The many faces of Khaled El-Sawy

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Jack of all trades is not always a master of none, as actor, director and writer Khaled El-Sawy has proven time and again.

From his brilliant cinema debut as the late charismatic Egyptian President Nasser in “Gamal Abdel Nasser a decade ago, to his role as the devil in the stage success “The Dilemma, to his ultimate breakthrough role as gay journalist Hatem Rached in the internationally acclaimed “Yacoubian Building, to his latest role as shaabi singer Bal’oum in “Cabaret, El Sawy defies all attempts to pigeonhole him into one mould.

His role as the egotistical pop singer in this summer’s biggest sleeper hit couldn’t be more removed from his off-screen personality. A courteous, genuine artist, El-Sawy, as his numerous fans can attest, never allowed fame and success to get to his head.

“I try to deliver a true image of the character I play, to act as a mirror; not a flat, convex or concave one, but a special mirror to reflect the inside and outside mechanism of human beings, he told Daily News Egypt.

“I don’t do that merely through technique – mimicking the accent, looks and gestures of the character – but rather through bringing out his human side, his thoughts, his soul. If I can do so, it means I have fulfilled my personal legend, as Paulo Coelho calls it.

He explains how he puts the character he is about to embody under a spot light and turn off all the side lights around it.

“When it really glows, it pulls me gently to it, he says.

Perfecting a role is no easy task, especially for dedicated actors like El-Sawy who fully submerge themselves into their characters. Over the years however, El-Sawy developed his own characterization techniques, inspired by Stella Adler’s famous method acting adopted by the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.

“I try to enter the role smoothly. It’s not like [the director says] ‘cut’ and now I am another person. This way it will be superficial. My main concern is the logic of the character . that I manage to reflect the logic of a criminal, for example. I never killed anyone and don’t intend to, but I try to get as close as possible by remembering how it felt when I killed a mouse or a fly. Even if it is a trivial link between me and character, I must note it and develop it well in order to build on it, he says.

Years after starring in numerous films, TV dramas and plays, El-Sawy remains rapt in his craft.

“I’m still captivated by the process of feeling something which turns to a dream, then a plan followed by the struggle all the while contemplating the whole process. This cycle, to me, is life, he says.

Beside his acting career, El-Sawy is an active blogger and a vocal political activist who participated in several protests.

Being the outspoken figure that he is, El-Sawy had a lot to say about the current intellectual and social status of Egyptian women.

“When women remove their niqab [face veil] in 1919 during the demonstration, but put it back again in 2008, we must stop and ask how could such a thing happen? Because when women expressed themselves side by side with men, fighting for their country, they enforced their right to join the cause, to have a real presence, not just act as an extra [on a set], El-Sawy says.

Instead of sticking to feminist ideals, where women fight against men, both men and women should fight against the regime which oppresses both of them, he continues.

El-Sawy believes that social activism is, in fact, an integral part of the life of any film star; a duty every actor must adopt for the benefit of a bigger, worthier cause.

“As an actor you have to be an activist in any field. American actors participate in campaigns and demonstrations against the Afghanistan and Iraq war, he says.

He laments the fact that Egyptian actors are behind the times when it comes to staying abreast of what is new in the field.

However, he believes that Egyptian cinema has made major progress in the last five years. Financially, Egyptian cinema has regained its vast commercial might across the Arab world, with recent big-budget productions like “Yacoubian and “Heya Fawda attracting a sizeable audience in France and other new markets.

Yet when it comes to international festivals, Egyptian films and actors have failed to win any major award for more than two decades.

El-Sawy believes that festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin are manipulated by political factors, and hence should not be regarded as the real criteria of success, especially for actors.

“Your steadiness as an actor and how highly regarded you are by the audience and critics is what counts, he noted.

He admits that the overwhelming influence of Western culture, not only on the local film scene, but on society in general has had a negative impact. “We must all have a national vision or goal other than simply to raise our children. We must stand as one against the imitation of Western movies, to reestablish the Egyptian cinema identity.

One way to accomplish this is to have more movie screens. Nearly 80 percent of all film theaters constructed in the past decade are located in either Cairo or Alexandria. The vast majority of the country remains deprived of cinemas.

“India has hundred of cinemas, humble ones where you sit on a straw matt and pay pennies to watch a film. Egyptian businessmen investing in film, in addition to the government, too, must provide simple screens, speakers and chairs in the provinces and villages; after all it is a medium for progress.

El-Sawy’s ultimate dream is for humanity to move forward, for science to triumph over fallacies, for freedom to end suppression, for social justice to overcome cruelty, and for discrimination to be abolished.

And although these seemingly unattainable goals are far beyond a single person’s reach, El-Sawy believes his films could make a difference in the society.

“I want to be able to help in any way, to make the slightest change by writing, acting or even singing in the streets. When I die I want to leave behind something that makes people remember my name and work, he says.

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