10 Things with Amin El Gamal
Being the son of Egyptian parents, what made you decide to be an actor in Hollywood?
Immigrants generally don’t encourage their children to go into the arts, let alone acting – and I totally get why. My family came to the U.S. to escape an oppressive political climate, but also to seek greater opportunities and stability. So, to see your kid go into something like acting, which is a rather demoralizing endeavor with zero stability, can make them feel like their sacrifices for a better life have been made in vain.
However, while many Arab Americans pressure their kids to go into more standard professions, they still complain when they feel like their voices aren’t being heard or when they are depicted negatively in the media. Until we encourage our youth to pursue the arts or media, we can’t really expect that to change. This is a major shift that needs to happen in our communities. I’m lucky that I have parents who’ve come to respect my passion and have ultimately been supportive.
So, I think my reason for acting is to become a positive voice for Arab/Muslim Americans and queer people of color, and to help ensure that no kid is made to feel ugly or invisible just because they’re “different.” I’m doing this to represent.
Who has influenced you as a performer?
My grandma Salwa Abaza Eltorai is hands down one of my biggest influences. She was briefly a child actress and appeared in a film opposite the legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum. Acting was considered a dishonorable profession at the time and she wasn’t able to pursue it beyond that, but she certainly was a performer in nearly every other aspect of her life. She always had a tale to tell – be it something from Gulliver’s Travels or stories about the nosey eunuch who used to babysit her, when she was a child. I learned a lot about comedy from her too. She once even taught me the nine different ways to say fart in colloquial Arabic! She was truly one of a kind.
You’re a classically trained theatre actor and you have degrees from Stanford and USC. Do you think that pedigree has helped you develop a natural way of acting in front of the camera?
Stanford helped me gain a critical understanding of the power of storytelling. I sort of “got woke” there and learned how representation can influence policy and impact of our lives. At USC, I learned how to harness my own power to tell a story.
Most programs use theatre as the basis for training and it does take a little time to adjust to on-camera work when you first come out of school. That said, it’s all coming from the same source, it’s just a matter of scale.
You portrayed the character Apep in the season finale of The Librarians on TNT and had the privilege of working alongside Vanessa Williams and Rebecca Romijn. What was your experience like being on set with them?
It was surreal at first. I used to obsessively collect issues of People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly when I was growing up, and Vanessa Williams and Rebecca Romijn were all up in those magazines.
But after the like “wow, what is my life?!” feeling, I got to know them a bit and it was a blast. Vanessa met her husband in Egypt and even performed for Mubarak back in the day. She even had a stunning Egyptian themed wedding. So, we connected right away.
Rebecca has a marvelous sense of humor. We bonded over the fact that we’re both from Northern California and I even got to meet her kids and her husband Jerry. They are such a delightful and down-to-earth family – it was reassuring to see that this can exist in Hollywood.
Let’s talk about the sequel of Prison Break on FOX. When the show first came out, it was such a huge hit. How did you first hear about the series and what made you want to be a part of it?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t really watched the show before I auditioned. The original series was on while I was in college and I guess I was too busy rehearsing some absurdist play or something. Once I did catch up, I loved how complex all the characters are. Like almost no one in the Prison Break world is a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” they all have many layers and even when they do awful things, you root for them somehow. When I got the part, I was really excited to take on the challenge of living up to that.
On the series, you play the role of Cyclops. What is your character like and what did you enjoy most about playing him on screen?
Cyclops is a really broken, yearning young man who goes to unspeakable extremes to find a sense of belonging and worth. The character is loosely based on the greek mythological monster of the same name. So, the audience is set up for a monster archetype – someone you might dismiss as “evil.” My hope is that my portrayal brings more nuance beyond being just another bad Arab dude on TV.
My favorite part of the process was also probably the most difficult one for me. I have a few elaborate fights in the show and I am built like a baby giraffe, so coordination is not my forte. I worked very closely with the stunt coordinator and took a lot of time to get the fights right. From what I’ve seen, it all looks pretty badass and I’m super proud of that.
Part of the show was shot in Morocco. How did you guys spend your downtime?
We shot in a town called Ouarzazate – it’s known as “the gateway to the desert,” where the Atlas Mountains meet the Sahara Desert. So, there’s all manner of gorgeous mountains and layered canyons and lots of sandy bits too. It’s also a fairly common location – I believe Lawrence of Arabia was the first film shot there.
When we weren’t shooting, we’d congregate around the pool at our hotel and eat obscene amounts of couscous and anything you could cook in a tagine. Some of the more insane among us went out into the desert to ride quad bikes. We visited casbahs and bought rugs, but my favorite spot was this shack down the road that made fresh juice. I went there almost every day and got a drink that was made entirely of kiwi, avocado and melon. It was tastier than any of the like twelve dollar juices you can get in L.A. and it was a fraction of the price.
What can fans expect to see from this new season of Prison Break?
It takes place almost in real time, so not right after the ending of the last installment, but as if we’re catching up with the Scofield brothers right now. You can definitely expect the return of many of your favorite characters, though they’ve all evolved in some way since you last saw them. You will also be introduced to quite a few new characters played by some stellar younger actors.
It definitely feels like the same show, but expanded on an epic, international scale. There will be lots of action and some crazy plot twists, of course. Fans won’t be disappointed and I think people unfamiliar with Prison Break will dig it too. That’s all I can say!
When it comes to fashion, who are some of your favorite designers and what style of clothes appeal to you the most?
I’m sort of a DIY guy when it comes to fashion. I love going to thrift stores and finding a dope item for like three dollars. Right now, I’m wearing a mesh tank top from Topman, a striped thrift store cardigan (probably previously owned by a grandma), super skinny yellow jeans, and sickeningly shiny silver high tops.
We look forward to seeing you in Prison Break. What other projects do you have coming up?
I have a supporting role in the film Namour, which is coming to select theatres and Netflix on March 15. It’s a rare film that centers Arab Americans in a really relatable and visually cool way. As an Arab American actor, you get sick of having to put on an accent and wield a machine gun, so it was a treat to play an ordinary, deadbeat dude. It’s the debut of filmmaker Heidi Saman. She’s also Egyptian American and, in my opinion, a total genius.
I’m also in another, very different film called Message from the King. It’s a dark thriller helmed by visionary Belgian director Fabrice du Welz and stars Chadwick Boseman. In it, I play Alfred Molia’s gender non-confirming housekeeper slash lover. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and I’m sure will be released sometime soon.
Facebook: Amin El Gamal