Aladdin star Mena Massoud talks Will Smith, Jasmine, and filming 'A Whole New World'
When 27-year-old Canadian actor Mena Massoud got the call that he was going to play Aladdin in Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the 1992 animated Disney classic, he knew his life was about to change drastically, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it.
“I literally found out on a Wednesday and I started on a Friday,” Massoud tells EW. “I had to fly to London to prep and I think that was a blessing in disguise because I didn’t have time to really overthink anything or get in my head about it. To me, it was just one of the biggest opportunities in my career so far.”
Until now, Massoud, who was born in Egypt and moved to Canada when he was 3 years old, has regularly appeared in television series such as Open Heart and, more recently, alongside John Krasinski in Amazon Prime Video’s Jack Ryan show. In Aladdin, Massoud will play the titular beloved street urchin of the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah, who befriends a magical Genie, played by Will Smith, and falls in love with the kingdom’s Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Massoud spent some six to seven months in London working to learn the skills he needed for the role, training hard in singing, dancing, stunt-work, camel-riding and scuba-diving.
“I’m predominately an actor first,” Massoud explained. “I think they spent months and months trying to find a singer/dancer who could act and they decided that they wanted a strong actor who could sing and dance.”
Luckily for Massoud, he said he was able to face the huge task of bringing Aladdin to life alongside co-star Scott, saying the film is the biggest project they’ve both taken on in their careers so far. “I think it’s interesting going on this journey with Naomi because we’re both going on similar journeys together, this being both our big breakthroughs,” he shared.
The actor gave EW a glimpse of how the new film will be different from the animated original and bringing to life Aladdin’s relationships with Genie and Jasmine.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What would you say the biggest differences are from the animated version?
MENA MASSOUD: The biggest difference is that you’re going to be watching real humans go through this journey onscreen. When I was a kid, I started acting by doing voices and I’ve done animation before and I understand the animation world and there’s only so much of yourself that you can lend to something like that; the voice actors in the original are incredible because they help tell us an amazing story, but I think with real humans, getting to look into people’s eyes and see what they’re feeling and go through their journey with them, I think is the biggest difference. We’re really grounding this in realism now.
What is the comedic tone and feel of this film, and how might that differ from 1992’s animated Aladdin?
I don’t think this movie is a comedy by any means, nor do I think it’s a musical by any means; that’s what I’m really excited about in this film, that there’s a good balance of everything and Guy does an incredible job at that. If you watch any of Guy’s films, he has a great balance of comedy and dramatic moments. With the comedy, we have some really funny actors, Will (Smith) is of course notoriously really funny, Nasim (Pedrad, who plays the newly created role of Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden and best friend) is a comedian, she started her career with Saturday Night Live, so if you’re looking for funny, you’re definitely going to get it.
The original animation is funny too, especially with Robin Williams, but again, there’s a difference between animation comedy and seeing real human beings be funny, because the funniness with real humans comes from the awkwardness, not knowing what to say and it’s real emotion you’re seeing, so it makes it a lot more relatable. The dance scene, I hope people relate to that…. a situation being around the girl of their dreams.
You land your first major movie lead role and get paired with Will Smith as the Genie. What did you two discuss about capturing the beautiful friendship between Aladdin and Genie?
Will’s amazing, I couldn’t ask for anyone better, bigger, more generous and more grounded to work with on this, he’s just incredible. He’s not trying to be Robin Williams, he’s doing the ‘what would Will Smith be like if he were Genie?’ We talked through the archetypes of what this relationship is, what it goes from, what it evolves to, and you can see that from Will’s performance. What he does so brilliantly is that he starts out treating Aladdin like he would the 10,000 masters that he’s treated before, and actually it’s a little worse because he’s like ‘who the hell is this kid that’s in this position now?’ — he’s never really had someone as young. But throughout the movie, you see the evolution of their relationship much like you do with Aladdin and Jasmine, and Aladdin and Abu, and Aladdin and Jafar, you get to see all these relationships, which is what I think makes it really special.
What was nice about Will was that the more I got to know him and the more I spent time with him, the stronger naturally our relationships became with our characters. That’s kind of the evolution they go through as well, the evolution we went through as human beings was the journey that the characters go on. They start out not knowing each other and then they get to know each other and start loving each other and care for each other, so it was very organic.
Will’s Genie has been described as part-Fresh Prince, part-Hitch, so is this secretly the Hitch sequel that we’ve all wanted?
If you think about what Hitch does, he’s setting up Kevin James with a girl, so how much more of a comparison do you need? But what Will does in this film that personally I haven’t seen from Will in a while is that he brings it all together really nicely. I would say Hitch meets Fresh Prince meets The Pursuit of Happyness, I think he brings together all the sides of Will Smith that we’ve loved for the past 30 years: being funny, being charming, being a little hard sometimes, being emotional. He does an incredible job in every film that he does but I think he brings it home in this film.
What was it like for you and Naomi to reimagine the iconic “A Whole New World” musical sequence?
It was magical. We weren’t in it to imitate anything from the past, but I think we stayed true to the original and this time around, again, the biggest thing is you’re seeing actors do this now instead of animated characters. It was amazing. We spent a lot of weeks working on it and we knew the importance of that sequence, there’s a lot of balance when you’re doing something like that; the singing, the choreography, we’re up on a 30-foot animatronic machine that moves in any which way and we have to balance on it, but the most important thing was the romantic connection. This is the first time you see these characters really fall in love. I bet people see this and go, “Yep, right there, that’s where they fall in love,” so it was pretty grand.
Back in 1992, Aladdin was one of the very few representations of Middle Eastern culture in mainstream Hollywood, and for the longest time, remained so. There was controversy around some of the portrayals and some of the lyrics were changed in later years. How does this movie tackle the cultural sensitivity issues around the portrayals of Middle Eastern/South Asian worlds?
If there’s one thing I’d say I’m proud about on this film, I’d say the representation we were able to achieve. People talk a lot about Black Panther and it was brilliant (in its) representation and I think African Americans are becoming decently represented in Hollywood. I think Middle Eastern, Asian, Latinx and everyone else that doesn’t really get representation still, that’s something we have to work on as an industry and a community and I’m just really proud of this film for what we were able to achieve. I’m Egyptian-Canadian, Naomi’s English-Indian, Marwan (Kenzari, who plays Jafar) is Tunisian-Dutch, Navid (Negahban, the Sultan) and Nasim are Iranian-American – we’ve covered the whole Middle East with this film, we’ve covered almost every continent of representation with this film, which is rare these days. And the people I just mentioned are playing lead characters, they’re not one-line characters, so from that perspective, I’m really proud to be in a film that represents so many different, ethnically visible cultures and I think it’s great what this film does in that perspective, I think even more so than other films that have come out.
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