Since his emergence on the film scene, Egyptian actor/producer Amr Waked has marched from one success to another, balancing commercial fare with art-house indies and international blockbusters.
He first appeared in Osama Fawzi’s 1999 award-winning “Gannet El Shayateen (The Paradise of Fallen Angels). His role in Stephen Gaghan 2005 political thriller “Syriana alongside George Clooney and Matt Damon boosted his international cachet, while Yousry Nasrallah’s “Geneinet El-Asmak (The Aquarium) cemented his status as one of Egypt’s most versatile actors working today.
Waked started his acting career on the American University in Cairo’s stage. This is where “Angels casting director saw the young actor and chose him, along with fellow AUCians Sari El Nagar and Salah Fahmy, to play one of the film’s three demented protagonists in the dark picture, based on a novel by Brazilian Jorge Amado.
“It was a very special kind of film, very unlike mainstream Egyptian cinema, which is why we were happy doing it, ” said Waked.
Despite its disappointing performance at the box-office, Egyptian producers came calling. In the next four years, Waked landed his first starring role in the Wahid Hamid’s scripted “Dail El Samakah (Fish Tail), the controversial “Lilly directed by a pre-“Yaccoubian Building Marwan Hamed, and a notable supporting role in the hit “Ashaab Wala Business (Friends or Business).
Until then, Waked only moolighted as an actor, relying mainly on his day job as a stock trader.
As is the case with most Egyptian actors, Waked’s impressive start was speckled by some less than average movies like “Seeb Wana Aseeb (I’ll Let Go If You Let Go) and “Khalty Faransa.
“There is a point in time when you say, ‘Okay, I’m going to make a living out of this or else it’s not going to work.’ When you decide to do that you kind of have to accept certain errors of judgment, said Waked.
On the critically panned “Khalty Faransa, costarring darling Mona Zaki, Waked said: “On paper, it was a fantastic film, just the lives of two women who live underground and have no hope of survival except by being vulgar. I thought it was a very interesting topic. [The screenplay] was much richer than the casual superficial one liner punch-lines.
During shooting, the Sobky-produced script suffered major changes. “It kind of took a turn, which means you have one of two choices: either you leave the show, or just continue and be professional about it, and do what you’re contracted to do in the best possible way. It’s not my favorite film by far, said Waked.
Poor choices were not the only obstacles in his professional career. Waked found himself in the middle of a media storm last year after news broke that his “House of Saddam co-star is an Israeli actor. Some publications went as far as demanding Waked be banned from acting in Egypt for his participation in the BBC mini-series.
Waked has no regrets though. “It’s disappointing what happened, not inhibiting. I should do more of that, maybe people will understand that there is art and there is politics, sometimes they mix, sometimes they don’t. You shouldn’t always have to make a political statement with art.
Waked doesn’t seem to have any qualms regarding his minor works either. “I’m quite content with half of the work I’ve done. I have three or four films that I’m not so fond of, but I enjoyed making every one of them.
Waked now looks for more than just a great screenplay. “It’s not just about the script. There is a crew that can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and another can make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. Sometimes the crew really matters, that’s what I learned.
As for “Syriana, his experience in Hollywood highlighted what he believes is lacking in Egyptian cinema. “Over here, we’re lacking a lot of taste and a lot of creativity. That’s our major failure, if we fix that we will compete. We have all the facilities to make that but not the brains. The brains are suffocating.
Waked believes that the entire Egyptian movie-making machine is to blame. “Predominantly, it’s the lack of people who appreciate their art in the decision making process, whether the producer, distributor, government or the audience. There aren’t enough people in the right place.
But even with the paradigm shift Egyptian cinema has witnessed lately, Waked believes there s still a long way to go. “We’re still releasing one film a year that’s considerably ok. If we come to analyze it properly, they’re B movies. Within the past 10 years, there have been five or six A movies and they’re usually low budget films.
Amr Waked has two new movies awaiting release: “El Mosafer (The Passenger) an epic starring Omar Sharif that marks the return of the Ministry of Culture to film production (the film has a fall release date) and the other is a British production titled “The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall.
The latter is to be broadcast on UK’s channel 4 later this year. It tells the true story of a British photographer who was shot by an Israeli sniper in Gaza. Waked plays a peaceful Palestinian activist who helps the photographer’s British family discover the truth and seek justice from the Israeli armed forces.
Waked is also prepping a film with Khaled Abol Naga. But he refused to divulge any details about the project, only promising it will be “original.
In what what might turn out to be his most ambitious role to date, Waked is working on a long fantasy feature film about the pre-Islamic Arab hero Antara Ibn Shaddad, which may be divided into two features.
Besides his work, Waked has always attempted to give back to the community. His company ZAD Productions is involved in producing numerous shorts and documentaries as well as feature length films that promote creativity. “We believe in our capacity to empower people, to make very interesting communication products, film or a book or movement show or an event.
ZAD is also involved in raising hygienic awareness and eradicating deeply rooted habits within Egyptian society such as harassment of women and domestic violence. He has also done a lot of work to raise AIDS awareness.
“People made me who I am, and I’m trying to give some back in a positive way.