Messa’ el kheir ya Masr (Good evening, Egypt), were the words British actress Julia Ormond chose to commence the press conference held last Monday at Sofitel El Gizerah. The next evening, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cairo International Film Festival’s opening ceremony.
Ormond, who stole the show with her Arabic speech at the opening ceremony, charmed Cairo with her down-to-earth mannerisms, her lighthearted and courteous nature.
Born to a well-to-do laboratory technician, Ormond initially went to art before she dropped out to enroll in the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where she graduated in 1988, to become an actress. She started her career in theater, appearing in several productions such as “Wuthering Heights.
Her first real break came with the highly acclaimed British TV series “Traffik in 1989, attracting attention for her intense portrayal of a drug addict. Then Hollywood came calling, and in 1994, she was cast in the lead female role in front of Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in Edward Zwick’s romantic hit “Legends of the Fall, which cemented her reputation as one the hottest British actresses working in Hollywood in the mid-90s.
Among her famous films are “First Knight, “Sabrina, “The Prime Gig and “Inland Empire. After going away for some time to raise her newborn baby, Ormond is back with several high-profile productions, including Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che Guevara biopic “Che and David Fincher’s highly anticipated Christmas release “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
The press conference went fairly smoothly despite the customary odd questions.
On “Benjamin Button, a film based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald – that was deemed difficult and unfilmable about a man who grows up backwards – Ormond said, “The film is not as difficult as people might think it is. It’s a strange story filmed brilliantly by Fincher, a great story as a matter of fact about love and life, about how cynical life is and how trivial many things we’re concerned about are.
Ormond added that “Button is a big production with lots of special effects, especially in the makeup department. As for Fincher, Ormond had nothing but high praise for the “Seven and “Fight Club director.
“Fincher is so cutting edge, so precise and pays attention to the tiniest details. He’s a perfectionist, and he takes lots of takes. The thing with Fincher is that is that he provides you, as an actor, with the chance to fail.
Few directors are comfortable enough to do that, and it really shows how courageous he is.
“Fincher is known for his dark vision. In Button, he found a universal story and he has compromised his vision to create a truly sacred work. He’s extraordinary.
Her experience with Soderbergh was no less exhilarating. “Soderbergh is a qualified cinematographer and he shoots his films himself. He works very quickly and he’s churlishly funny.
Ormond plays the role of an American reporter, the first American to succeed in conducting an in-depth interview with Guevara and later on Fidel Castro.
‘The things Soderbergh brings to the table are very relevant now. When he was asked what he wanted from the US, he answer was ‘just to leave us alone;’ to give them a level playing field.
About whether she faced some obstacles in crossing over from stage to screen, Ormond said that both theater and film performing “informs the other.
“The most challenging thing about theater is that you have to hold the attention of the audience for an entire two-hour period or so. If you lose it one second, that’s it. With film, you get the chance to develop your character, since it’s split up into different parts, and watch it grow.
Judging by her experience with some of the biggest actors in Hollywood, Ormond believes that Hollywood pigeonholes most A-list actors in certain roles that guarantee box-office success, denying them the chance to expand their range or play the characters they want.
“The system in Hollywood is all about people who make big successes, and judging by my experience, they’re much better actors than they appear to be. Harrison Ford [who worked with her in 1995’s ‘Sabrina’] is a terrific actor who would love to try something new. Brad Pitt, who’s occasionally typecast for his good looks, is very, very intuitive and bright.
Daily News Egypt asked Ormond about the reasons for her noticeable departure from British cinema despite the current mini-renaissance the industry is enjoying, a question she coyly eluded, hinting at a possibly bad experience with her home industry she refused to disclose.
“When I first started my career in Britain, I was uncertain about the choices I was making and I feel that certain roles were forced on me, that I might not have done now. I married an American and I moved to the US and had my child born there. I feel much more comfortable with the roles I’m given now; I feel I’m at a happier place.
Ormond, a strong advocate against modern slavery, admitted she had preconceptions about Egypt and the role of slaves in constructing the Pyramids.
“I realize now that I was ignorant about Egypt’s history, and one of the advantages of being an actor is that you travel around the world and have such perceptions corrected. Slavery was probably legitimate in Egypt and it went hand in hand with the workforce. I wish people around the world could realize this reality that’s been distorted.
“I firmly believe that people in the post 9/11 world should share their own stories that concentrate on individual experience rather than politics; to understand the diversity of other nations and transcend stereotypes.
The ubiquitous questions concerning the image of Arabs in Hollywood films and the reluctance of American movies to produce stories about Arabs were front and center in the discussion.
Ormond had one concise, clear-cut response to the pundits: “Don’t leave it to Hollywood to tell your own stories.
As the conference came to an end, Ormond was asked about the best advice she was given at the beginning. Her answer made for a perfect last note: “The best advice I received was: Don’t sleep with the director.