Arwa Gouda Speaking Candidly
By Francesca Sullivan
The path from modelling to the big screen is a well-worn one in cinema history. From the early days of Hollywood to Oscar-winning A-list stars of today, many models both female and male have successfully made the transition. In the end, though the camera may love a beautiful face, the cinema audience needs more. Egypt’s Arwa Gouda may always be remembered by some for winning “Best Model of the World” not once but twice, but that title is gradually being eclipsed by her rise as a serious actress. Working her way up through a succession of diverse roles in both TV series and movies Arwa is proving to Middle Eastern audiences that she is far more than just a pretty face. Cairo West Magazine caught up with her after a day of intensive shooting on her latest movie.
CWM: Can you tell us about your background and early life?
AG: I lived until the age of eighteen in Saudi Arabia, so in a way that was very much my home. I still miss it! My father was an interpreter and journalist, and together with my mother and sister I was brought up in Jeddah, beside the Red Sea. People who don’t know Saudi Arabia might think it’s not a great place to live, but for me it was a perfect place to grow up in. I attended the French Lycée and then a British school; it was a very cosmopolitan society, and I had far more friends of different nationalities than I would have had here in Egypt.
After leaving school I arrived in Cairo to study marketing at the Maritime Academy for Science and Technology, and everything here was new to me. That was fifteen years ago, before the days of mobile phones, and I was quite cut off, I didn’t know anyone. I missed my friends and family and I was living totally on my own, but my sister and I were raised to be very independent, so although it was a tough time I slowly got used to the way things are in Egypt. In fact I don’t know whether I could imagine life in Saudi Arabia now.
Well, I began modelling when I was only thirteen years old. My mother took me to modelling jobs, usually for upmarket brands like Chanel or Valentino, and most of them were all-woman affairs, so that wasn’t a problem. I was told at the time I was the youngest model in the Middle East. When I got to Egypt, I was sent by an agency in Cairo to a pageant in Turkey, where I won the “Best Model of the World” title. It was all a bit of a surprise. Shortly before, in 2004, I’d just come eighth in a pageant in the Philippines called “Miss Earth”, and they said, “Why not go to the Istanbul competition – at the very least you’ll get a nice few days holiday out of it!”
Did your success as a model help you get work as an actress?
No, I would say in Egypt it’s the opposite: people don’t necessarily take you seriously as an actress starting out if you’ve been a model. The fashion industry is not in any case very well understood here. On the other hand I would say that my experiences in that field, even in beauty pageants, were useful to me as a person. It was character-building and taught me a lot about personal discipline. I’m not the kind of woman who gets up early in the morning to apply make-up and false eyelashes, but in that world you have to be very organized.
My first acting role came through a friend, Nehad Ramzy, who was producing her first movie, El Haya Montaha Al Laz-a, and offered me a small part. I only did a few scenes but it brought me to the attention of directors, and my career just snowballed from there. Since I never formally learned to act at drama school I made sure to enroll for as many workshops and courses as I could. My first ever workshop was with Amr Waked, who was inspirational to me. I’ve also done courses with Ahmed Kamel and Tom Badel, a visiting American acting coach. I also seize opportunities to get together and do improvisation work with other actors whenever possible.
What do you love most and least about acting?
What I love is that you can experience and ‘live through’ things you normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to, you can travel into another century, there’s always variety. Every project has its own magic, and each one I’ve accepted has been for a different reason. For example in Mafeesh Keda it was because I wanted to dance and sing, in many productions I’ve relished the chance to work with great actors or directors, and each and every one of them has taught me something for which I’m grateful. Meeting and getting to work with actors you’ve idolized is amazing, and you can get quite star struck!
I’ve been lucky enough to have some wonderful roles with generous actors such as Ahmed el Saqa, Hind Sabri, Nabile Abayd , Sawsan Badr– a long list. But acting can be a tough job, and it’s emotionally draining. To produce real emotion again and again, take after take, can be exhausting. It’s not as glamorous as people think. There are hours of waiting in between takes, lots of repetition, and I’ve had days when I’ve worked 22 hours straight. My biggest fears come with the judgment of people afterwards. I try to put in as much effort as possible so as not to disappoint an audience.
