Nadia Kounda

High Stepping to Great Stardom

Nadia Kounda captured our attention in Egypt when she was crowned best actress in the first round of El Gouna Film Festival, little did she know that it will be her golden ticket to joining the Egyptian drama marathon this Ramadan. Given her short yet rich journey that is packed with highly acclaimed projects and with an impeccable talent that scored her international awards and recognitions, there is no doubt that the Moroccan beauty is set and ready to slay the Egyptian screen. (in)sight’s Rania Badr got the chance to catch up with the talented star and this is what she told her…

When did you first discover your passion for acting?

At a very young age. I remember admiring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Yet it was Julia Roberts’ charisma and charm that captured my heart to the world of Hollywood glamour. I also had a special admiration for Indian films.  I used to watch them with my friends growing up and they ignited my passion for acting and made me realise that I wanted to do romantic and dramatic projects with a humanitarian message.

How did you score your first role in ‘Tentations’?

I remember when I first saw the casting call on social media. I contacted my friend who wrote this post, and told him I’m interested. He didn’t know I wanted to be an actress, but he was familiar with my skills in entertainment. It was his cousin that was directing this, so I went to the audition, and it was crazy! I had gone to see a film at the theatre right after and while I was buying my ticket, I received a phone call from Mohcine Nadifi, the director, saying that I got the role! He said, “Her name is Nadia, and you are Nadia, so I think no one else could do it better.” I was so excited; I couldn’t even enjoy the film I went to see. This opportunity gave me hope, and it was how it all began for me.

Moroccan cinema is known for presenting bold ideas through its movies. Why do you think ‘L’amante du Rif’ caused such turmoil?

Because for a long time, we have never had such powerful characters as the three protagonists in that film, including the one I played. I believe ‘The Rif Lover’ stirred controversy because a director who has so much power as a feminist made it, and the way she portrayed women’s right to freedom was very well executed. The film juxtaposes men’s liberty to express their sexuality with how women are forced to suppress it. It also shows some mothers, due to their lack of education, participate in perpetuating such negative impacts, and this is something the audience didn’t want to see. Another factor could be the body language used in the film. If our topic is freedom, the actress must have freedom of expression. And as such, I personally chose to use my physical skills to express my character.

‘Volubilis’ was a smashing success, winning several awards in multiple film festivals. Did you expect that to happen?

I wasn’t expecting this. It was already a success to me when I got to work with the amazing director and crew. In Venice Film Festival, I thought I’d only spend a week abroad for this movie, and I ended up staying for a whole year for the awards this movie kept receiving. It was surprising seeing it turn out this huge. It’s like living the dream. We never see the blessings life will gift us; it’s crazy!

How was your experience in the first round of El Gouna Film Festival in comparison to other festivals you have attended?

I knew that my friend, Amir Ramses, would be a part of this festival as a member of the organising crew. He’s extremely intelligent, so I instantly knew that it was going to be quite something because he is a part of it. From the first moment I set foot in the airport, I felt this beautiful energy. People were so professional, friendly and hard working; they were people I loved being surrounded by. A big reason behind its success was that they were very smart with picking the right people to take care of the guests. I can’t forget to metion the amazing people who helped me there; Margret Magdi, Neamat El Sharnoubi and of course the director of the festival Mr Intishal Al Timimi. The crew was simply amazing, and Egypt has its own magic, which made the festival very rich. Also, the screenings at GFF were so amazing: I watched ‘The Square, ‘Scary Mother’, and other great films. I discovered a lot of great Egyptian films, too. The festival just had something very rich in its atmosphere. I was so excited to visit Gouna for the first time, and now after winning Best Actress in the first round, this festival already has a special place in my heart.

You have a short yet very impressive acting resume. Which project do you consider the turning point of your career?

I can’t really name one project; I think all of them gave me the experience I needed at some point, with different things to face –good and bad. But ‘Volubilis’ came when I had just graduated from university. I was still discovering myself and wondering what I’m going to do. I wrote films and I wanted to be a director… I was so upset because I knew I would be compelled to drop acting for a while to focus on my writing; then this film came up with the most beautiful character that I was offered. It was a kind of violent social film, but with a lot of love, sense of humanity, friendship and family. It reminds you of what’s important in life, teaches you how to deal with lows, and inspires you to never give up. I felt empty before this role, and it has left me feeling fulfilled, and in a way, relieved.

Most of your movies revolve around important topics that concern the Arab world. In general, do you think the Arab audience today is more open when it comes to discussing such sensitive cases?

Most directors in Morocco just want to discuss societal problems that their country faces. Living in Morocco and having grown up there, I always want to participate and feel the need to express myself; my roles help me articulate matters I want to defend, and allow me deconstruct any notions I stand against. Our cinema remains at its first steps; before making other kinds of movies, I believe that we have to first discuss deep-rooted issues like sexual educatoin and women’s rights. But as part of the audience, I don’t really enjoy these kinds of films. I prefer social to political films –any art that puts human problems and interpersonal relations like family, friends and lovers a under the spotlight. You know, just the kind of real, deep love that we know very well. This is the kind of genre I enjoy.

