Hesham Selim

Once an Icon, Always an Icon

One of the most admired and recognised actors of his generation, Hesham Selim’s acting journey has begun at a young age and continues to shine at its zenith until today. From dominating the stage in the most popular of theatre productions in his youth, to handpicking anomalous roles in promising TV hits that prove ingenious; Selim’s excellent performance and unique individuality easily capture the hearts of Egyptians. The inspirational actor gives (in)sight’s Rania Badr a sneak peek on his lead and guest starring roles this Ramadan, opens up to us about his absence from films, and drops a little advice on how to help get Egyptian cinema back on its feet.

You’re starring in two series this Ramadan. Could you tell us more about them?

I co-star as a lead actor with Nelly Karim and Tyson (Mohamed Mamdouh) in ‘Ekhtefaa’ (Disappearance), a suspense thriller written by Ayman Medhat and directed by Ahmed Medhat. I guest star in the Youssra series ‘Ladyna Akwal Okhra’ (We have Other Sayings), and you’ll also see me with Amr Youssef in ‘Tayea’, as a guest star as well.

Do you usually work on more than one role simultaneously?

If it’s a lead role, I won’t be able to, as it needs my utmost attention. But if it’s just guest starring that requires a couple of scenes, or even ten, that’s nowhere near as stressful as lead acting.

What attracted you to these three projects?

The highlight this year is the Ayman Medhat and Ahmed Medhat production. I also starred in their work last year ‘Bein Alamein’ (Between Two Worlds), which was a great success. Ahmed Medhat did an incredible job and Ayman Medhat wrote a marvelous scenario. The staff that Ahmed picks are always very professional and decent. He’s not someone that concerns himself with the length of the scene; even if it’s short, it has to be perfected. As for the other two projects, when someone like Youssra and another dear colleague of mine ask me for such a favour, I cannot help but do it. Perhaps I don’t really have to, but if it’s for people that I trust and admire, why not?

How do you evaluate the scene in Ramadan?

What usually happens in Ramadan is preposterous. Airing up to fifty or sixty series at the same time… I cannot fathom how someone could be able to watch them all. This especially goes for good series that star the same celebrities as other shows that air simultaneously. I don’t know how the audience could keep up with that actor, and be able to feel the scene and take in what the actor is saying without feeling confused. It wasn’t always like this, but unfortunately it’s now a trend and the press validates it, so everyone is just going along with it. We’re still searching for ways to resolve this, but I say just end it the same way that you started it – simple as that.

Though the number of Ramadan series does decrease every year…

And it will keep on decreasing, especially that this year the broadcast satellite system has finally fixed tariffs on buying TV series. The problem lies in following a corrupt pattern: we start the process of production with seven to ten episodes without calculating potential costs first. I really don’t understand how the producer could agree to work without first familiarising himself with the budget. Producers should always estimate the number of days of shooting, who’s travelling, who’s staying, how long we’re going to stay abroad, where we are going to stay, how much the whole series is going to cost – in order to approximate the overall budget. I personally view it as a risk. I see that every producer who follows this unpractical pattern next year will end up with subpar productions, and will inevitably face loss, which will be met by a further decline in the number of Ramadan series.

In your opinion, who is the winner and who is the loser when the cost of the series is reduced?  

I believe that the winners are the actors and producers as long as rules are followed, if they aren’t, everyone is going to lose. It’s a logical pattern: as long as we’re organised, good work will be the outcome. If not, everyone will face loss. Everything has to be set straight from the beginning and put on paper, so that everything is clear to everyone involved.

Would this not decrease the quality of the series?

On the contrary. We have all seen many series with huge stars who demand upwards of thirty million, and the productions in the end do not succeed; then the following year, we find that their wages have become higher… that’s something that needs to be addressed, and it shouldn’t be allowed. This decision will allow producers to work with reasonable prices. I believe that thirty million is an outrageous price tag; from seven to ten works great, and would satisfy anyone for a year – that is if anyone can even spend ten million in a year. I have never demanded such an absurd amount of money.

It was risky to air ‘Between Two Worlds’ during Ramadan, yet it was a huge success. Do you think this proves that some productions could see success outside Ramadan season?

It does, even if we take marketing, publicity, promo, banners or anything that falls in the same category out of the equation. It would have to succeed, not just because it’s an original story excellently executed with great efforts and talented actors; but because it’s a new production airing at a separate time – away from the seventy other series we see in Ramadan, some of which fall through the cracks. It’s quite logical for it to succeed, actually. Why not produce ten series in Ramadan, where each station could air one series, and throughout the rest of the year, they could air the rest? This way, whichever demographic the series targets will watch it. When it comes to costs, I think advertisements should be charged more than the low prices they’re currently airing for. And I think they should be put on the higher end of the going rate if they choose to air during promos of good series, or when a channel is generally known to air popular shows. This will actually increase the number of commercials because clients could be guaranteed that they’re promoting their product on a well-viewed channel; whereas the audience wouldn’t mind watching quality commercials that promote good brands.

Producers are finally starting to air their series outside Ramadan season, and successfully so. What else is left for everything to be set straight?

