When EW unveiled the first look at Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin remake in December, there was one star that found unexpected viral attention — Hot Jafar.
Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari became the subject of much Internet thirst as images of him as the villainous Vizier of Agrabah made the rounds online. Kenzari told EW that he became aware of the Hot Jafar sensation while he was on the set of his next film and someone showed him the viral attention he was receiving. “I have to admit, we’re all human beings so it’s always flattering when people show love and I can only be very, very humbly grateful and thankful,” he said (somewhat bashfully).
The Dutch actor, who has starred in Murder on the Orient Express and The Mummy, said he knew that playing Jafar came with its own set of challenges given the devoted fanbase of Disney’s 1992 animated Aladdin, which has become a cinematic classic. “A lot of people have been carrying the cartoon with them in their lives since 1992 so everyone has an idea, a specific view on how to portray these parts or see these parts,” Kenzari said. “My compass, my inner intuitive motivations, and feelings, they always steered me to parts where I have to feel a certain amount of nervousness combined with the excitement.”
Kenzari, 36, plays a younger (and hotter) Jafar, the Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Agrabah in Aladdin, which also stars Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Jasmine, and Will Smith as the Genie. While the film’s plot closely resembles the animated classic, it also fleshes out certain characters such as Jafar and introduces new story elements that subtly change where the movie ends.
As Aladdin finally hits theaters on Friday, Kenzari told EW how he put his own stamp on the iconic Disney villain, his thoughts on Jafar’s feelings for Jasmine, and most importantly, how he feels about being Hot Jafar.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s more backstory to why Jafar does the things that he does in this iteration of Aladdin, so I felt he was more of a 3-dimensional and perhaps more sympathetic character than in the animated film. Was it important for you that he was rounded out more and that there was proper reasoning behind his actions?
MARWAN KENZARI: First of all, it’s very important for me that when you start working on a project like this one, as I said, I grew up with this character of Jafar and the entire story so you cannot copy, you shouldn’t copy what the character in the cartoon is like, because that’s not interesting — at least that would be my opinion. I don’t think that’s an interesting intake to just copy something that has been made. And second of all, I look different, I sound different … you want to use what you have and therefore I simply strived together with Guy and the rest of the team to create a character that is dark and very rigid, very feverish in his ambitions, and that is the direction that I wanted to go to with Jafar. The ambition is so big that it becomes dangerous — blind ambition, I guess that’s what it is.
There’s a moment in the film when Jafar has the lamp and he calls the Sultan “baba” — quite often in Eastern cultures, the term “baba” is used as a sign of respect for your elders but it made me curious about how you viewed Jafar’s relationship with the Sultan. Does he see the Sultan as a father figure?
Oh definitely. In my imagination, the character Jafar was picked up, as he mentions himself to Aladdin. That he once was a street thief like Aladdin and I think his mentor might have been the Sultan as he was growing up, and I think, for instance, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Othello but the way Iago — an interesting detail that character’s name is Iago — starts poisoning Othello’s ear and that’s because of jealousy and I think jealousy might be a motivation for Jafar as well. I think there’s a fine line between having someone as a mentor and at the right moment taking over the mentor’s place, replacing the alpha wolf, so I think definitely there’s a relationship there between the Sultan and Jafar, it’s just that the blind ambition became too big and that’s why it developed the way that it did.
There’s a scene where Jafar sits with Aladdin outside of the Cave of Wonders and tells Aladdin that they both have similar backgrounds and were raised in poverty, but that Jafar’s ambition was bigger [see the image at the bottom of this story]. Why was that moment important to show Jafar trying to convince Aladdin with their compelling shared background?
That was a very beautiful location that we were at, which was the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. The way we’re sitting in that specific scene and the way that Jafar looks out over the entire land and literally sees the horizon, and as we were doing the scene, that was exactly what happened, there was a calmness that came into that scene because of the location that surrounded us and I think that created an energy in the both of us, everything became intimate. My wish for that scene was to create an intimate scene where we basically say, “Alright, let’s stop for a second and let’s just have a chat, you and me, and then I’ll try to explain to you why I chose you and I’ll explain to you what can become of you if you listen to me, someone who was like you.”
So I think that’s an important theme in the movie when it comes to Jafar’s character. You see him slightly more intimate there, and that is what I like about it. Since we’re talking about very primary colors coming from the fact that it’s a fairytale, Jafar might come across as stiff and cranky and only someone who is after one thing, but its those scenes where I tried to bring something in it together with Guy, that would show a different side of him compared to the big scenes where he does really want one thing, and that is the lamp.
It’s interesting that Aladdin, Jasmine, and Jafar are all connected by the same thread in that they’re all trying to escape the confines of what they were born into, and that felt very clear in this film compared to the animated version.
The animated version has its wonderful aspects and now, 27 years later, you want to address different things. For instance, for me, one of the highlights of the movie, apart from the fact that I really, really love Will playing the Genie, is Jasmine’s song “Speechless” and the way she performed it and that is such a strong element to this version compared to the cartoon version. That has a different energy and different reasons for why we would say that is a magical fairytale.