You participated in a couple of international projects. How did that help in enriching your career?

I like starring in foreign films because each country works differently, and it’s amazing because even if actors work uniquely in different cultures, I will still be able to impart my own experience as well as my own ways. When I go back to my country, I feel like I’m providing it with new, rich experience that I learned from other actors, advice, or what I watched on my own. Egypt for instance has introduced me to many films and actors, and it gave me experience on a personal and professional level. I’m just the kind of person who loves to learn about cultures firsthand. I have to put my feet somewhere so I can be genuinely interested. I’m very curious; you can take me somewhere tomorrow, and I’ll start researching and learning everything about this country’s culture and cinematography. And of course, you get to work with more than fifty people, so you learn how to focus without being distracted by the language barrier, and this teaches you to be patient, and to find your comfort zone wherever you are.

On what basis do you make your role choices?

For starters, it depends on the director. I always want to work with directors who make me feel comfortable and confident – ones whom I know I can trust. This doesn’t mean I only work with renowned filmmakers, because I do sometimes work with emerging people in the field who are still making their first short films. It has more to do with values, which are very important to me because they’re how I see the world. It’s a life experience. Secondly, I look at the script. I have to believe the story. I have to love not just my character, but to feel like I can love the film as part of the audience. The film has to say something true and have a well-written script because when I read, I can already see the film. Then comes my character; it has to convince me. If I really love the story but doubt my character, I have to discuss my role with the director to make it richer through acting, writing, and adding or deleting parts. And when we arrive at this step, I think it’s already validated by me.

You are starring in your first Egyptian project next Ramadan. What can you tell us about it?

‘Abu Omar Al Masry’, directed by the talented Ahmed Khaled Moussa, produced by Tarek El Ganainy owner of TVision, and starring Ahmed Ezz and Arwa Gouda. The plot
mainly revolves around how people can find themselves at the top, and suddenly hit rock bottom, and how life can play against you unexpectedly. My character, Kenza, is a Moroccan college student who lives in Belgium. She experiences her first crush as she falls in love at first sight with Fakhr (Ahmed Ezz). You see her love story develop from the very beginning until the very end. I love every single detail about Kenza, how she is young, energetic, smart and optimistic. Even the way she dresses and her natural make-up. This is my first time to act with the Egyptian dialect, I had a coach named Farah who helped me a lot, it wasn’t that difficult anyway since I had to keep my Moroccan accent because they found it cute [laughs]. It was also great to see a lot of female members in the crew like Mariam Naoum and the director of photography Nancy Abdel Fatah. I was amazed since the film industry is always restricted for men, but it is good to see that things are changing now. Overall, the production was so impeccable. I loved working with TVision. Tarek El Ganainy and his crew are so professional, and it’s something I’ve been incessantly reiterating since I finished filming with him.

Are you a fan of Egyptian drama and cinema in general?

Yes, I am! Especially old films. I am a big fan of Faten Hamama. I majored in film studies, which means I spent four years watching a lot of these black and white classics and experimental films, where all I would be doing is analysing and criticising them all day long. It’s like water for
me, I cannot live without watching films.

But I’m not the best person to go to the movie theatre with, and my friends always argue with me because they think I take them to see weird films. You could say that I love the kinds of productions that only filmmakers like [laughs]. Of course sometimes, I like to take a break with my family or friends, where we need to just watch commercial love stories. The last Egyptian film I watched was ‘An El Eshq Wel Hawa’ (About Love and Passion), which was recommended to me by a friend. I wanted to watch a film directed by a woman because they talk about sensitive topics that touch me.

Who are your favourite actresses in Egypt?

I love Mona Zaki’s sensibility, delicacy and natural performance. Hend Sabry has also impressively progressed in her career, and I admire her emotional intelligence.

What kind of entertainment interests you as a person?

Films! Can we list going to restaurants as a kind of entertainment? I love eating and trying new food. I enjoy singing and dancing: salsa, oriental, bachata, rock and roll… I love to walk for hours on my own without my phone, it’s something that I really need sometimes. I love cooking when I have the time, and of course I love receiving guests. My best friends are always welcome because I love being surrounded by people. I love travelling, and I do travel a lot!

What do you still aspire to achieve?

I think I’m still just starting. Every step is important, so for now I’m just
working hard. I look forward to directing my own film, and I want to keep starring in good films and increase my chances to work with directors who share the same perception of life as me. I would also love to participate in other Egyptian projects. As for my personal life, I would love to start a big family one day and I have no idea how I’m going to manage that; I’m already 28, so maybe I need to get to it fast [laughs].

What’s next?

I cannot wait to watch ‘Abu Omar Al Masry’ this Ramadan! I’m now working on a cinematic film in Morocco with Adil El Fadili. It’s a film set in the sixties. My character works in the circus; she sings and dances. It’s amazing and very original. I also cannot wait for the summer, and I need to be at the beach! It’s what I’m dreaming of right now.