
The character I play is Jimmy The Dragon. We don’t really know where he’s originally from but he’s not an Arab, which is pretty cool. That’s new to me. When I had my first meeting with the director, Shawn Ku, he told me: ‘you are a guy who fears nothing: if someone puts a gun to your head you don’t give a damn. Try to project that.’ Another great thing about this movie is it’s not about good and evil. We are all mobsters, so basically we’re all the same. Me and Frank, who is played by Nick Cage, used to be part of the same mob organization. Then something went wrong, so our boss asked Frank to take the fall and go to jail for 4 years. But he ends up staying there for 22 years, and I was supposed to take care of his son. The movie begins when he comes out of jail and he’s coming after me. Jimmy is a player. He’s smart. The reason they call him Jimmy The Dragon is he has huge dragon tattoo with the head on his back and the tail all over his shoulders, hands and forearms.
How was working with Cage? But also with Shawn Ku, whom I believe has a background as a dancer and choreographer.
I remember one of the first scenes, it’s just me and Nick. It was a really really tough scene — one of the nastier scenes I would say — the confrontation between the two of us right after he comes out of jail. I love that scene because Shawn put a lot of pauses in it to let it to grow and develop dramatically. But also in the chases and the action scenes, and the shoot-outs and all these things, the pacing is really great. Also I must say that for me to be making an action movie with Nick, as my first Hollywood movie is just awesome!
How tough has it been for you to break out in Hollywood?
Well, I’m trying to do something kind of outside the box and a lot of people in my country didn’t understand it. I was doing my Egyptian movies and I just disappeared. But in 2015 I said: ‘I am going to make the transition. I’m going over there’ And while I was doing something like 2,000 auditions, one of the main things that kept me strong was watching all these YouTube videos about Hollywood celebrities who went through what I was going through. “A Score to Settle” came to me while I was kind of down, I had started thinking: ‘Mohamed, what are you doing? You have a successful career here in the Middle East. You have ready-to-go projects. I don’t even have to go to auditions there! They just send me the script and a contract and I sign it. All these thoughts were going through my mind and then I got that audition and funnily enough I didn’t really care about it. I just thought: ‘I’m going to do my best, but I’m not going to angst over it.’ But then I got a call back! I couldn’t believe it.
You mentioned how happy you are not to be playing an Arab. Can you elaborate on that?
I got so bored of these auditions were I was always being stereotyped: they were either to play an Arab terrorist, or a diplomat…I’m not saying that all the Middle Eastern roles out there are bad. Of course not. There are some really interesting ones, but they are very few. Usually when I go to auditions I see all these people who look like me. I walk in the room and they are all guys with black hair and brown eyes, usually tall guys; the Middle Eastern look. From day-one I said to myself that I don’t want to do these kinds of roles. I have a fan base in Egypt, I want people to be proud of me. If I can open the door [for Egyptian actors] even just a little bit, that’s what I want to do. I want to play a character I can relate to.
So after Jimmy The Dragon what kinds of roles would you like to play?
I would like to play an Arab scientist, an Arab doctor. Why can’t “Grey’s Anatomy” and all these medical shows have a doctor from Egypt? That said, I do see some progress being made. There are some stand-up comedians from Muslim backgrounds like Kumail Nanjiani [“The Big Sick”]. There is a little more diversity now, but not that much. I would like to see more.
Are you seeing any other encouraging signs pointing to more diversity in Hollywood?
When “Crazy Rich Asians” came out, that gave me a lot of hope. It made me think that things are going in the right direction, and that I can make it. If you think about it, the male lead in that film [Henry Golding] was a pretty obscure TV host who had not acted before. How cool is that?…Also Rami Malek, whose family is from Egypt. I’m so happy for him. Especially his recent movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I think that’s going to help create more awareness for actors from this part of the world.