Regarding Jasmine, it is Jafar in this film who constantly reminds the princess what he considers her place to be and what the traditions of the realm are, that it’s better for her to be seen and not heard, which incidentally sparks her fire for her solo song. What did you read into Jafar and Jasmine’s relationship?
I was always interested in Jafar’s feelings for Jasmine, and as I was reading this script, I was wondering how far we could take that. In my imagination, apart from the fact that he sees and he feels threatened by her Sultan-esque qualities that she’s developing throughout the movie, he’s not only seeing his power drifting away but he’s also seeing the way she’s developing herself into becoming the next Sultan. But there’s a specific reason why Jafar says “I want to marry your daughter,” and in my imagination, I would see a sequel to this film where you would see Jafar’s real motivation, that would be the love for Jasmine or something in that direction. I definitely do think that apart from the power, he has his own strange way of feeling very much attracted to Jasmine but that simply the first thing that he needs and wants is the power.
So when EW debuted the first look at Aladdin back in December, it was Hot Jafar that became a viral sensation. How did you feel being Hot Jafar?
[Laughs] I remember the first time that popped up on the internet, I was doing a night shoot on a different movie and someone was tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Hey. have you seen this?” I have to admit, we’re all human beings so it’s always flattering when people show love and you can only be very, very humbly grateful and thankful for the way people see you. I obviously understand the fact that when I got the part that, as I said before, I’m a lot younger than the other Jafar, and although I think he has a beautiful face in the cartoon, I was very happy obviously for different reasons the fact that they cast me in the film and also because I think it’s an interesting intake to bring a young, ambitious Jafar. In terms of the Hot Jafar wave, I thank all the fans and all the people that created that. I was pleased with it, it was certainly flattering.
Does it give you extra credibility amongst your friends that you are now a Disney pin-up?
Oh, I have friends who changed my name in their phones to Hot Jafar, so they tease me with that and that’s what they call me now. I see it as a compliment, I really do.
The other thing I enjoyed was Jafar’s laugh — I always think that doing an evil laugh must be so much fun, tell me about that classic evil laugh you got to create with Jafar.
It is a lot of fun! It’s funny that you say that, when we shot that sequences where I become the greatest sorcerer of all time for Jafar’s last wish, there’s a bit of a wind that comes and takes over that scene and he becomes that huge, incredibly scary sorcerer, and as we were doing that on stage with wind machines, it was a lot of fun because I had to bring that laugh, and laughing on film or on stage can actually be quite difficult, but here it came quite natural. It’s a funny thing, you need to sort of listen to the music that you can create in your voice with an evil laugh, it’s interesting and a lot of fun to do it. I will never forget Jack Nicholson’s laugh in Batman [as the Joker]. There are a couple of very iconic villain laughs that reminded me on that day how fun it is to do that.
There’s another one as well when Jafar rubs the lamp for the first time and the Genie comes out, he has a laugh that is almost feverish, a laugh that reminds you of his insanity in a way.
You’re Dutch and of Tunisian descent. What did it mean for you to be able to tell this story as someone who represents the people of color [from the Middle East and South Asia] that the story of Aladdin reflects?
Well, I mean I’m very proud of where I come from, both Tunisia where my parents are from and the Netherlands where I would consider myself to be from, I’ve always looked as acting and casting in a way that would allow the imagination to do its work. In my imagination, anyone from all over the world is allowed or can be Othello or play Hamlet. So, therefore, I think Disney has created a beautiful combination of actors from all over the world to create this story, it’s a beautiful fairytale coming from the Middle East and I think one has to honor that world with all its mysteries and all its beautiful fairytale-like aspects, so hopefully that is visible in the movie. I think in terms of casting, you can go a lot of directions, but in the end, it’s very intricate how a production gets to a certain person in the end. I guess it’s just the way the wind takes it, which might be a bit of a cryptic thing to say, but I think this is also a celebration of that beautiful Middle Eastern world.
What projects do you have lined up for yourself and has playing Jafar opened up new opportunities that you’re excited to pursue?
Oh definitely, I just came off of a very special production that we’ve shot in Indonesia, a beautiful and very important Dutch movie [De Oost] about very difficult phase and period of time in Indonesia in 1946 and I made that film with one of my best friends [Jim Taihuttu]. This is our third collaboration after Wolf in 2012 and [Rabat] that we made in 2010. I’m about to start production on a Netflix job that I’m very pleased with, I don’t think it has come out yet so I think that’s something we’ll hear about in the next couple of weeks, so yeah, I’m excited about these projects.
It sounds like you’re working on an interesting array of projects.
Yeah, it’s nice to be very diverse and I don’t mean that in a way — it’s also very nice to do stuff that looks a bit alike, but I always enjoy doing things that are completely different to what you’ve done before and the profoundness of certain parts is really interesting. But I enjoy it all.
It was really fun to watch you in Aladdin and I hope you enjoy being Hot Jafar now.
I do, I do! [Laughs, but not evil-Jafar laugh] I think my mum is proud of it! I thank everyone for bringing the positivity and good energy. Make your mama proud, that’s the most important thing!