I don’t honestly know. I’m not that  their works. Names of talented directors, alongside actors, will start to matter the way they used to.

Who grabs your attention at the moment in the industry?

I think generally, in the past two years, we have seen the quality of cinematography and stories improve, but we still have a long way to go.

Why have you been away from cinema for a long time?

Ask the producers! Some of the scripts I’ve been offered are just weird and of odd quality. One time, I was offered a role of a prince in the middle ages –or something of that sort– I remember one of the characters would just blurt out strange lines and do random acts, which required me in one of the scenes to throw a flip-fop at someone’s face…I don’t think that’s a common sight in the middle ages.

Do you think the new methods adopted in television affects cinema, or are they moving in different directions?

I believe that the cinema has been on the decline for a while, along with the general taste of the audience who now show more interest in stars and less in the content of productions. Our cinema focuses on depicting the less flattering sides of our cultural reality, with the common excuse of “well that’s just what happens out on our streets!” If all Hollywood did was portray what happened on their streets, we wouldn’t be so keen to watch their films, and they have much more atrocious sights than we do. What people don’t understand is that art is classy. Cinematic “reality” should be nothing like that. Common language wasn’t always like this, and this doesn’t just apply to cinemas, but also commentaries of many kinds on television: sports commentators and even television presenters have normalised informal language. During a match, we could commonly hear foul language that shouldn’t be used publicly. Another strange phenomenon I noticed is how most actors in Egyptian series pepper a little English in their speech, even if their lines don’t necessarily require this. I’m not really sure why they do this; is it because they want to signify they’re bilingual, or did they really just fail to find a synonym in Arabic? We’re losing our identity and our language. I think preserving language is essential, because if you lose your language, you lose yourself.

Does that mean you’re against highlighting reality in our productions?

Art should definitely portray reality, but neatly. If we want the version of reality we now see on television to be adopted in households that’s one thing; but if we depict a proper domestic reality and work on normalising it then that’s the right way to do it. We could put it this way: If you treat members of your household with respect and want to impart these ways to common people, then this needs to be regulated; but if you want your household to speak in street language, then keep up with what’s going on.

Are you satisfied with the last season of ‘Lyaly El Helmeya’ (El Helmeya Nights)?

I can’t be dissatisfied, though it involved a lot of pressure for me to do it. ‘El Hemeya Nights’ is based on historical events, and it shows you what happened to society as a result of said events. Why can’t we start doing this every 10 years? Directors and authors could show us our reality, and what social changes have taken place as a result of political events. When I signed for the series, I was scared of something and it happened: ‘El Helmeya’ was based on a certain era famous for its values and norms, and after seeing the last season, and seeing the reality we live in now, we unintentionally hated it because the truth of how much things have changed hurts. But that was a normal part of the process, and I think it’s why it succeeded; we had to hate this season because it shows a lot of our flaws.

You did some TV hosting. What did it add to your experience?

It’s not something I did because I wanted to, I was just looking for work back then. There came a time when no one remembered me. I learnt that even if I did go through some self-doubt of whether or not I was a good actor, or if perhaps I just couldn’t deal with people in the business well, I still have to find something else that I love doing. I was offered ‘Sprinklers’. I met with the crew, and they complimented me and my reputation. They told me how much they admired that I held no bias, which is what they were looking for – someone who wasn’t already fit in a particular frame. I liked how everything sounded until I later found out that I was hosting a political program, and it’s just not me at all. After the first six months, which my contract stated, I simply told them I did not wish to renew it, to which they disagreed saying that I only dislike it because it’s a first step to something new. They persuaded me to try another six months, and I only agreed out of obligation. After the contract expired, I tried to leave again, but they asked me to stay until I found a replacement. They were so decent with me, but I unfortunately did not find it representative of who I am because it’s political and that’s not an area I enjoy.

If you have another television program offer, but of a different genre, would you do it? What kind of standards would compel you?

Maybe so, but I’d need to know every detail ahead of starting. As for the standards, all I want is to help improve something that people are interested in. I don’t have a certain vision beyond that.

Let’s talk about the ‘Theatrical Professions Syndicate.’ Why did you join it and what made you leave it behind?

I thought that I could make a difference through it, but it turned out to be nonsense, so I left. Everything there needs to see a change. Unfortunately, it’s all done in favour of certain people. The rules are just not clear, as if they’re specially constructed to cater to a certain someone. The idea of having an objective wrong and an objective right to be applied to everyone just doesn’t exist.

You have had a long journey, when you look back at it, how do you view it? And if you could change anything within it, would you?

I see that I love this profession, endured through its thick and thin, and passed through its dark times. I learnt that some people suddenly shine and become mega stars, while others spend many years trying to reach half what those stars achieved, but fail to. This journey is something I cherish, along with how I managed to face its problems, and I’m happy to still be around despite anyone who didn’t want me to be. When it comes to change, I know I cannot do this alone. For me to make a significant difference, the whole country has to agree to move in the same direction in the biggest and smallest details, but I currently only see personal interest prevailing.