From Hollywood to Egypt, a new face is changing the landscape of film casting

Safaa Abdoun
10 Min Read

Passionate and energetic, Mohammed Hassan is thinking big.

Mo Nassah, as he is known in the Hollywood film industry, is preparing for the shooting of “Pharaoh Akhnaton, the first American major motion picture approved to be filmed entirely in Egypt, with an American and Egyptian cast and all-Egyptian extras.

Through his international casting company, Equilibrium Casting, Mo is trying to bring Hollywood’s big productions to Egypt, giving the country international exposure through the film and equating Egyptian extras with their international counterparts in treatment and pay.

Born in London to an Egyptian father and a Turkish-Cypriot mother, Mo enjoys the fluency of different languages as well as different cultures, which helped him grow into a well-rounded and culturally conscious anthropologist.

His passion for acting and performing arts began at the early age of seven with theater, landing roles in productions such as “Macbeth and “Aladdin.

“My [Egyptian] features have helped me a lot in my acting career, Mo told Daily News Egypt. “I always found myself in roles of a Middle Eastern person.

Later on, Mo moved to the US to pursue a career in major feature films.

“I went to the States for my 21st birthday and fell in love with it so I decided to stay, he explained. Things didn’t go as planned though. When he returned to London to prepare for the full move, the 9/11 attacks hit the US and, consequently, he decided to postpone his plans.

“I stayed one more year in London and then went to Los Angeles, where I picked up my career as an actor and found myself working alongside people like Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta Jones, Toby Maguire and Keanu Reeves, he said.

An Arab in HollywoodThe dearth of Middle Eastern actors in LA at the time gave Mo an advantage. He appeared in several blockbusters as an extra or in small roles. However, and unlike his early years in England, his British accent became an obstacle.

“The first time I auditioned for a Steven Spielberg film they told me ‘Mohammed, you look Arabic but when you speak your accent is not Arabic.’ They told me I need to be more Middle Eastern with my tone, for example, say ‘beoble’ instead of ‘people.’

Mo accepted the challenge and started practicing his Arabic more often. In a year s time, he was cast in several Middle Eastern roles in Hollywood. He also worked for CIA video projects. Based on true stories, the films were meant to inform the agency’s personnel about Middle East terrorists. Before he knew it, Mo found himself coaching people in the Arabic language and different dialects.

Nearly a year later, he became a member of the Screen Actors Guild in the US, an accomplishment that usually takes years to achieve.

Mo acted alongside stars such as Keanu Reeves in “Constantine, Jude Law in “I Heart Huckabees, Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones in “The Terminal, Toby Maguire in “Spiderman 2, Clive Owen in “Children of Men and Tony Shalhoub in the TV series “Monk.

Despite the bad image Americans have of Arabs, Mo has always been proud of his Middle Eastern heritage and his religion. Playing a small but key role to the films’ plot, he brought the filming of “Children of Men to a halt, keeping Clive Owen waiting as he went for Friday prayers.

But how did Mohammed Hassan become Mo Nassah? It was Spielberg’s right-hand woman, Sandra Lisey, who asked him to change his name. “She always gave me tips on how to furthur my career, he said. It was a year or two after 9/11 and the name Mohammed on headshots was turning people off.

He rejected the idea at first. Lisey explained to him how people can fear hiring someone called Mohammed and how some of today’s celebrities had changed their names. “She opened her drawer and pulled out a driver’s license for a William Bradely Pittley who changed his name and obviously became the Brad Pitt phenomenon, he said. And thus, Mo Nassah was born; Mo, a nickname, and Nassah is Hassan spelled backward.

Casting EgyptiansBesides his acting career, Mo became an extras casting associate, working for major blockbusters such as “Pirates of the Caribbean and the “Chronicles of Narnia.

As his contacts and social network expanded, Mo quickly grew acquainted with almost all Arab actors in the US. He started passing actors profiles onto casting directors and recommending his people from his large circle of acquaintances for roles.

Another year on, he opened his casting agency Equilibrium in LA, and later took it to London.

Mo came back to Egypt nearly three years ago to work on the production of a movie about the Pharaoh Akhnaton. The film is scheduled to start filming in October 2009.

The film has an American cast, with a number of Egyptians in the leading and supporting roles. All extras are Egyptians. The film’s set will be designed and built from scratch, costing an approximate $5 to 10 million. The set will be donated to Egypt to be used as a touristic attraction, on the vein of similar productions shot in Morocco after the shooting ends. Mo is surprised at the current state of the Egyptian film industry; a cinema that once ranked among the most glorious and strongest worldwide. “The mentality is wrong here, Egyptians have to get the pay they deserve, said Mo about the current cinema industry in Egypt. For that reason, Mo founded the Middle East Guild (MEG) with the mission of “preserving the art and integrity of North Africa and the Middle East by establishing guilds to protect the craftsman within the film, television, theater and commercial communities.

MEG has several subsidiary establishments, relating to each professional field. There are the Middle East Actors Guild, Casting Directors Guild, Extras Guild, Film Makers Guild, Models Guild, Producers Guild and Writers Guild.

“In the 1950s and 60s we were the best of the best. Top universities around the world are studying the 50s’ and 60s’ Egyptian cinema. But look at us now, people should be ashamed, nothing is done properly and people trying to get into the industry are selling themselves, he explains.

“It’s impossible for us to grow in the international community if we are not thinking internationally, Mo said.

Do major Egyptian productions such as “The Baby Doll Night herald any substantial change?

In Mo’s opinion, “The change of blood is happening slowly, how long will it take to change the industry? Ten to 20 years?

“Abu Dhabi is building a Warner Brothers studio. What are we waiting for? To be looked down upon as beggars? People will come to Egypt just to film something for LE 200,000 instead of filming it in Abu Dhabi for LE 1 million, he said.

Mo hopes to act in Egyptian films one day, but his acting plans are momentarily put on hold. His focus currently is “building a bridge in the cinema industry between Egypt and the rest of the world.

After extensive and lengthy bureaucratic procedures, Equilibrium is now officially registered in Egypt. The agency’s potential clients are international productions coming – or intending to come – to Egypt. “[Our mission] is to boost the economy and the prestige that we originally had [in the Egyptian cinema’s golden years], Mo said.

In the meantime, he is writing a book with a working title “No Gibberish: Equilibrium Casting Extra Work. The book is supposed to be part of a panned “No Gibberish series. He also dreams of winning an Oscar and donating it to the Egyptian Museum.

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