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By Shorouk Abbas & Francesca Sullivan

Mohamed Mamdouh is a familiar sight on both the big and small screen in Egypt, a character actor who has worked consistently since he emerged onto the cinema scene in the mid-nineties, learning his craft and acting his way through a long succession of supporting roles. With this year looking to be his busiest yet, Cairo East Magazine caught up with him to chat about his part in some of the year’s most talked-about productions.

In the ongoing career of actor Mohamed Mamdouh, best known for comedies such as the popular Bebo and Bashir, 2015 has turned out to be the year of the villain. In three major productions: Welad Rizk, Zarf Aswad and Shad Agzaa, Mamdouh has been given ample opportunity to shock audiences with his exploration of the dark side, portraying a succession of gripping characters in movies and TV serials that don’t shy from life’s rougher aspects. He also plays the brutish brother of singer Sherine Abdel Wahab in her period drama vehicle Tariqi.

In person, Mamdouh is burly and affable, with an easy-going sweetness quite at odds with the double dealing police investigator in Welad Rizk, scheming Yasin in Zarf Aswad, or the violent Mahmoud El Areqi in Shad Agzaa. To be sure, he has a substantial physical presence – but you can more easily imagine him as a body guard than an aggressor. That is until you see his performances. When, at a later point in the interview, he announces that his dream role would be to play the Hunchback of Notre Dame, it makes perfect sense – a complex, loyal and very human character misunderstood by dint of his physical appearance.

Meanwhile, as part of the preparation for the role of Areqi in Shad Agzaa he watched Youtube videos of real life criminals being arrested by the police.

“The director Hussein El Minabawy showed me this particular video in which an armed fugitive wouldn’t give up his weapons when confronted by the police, and instead began using them on himself. It inspired one of the on-screen scenes, and in fact my character was even wilder and more aggressive than the real life version.”

Along with critical acclaim, rich opportunities as an actor have come with each of these roles. In Zarf Aswad he works in the law office of a highly paid and sophisticated lawyer, played by Salah Abdullah, a miser who likes to test his employees by seeing how low they will stoop – he makes them clean his boots. At first Yasin appears to be a loyal and sympathetic person, making his betrayal later on all the more shocking. “Yasin is educated but not cultured,” Mamdouh explains. “Although he is not developed as a human being, he was an interesting personality to play on screen, opportunistic and without principles. Quite realistic in fact! For that reason it was a challenge I really enjoyed.”

He goes on to tell us, “Sherine’s brother Sayed in Tariqi is in a way simpler. He’s animalistic, an alcoholic gambler looking for sex and who will stop at nothing for his own ends – even cheating his own sister and mother out of money.”

Despite the unpleasant aspects of the character, Mamdouh cites this as his favourite recent role, and one that seems to have caught the popular imagination. “People have come up to me in the street and called me Sayed! The fact is he was actually an intricate and complex individual to play, and writer Tamer Habib worked on him as the series went on, developing his character more and more. Even though he was bad he was weak and eventually admitted his mistakes – in other words he had redeeming features.”

After playing a succession of bad guys in three hard-hitting crime dramas is he worried about type-casting? “Not at all,” he says. “It just so happened that these three parts came along all in one year – a coincidence. But I already had a track record in many other kinds of roles.”

A coincidence? The role in Welad Rizk was offered to him after Tarek El Arian saw him play a police investigator in Far’ Taw’eet, and Mahmoud admits, “in a way it was easy because I’d already done my research and homework on that movie. Of course in Welad Rizk there’s a twist: the police chief who is so intent on pursuing the criminal drug gang turns out to be corrupt and plans to hijack the drugs for himself.”

Although working with El Arian was a draw, Mamdouh stresses that, “It is always the script that will make me choose one movie over another. Even over the director, since two movies can have the same director but one might be better than another because of the quality of the script. In the end the director can only be as good as the material he has to work with.”

“If I have a guilty pleasure it’s the compulsive reading of scripts. I’ll stay up all night sometimes – and even forsake spending time with my fiancée to go to bed with a new script!”

To prepare for a role this is also his starting point; dissecting the dialogue scene by scene to analyse motive in the character.

Mohamed Mamdouh emerged onto the acting scene in the mid1990’s, and has had ample experience in many types of production, including theatre – something he still holds dear. “As recently as 2012, I graduated from the Merkaz El Abdaea theatre workshop, participating in a graduation project that involved producing and acting in the play Ahwa Sada by Khaled Galal. I love the stage but sadly its situation in Egypt is not good. Theatres are run down and the system is not supported by the government. Recently a wonderful production of Alf Leyla w’Leyla was staged almost single-handedly by Yehia El Fakharani, star of the Arabic version of King Lear by Shakespeare. But where is the support, and without such people prepared to put in the effort, where is the future?”

Mamdouh himself, one of the industry’s most reliable character actors, would like to experiment with more diverse roles, including, he says, playing a handicapped person. “Because it would be an interesting challenge.” He is also about to return to old genres. “I’ve just been offered a new movie featuring father and son Farouk and Ahmed El Fishawy. Directed by Ahmed Abdullah the film is called Zombie Goz Omi – and with a title like that, it’s definitely a comedy!”

 

Quick fire questions:

What’s your morning routine?

Well, I never wake up early in the morning, unless I’m filming! But when I do wake up, I call my Mum and Dad and the rest of my family, and I watch the news.

What’s your favourite food?

Molokheya

Your worst habit?

Laziness. I’m not very physically active and I really need to get to the gym more.

Your favourite movie?

The Godfather.

Favourite book?

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Preferred music?

I love Rai.

Best holiday destination?

A quiet beach resort near Hurghada.

What can’t you live without?

My family.

 

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