Mohamed Farrag

Egypt’s State-of-the-Art Star

Social dramas, action, romance – you name it; Mohamed Farrag has done it all! The diversity of his roles have ranged from the humorous sidekick, to the kind of bad boy we’re all guilty of falling for. Farrag’s roles never fail to impress when it comes to excellent performance and spontaneity, where his charisma and spirit are always prominent. A devoted and skilful artist, the talented Farrag talks to (in)sight’s Rania Badr about his journey in entertainment, contemporary taste in art, and the TV series he’s starring in this Ramadan. 

You have worked in cinema, theatre and television. Which is closest to your heart?

Each gives you a distinct kind of pleasure and has its own work mechanism. In all three, you’re working hard while also trying to have fun. My career began in the theatre, and all these years on stage have given me the experience and charismatic skills that have later helped me in cinema and television. I have been away from the stage for a while, and it upsets me because it’s only theatre that allows you to completely dominate your own performance, which does not usually happen in cinema or on television screens. There have been attempts for drama revival, but the problem that we face is that the audience is not quite interested because contemporary taste and culture have changed. If you look back at the seventies, you’ll find that both cinema and the theatre were of equal importance before the evolution of the former. Audiences showed interest in both forms of art – take Fouad El Mohandes’ works for instance. The theatre of that era was legendary, with refined scripts and talented stars that presented the same quality you’d find abroad. Stars in that era did not only excel in acting, but in writing, music, painting, poetry, and other fields. The general taste of the epoch was refined, along with the way they spoke and how they dressed. You can evaluate a culture using a myriad of methods, most importantly through prevalent art forms. Back in the day, art was both classy and entertaining, which is why the populace remained interested. With time, globalisation has led the prominence of these talents to see a decline, and this was met by an increase in a variety of other tastes that are not even ours. Fast-paced music like ‘mahraganat’ (festival music) and commercial movies that now dominate the scene reflect how much contemporary taste has changed. This is also why when someone presents anything well-executed, the audience is always over-impressed; they can just relatively feel the difference.

On what basis do you pick your roles?

Based on the character I’ll play, the script and the story. Also, whether my character is similar to anything I have taken up before, even though the story might be really interesting, it wouldn’t add as much to my experience unless it was something I haven’t done before. Of course, the crew is very important. This includes a kind of director who can be my backbone. It doesn’t matter if he’s still unknown or already renowned; I care about efficiency and perspective. I prefer to work with a cast that I love, and if they’re people that I’m working with for the first time, I want to make sure I’ll feel comfortable around them because it makes a difference in the outcome. Generally, any role that is either offered to me, or one that I create myself, has to be original as well as something I haven’t already taken up.

It’s very obvious that the weight of the role is not your priority. We see you guest starring in major movies or series…

The project isn’t mine, but the scene is. Even when I was just starting out, I would stick to my standards and be selective. I wouldn’t want to pick something that would just place me in second to someone else, or repeat a hackneyed role that’s been done multiple times before. I always handpick original roles because I love being one step ahead. It’s not just a matter of finding work, and this is why you haven’t seen me in any films for a while. I love television, but I filter out film offers depending on whether or not they interest me. I don’t just want good roles, I want the best roles. It has to be challenging as well as different. Those are, of course, my own standards; but I believe that the way this all turns out and the success it sees is in the hands of God and the audience.

There’s a series called ‘Thahab Bela Awda’ (Leaving with No Return), which we heard has been postponed.

That series is based on a true biographical story, and its execution is very original and eccentric. It has already been a topic in the ‘70s film ‘El Soud Ela Al Hawiya’ (Climbing to the Bottom) starring Mahmoud Yassin. The series tells the biography of the spy, Heba Selim. Everyone in Egypt knows the stories of Raafat El Haggan and Gomaa El Shawal like the back of their hands, but no one really knows much about Heba Selim, Farouk El Fikky and Refaat Gebril, while they are just as important in the history of the Egyptian military and secret intelligence.

You are going to play a role of a historical figure. How do you prepare for such a part?

It’s the kind of role that has you doing the work; you have to bring the character to life; but at the same time, when you have a reference, it becomes more challenging. It’s way easier when there’s no reference because then I can become the reference. It limits how far I can go with my own imagination and whether I could add a substantial touch to it as much as I could with other kinds of roles. I try as much as possible to study my part so I can better embody it. But when your role is someone everyone knows, you have to impersonate them, the way they walk, talk, and react. Despite the limitations, I still manage to add my own spirit to the character so as to be remembered for it.

Why do you think biographical works are more controversial?

Because people know whom it’s about, so they’re bound to compare. If I take up the role of Hitler and walk out on the stage, clearly people already know him, so either they’ll applaud my accurate depiction or throw tomatoes at me. The character is within you the entire time, you just have to try to push it to the surface until you completely embody the person. The efficiency of an actor relies on his ability to separate between the role and his own personality. You have to believe what you’re doing before you expect people to believe it.

You starred in two series last Ramadan. How do you make time for both?