Well that depends on the character I’m playing. For example when I played a drug addict in Zay Enaharda, I sat with doctors and did quite a bit of research, since it was something outside of my experience. For El Water I spent three months learning to play the cello, since my character was a cellist, and for the TV series Citizen X I had to learn how to ride a chopper motorcycle – which I loved! Doing something physical like that really helps to get inside the character.
What are your most memorable on-set memories?
They would definitely include those scenes with the motorbike. But playing my character in Zay Enaharda was memorable for different reasons; it was a breakthrough movie for me which was like a stepping stone to another level.
Do you feel most comfortable doing drama or comedy?
Drama is much safer and easier. I don’t think of myself as a funny person. Some actors with a talent for comedy can improvise a line in the middle of a scene and crack people up – I could never do that! Comedy is challenging for me.
Would you like to direct one day?
I’d love to – but that would need a lot of study. I’d also love to be a DOP (director of photography). Photography is quite a passion of mine. I love producing abstract images and photographing nature.
What other passions do you have outside of acting?
Singing (but only in English!) Dance, especially Latin and ballroom, and martial arts – I studied capoeira and even fire spinning! And I love camping, in the desert or on the beach.
Which director would be your dream to work with?
Steven Spielberg! All his movies seem to resonate with me. Also Martin Scorsese.
Is it an ambition to work outside the Arab world as an actress?
Not really because I have no connections abroad and wouldn’t know where to start. I would only consider it if I had something already lined up.
Do you have a personal beauty routine, or way to stay in shape?
I make conscious choices to eat healthily most of the time. I choose salads, grilled meat, fresh vegetable juices; it’s become a habit for so long that it’s just the normal way I eat. In terms of exercise I hate the gym, it’s boring. I’ve always preferred to learn a skill to keep my body in shape, such as salsa, horse-riding or martial arts.
What are your favourite places to visit in Cairo?
It sounds corny, but the Pharaonic monuments in Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur. Maybe because I was brought up abroad I have a very strong belief in the importance of Egypt’s Pharaonic identity and I found it really upsetting after the revolution to learn that many of our ancient sites had been damaged or neglected. If you lose your heritage you lose your identity. Taking a felucca on the Nile is another favorite thing to do.
Sinai, the White Desert and the Red Sea; North Coast – anywhere by the beach. The more I travel in Egypt the more I realize I have so much still to see! I love Marsa Alam and Nuweiba for their natural beauty.
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
Well, apart from my mother and father – there have been so many! One of them is Naguib Sawiris. I was impressed by his genuine love for his country and his very down-to-earth personality. Hind Sabri has also been a role model for me, not just as an actress but as a human being. I love her genuine nature and her honesty.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Yes – chocolate!
Well brains of course! Beauty is an asset that eventually fades away; brains carry you further. The thing about attractive people is that once you get used to how they look, it’s what lies beyond that that keeps you interested; their character, intelligence, conversation. Feed your brain and your soul, not your beauty.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Well I like to think of myself as an optimist, though Cairo can drag you down sometimes. When I travel I often come back renewed with energy and ideas, but after a few days back here it can get dissipated in the day to day routines of city life.
Do you have a style icon?
I love the fashions of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, but I’ve never followed any specific person’s style. When it comes to how to dress I don’t believe in following fashion – it’s how you feel on the inside that counts.
What’s the last movie you saw at the cinema?
Sparta at the Imax in 3D. But if you asked me what my favorite movies are, they are all musicals from long ago: Fred Astaire in Zeigfield Follies, The King and I (original version). And I love animation! The Incredibles is my favourite.
What’s your favourite scent?
‘Fifth Avenue’ by Elizabeth Arden, ‘Life Is’ by Bodyshop
Your favourite App?
Sound Hound, which tracks down songs you’re listening to, including their lyrics.
Your definition of happiness?
Being at peace with myself and everything around me.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Be true to yourself and if you have a dream, don’t give up on it for anyone.
What can’t you live without?