British actor Amir El-Masry has been ubiquitous on international screens in the last five years, but like most Arab actors in the U.K., he’s reached his threshold for backward stereotypes, and is trying to forge his own narrative in the industry.
Born in Egypt but raised in the U.K., El-Masry, who leads Ben Sharrock’s refugee drama and festival darling “Limbo,” graduated from the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 2013 to an industry whose reckoning around race and representation was still years away.
“When I started out, I never thought I was ‘Other,’ I never thought I was different. But when I came out of LAMDA, I quickly realized that the industry differentiates you, and makes you look at yourself and go, ‘Actually, you know what? Even if I wanted to play James Bond, I can’t play him,’” the 30-year-old actor tells Variety, “or, if someone who looks like me is going to be in a period drama, they’ve got to make a commentary about it.”
The actor swiftly landed parts in Jon Stewart’s directorial debut “Rosewater” (2014), playing spokesperson to then Iran leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Susanne Bier’s acclaimed BBC One/AMC drama “The Night Manager” (2016), in which El-Masry is an Egyptian chef working in the night manager’s hotel; and BAFTA-nominated Channel 4/National Geographic drama “The State” (2017), where he plays a Syrian pharmacist and possible spy. They were essential, impactful roles, but there was a need to constantly “pigeonhole” himself, as his then agent advised, “in order to keep surviving,” says El-Masry.
“But after surviving, and reaching that point of being like, ‘Hey guys, I’m still here, still playing these same stereotypical characters,’ slowly, there was a bit of a movement where people recognized there’s more diversity in the U.K. than we think,” says El-Masry, who soon landed roles in Amazon’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” series (2018) and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019).
Enduring change, however, needs to come at the decision-maker level, he highlights, and there are, at last, positive signs in that arena. El-Masry was on the BAFTA steering committee that led to sweeping changes in the last month to the wider Academy, as well as the film and television awards.
Meanwhile, he’s also part of a newly formed MENA (Middle East and North African) Collective, which is fighting for official recognition in the U.K. industry. “When you sign forms [for acting jobs], and they ask you to state your ethnicity, Arab was always under ‘Other.’ Sometimes it wasn’t even there,” he explains.
“I didn’t know where I would put myself, so I’d always click on ‘Other,’ while some of my peers, who are of Middle Eastern or of Mediterranean origin, would click on ‘White.’”
The MENA Collective intends to draw data around their numbers in the industry, which can be shared with production companies. It could elicit the sort of change that may see El-Masry play a romantic lead, for example — a career first, though it really shouldn’t be.
“Last week, I had a chat with a production company and a lovely director and they asked me what I’d love to do, and I said I’d love to play a romantic lead because I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me, here in England, do that,” says El-Masry.
“That wasn’t my dream starting out, but it’s slowly become that because it’s something I haven’t been considered for. I think people are now intrigued to see what that looks like, not just from an aesthetic point of view, but also what you bring to it in terms of your own personality.”
Currently, the actor leads “Limbo,” which received the coveted Cannes 2020 label, and has gone on to play the Toronto, San Sebastian and BFI London Film Festivals. The film follows a group of Middle Eastern and African refugees awaiting official asylum status on a bleak Scottish island.
El-Masry plays musician Omar, who has left Syria to start a new life in the U.K. but can’t bring himself to strum even a string on the oud he carries everywhere through unforgiving weather. The actor’s numb, pensive expressions through much of “Limbo” — whose black comedy trades in an amusing, heart-rending stillness — carry the film, especially as Omar calls his parents, resettled in Turkey, from a frozen phone booth and contemplates reconnecting with his brother, who stayed behind to fight in Syria.
El-Masry says he was initially “a bit tentative” to do a film about the refugee crisis, for fear of falling into uncomfortable white savior tropes and failing to humanize the stories at hand, but quickly realized that Sharrock’s script was anything but.
“It was important to me that these people didn’t want to come to another country just for the sake of it. They wanted to stay in their own country, and especially with Omar, you can [sense] he actually had a great life in Syria, which is often misconstrued in the U.K. media, which tries to demonize refugees and evoke worry in the British public that people are taking up space,” says El-Masry, who’ll next be seen in HBO’s financial drama “Industry.”
Acting aside, El-Masry is taking the narrative into his own hands, and has co-written a pilot for a show that’s been optioned by a production company. The project is currently being pitched to networks.
“It was never my dream to begin with,” admits El-Masry, “but I definitely want to direct one day and create work that reflects people from diverse backgrounds, and create more opportunities for people like myself. I know how hard it is to get your foot in the door when you look different.”