It’s very hectic to a large extent. I am not the type of person who enjoys running from one location to the other. So I try as much as possible to concentrate on only one project. It’s not always two Ramadan series; depending on the circumstances, it can also be two films, and that requires more effort. I recently started thinking of it in terms of, “why not?” I try to present something new and welcome the challenge of working on two different roles. Last year, I signed for ‘El Hosan El Eswed’ (The Black Horse), before director Tamer Mohsen offered me a role for ‘Hatha Al Masaa’ (This Evening). I really admire Tamer Mohsen and I have worked with him consistently on many projects including ‘Bedoon Zikr Asmaa’ (Anonymously), ‘Taht El Saytara’ (Under Control), the film ‘Ot We Far’ (A Cat and A Mouse) and last year’s ‘This Evening’. It was challenging working on ‘This Evening’ and ‘The Black Horse’ simultaneously. Let me tell you how this happened: I had already started shooting ‘The Black Horse’ before Tamer Mohsen approached me with this ingenious script. It was so tempting, and I thought at the back of my head, “Where the heck have you been a month ago?” But I just couldn’t turn down a work by Tamer Mohsen because he’s truly unique. He has a very beautiful perspective, and you can feel his spirit in his works. What I love about his works the most is that they accurately reflect reality. He insisted on having me as part of his crew, but at the same time said he’d understand because he knew I already had an obligation with ‘The Black Horse.’ We are very close friends, so I couldn’t say no when he told me about the story line. Out of the trio in the series, I chose Sony, which was the smallest role. The series is quite shocking and raises awareness. We were very lucky, too, with how well the casting of the series went. Hanan Motawie had two other series other than ‘This Evening’ to work on; Ahmed Dawood and Arwa Gouda were also preoccupied, but it all went our way at the end. It was a very arduous process because the casting of the most crucial roles were not yet decided. But none of that stress affected me; I was just so excited to have fun with Mohsen and to have landed to the role of the bad guy.

Do you think that ‘The Black Horse’ was not done justice last Ramadan?

Not at all, it was very well-marketed and received many views.

How does it feel when people are giving you feedback on the first episodes while you’re still shooting the rest?

Someone could be watching episode 20 on the 20th of Ramadan, while I’m still shooting a scene for tomorrow’s episode. That’s how it is now because Ramadan starts eleven days earlier each year, and that’s nearly equivalent to two months of work. So it’s quite normal now for the last day of shooting to be on the 27th or 28th of the month. Out of all the series I worked on, the only one that was ready before Ramadan was ‘Sharbat Louz’, and even that was only three days early. The whole thing is very physically and mentally tiring. We don’t sleep, we don’t go home, and the crew members don’t see their children. Imagine being unable to see your family because you have to finish shooting…it all compels us to overwork ourselves, which can be very exhausting.

How do you view the entertainment or media scene now?

There is progress, though not yet huge because transition takes time, but it’s visible. There is change, improvement and development in the industry as a whole; and the variety of genres we see now would attest to this improvement. There are still a few setbacks though; for instance, we don’t have enough dramas with social undertones of romance and humanity. I’m not saying we need to stop producing action and comedy genres, but there has to be a balance. Just like people want to laugh, they want to think, love and experience different emotions. Cinema is very important because it brings people closer; you can change entire societies through film, and to take this fact lightly and continue to produce the kind of low-quality films that only cater to making profit is quite upsetting and unfortunately not uncommon these days. With all due respect to filmmakers of commercial works, there’s a lot of room for cinematic improvement in that area. We need to see more colours of reality that range from social, humane, and romantic productions to action flicks. Just like we produce the kind of comedy that can draw smiles on people’s faces, we need to be educated enough in cinematography to execute an action scene that can impress; we also need to make social dramas with heartfelt stories that go deep inside the relationships of the protagonist household. We don’t have to focus on only one category when there’s plenty of topics to discuss.

What do we need now? What are we missing?

We need awareness. When we did ‘Hepta’, it was rendered into a purely romance film. You expect that in today’s society this kind of genre would garner such a huge profit? Not a chance, yet it did. People seem to only crave commercial productions. Commercial action flicks can be labelled as fast food; their consumption isn’t harmful only when

taken in moderation. It’s only every two or three years that we get to see something different, despite having so much potential. That said, the last few years have witnessed some of the best works of television and film productions with impressively modern cinematography, and this proves that some Egyptians have the ability to excel and come up with amazing productions…namely adapted novels that have been made into dramas, and the excellent performances included in these. We also used to make historical films back in the sixties and seventies, and this doesn’t really happen anymore even though we have the potential to make them. Why have we become so lazy that we cannot dig for something different to offer to the audience? There is a relationship between the actor and the audience: the more the taste of the audience escalates, the better quality productions you will see; and the more diversity you offer to the people, the more different preferences you will find.

Do you believe that the audience is ready to see unconventional content?

Yes, why not? We need to try and stop assuming the answer is no. Hepta is not a conventional commercial film, and it was a major success, even though it was a romance. I think our problem is that we underestimate the mind-sets of the audience, while we could very well make use of that and offer something fresh. When you take such a risk, the surprise itself will interest people; and if it doesn’t succeed, we’ll still respect their feedback as well as the fact that we at least tried. The audience has different preferences, so there’s always someone who will like it. We have to get out of our comfort zone.

Would you take such a risk?

Of course, and I’m currently doing so. If you can’t find your colour, create it.

Would you consider another field?

Maybe, but it’s not something I can see coming at the time being. I still have a lot to give in this field, so I don’t know, but perhaps.