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How Egyptian superstar Mohamed Emam is still living under his famous father’s shadow

DUBAI: Twenty years ago, Mohamed Emam went to his father to tell him something he had long held in his heart: He, too, wanted to become an actor. His father, Adel, arguably the most popular actor in the Arab world, responded bluntly — “My son, you are making a mistake.”

“He told me not to do it! As we sat there, he said to me that it’s very, very difficult. In some ways, it’s the hardest job I could have picked. He told me to choose something else,” Emam tells Arab News. “But what could I do? It was my passion. I said, ‘I love it.’ And I went against his wishes. I had to follow my heart.”

Egyptian director Marwan Hamed (right, wearing glasses) and cast of ‘The Yacoubian Building,’ Hend Sabry (left), Adel Emam (second from left) and Mohamed Emam (second from right) at Cannes in 2006. (Supplied)

Emam has no regrets about that decision now. How could he? The Egyptian actor has, over the last two decades, become one of the region’s premiere talents in his own right, boasting nearly 12 million followers on Instagram and headlining both action blockbusters and Ramadan comedies alike — some opposite his beloved father. 

He’s speaking to Arab News on the day that his latest film, “3amohom” (Their Uncle), is set for its star-studded premiere in Dubai. The city is already festooned with posters of his likeness, a version of himself he sculpted intensively for a year to become a true action star. 

The action comedy, in which he plays a boxer who discovers a printing press for counterfeit money, has already had a huge opening in Egypt and is primed to become the actor’s biggest opening in the Gulf ever, as he plans to turn his attention next to Saudi Arabia, with red carpets in Jeddah and Riyadh awaiting his arrival. 

“I’m being completely honest when I tell you this is the most proud I’ve been in my career so far,” says Emam. “The fact that I’m taking a tour of the Arab world to open this film is something I always hoped I would have the chance to do some day.”

Saudi Arabia is now front and center in the mind of Emam and the entire Egyptian film industry, as the emergence of the Kingdom as a cinema market has transformed not only the marketing of their movies, but their entire conception. 

“We’re not just thinking about how things will play in Egypt anymore. From our first meetings, we’re thinking about how our stories will resonate in Saudi Arabia, and the greater Gulf. It’s been amazing, honestly. It’s encouraging us to work harder in every aspect of moviemaking, and it’s pushing us to make even more movies,” says Emam. 

It’s a huge summer for Egyptian cinema. “3amohom” is opening opposite another blockbuster, the historical epic “Kira & El Gin,” which is aiming to smash the records set by its maker’s previous film, “The Blue Elephant 2.” It’s directed by someone that Emam knows well, Marwan Hamed. 

“I wish my old friend the best of luck. Both of our films are packing cinemas, and rightfully so,” says Emam.

In some ways, Emam owes the trajectory of his career to Hamed. The director entrusted him with the lead role in the 2006 blockbuster film “The Yacoubian Building,” opposite a true megastar — his father Adel — despite the fact that Emam had only minor television credits to his name at that point. 

Mohamed Emam with Hend Sabry in ‘The Yacoubian Building’. (Supplied)

“After I made that film, I spoke to my father again. He told me he loved my performance. Since then, he’s told me he loves all my movies. He’s always saying to me how proud he is, even now,” says Emam.

That’s not to say Emam’s rise to fame has been easy. In some ways, Emam is still living his father’s shadow, knowing that while he has had privileges as Adel’s son, he has also had to work extra hard to prove that he deserves the spotlight.

“It’s very difficult to become an actor when your father is the biggest actor in the world. It was a big, big struggle at first. Slowly people grew to understand that I love cinema, that I don’t do this just because my father is a big actor,” says Emam. “To this day, I’m still just trying to do my best, and to please people.”

Adel Emam (centre) with his children actor Mohammed Emam (right) and director Rami Emam (left) in Alexandria on Aug. 30, 2008. (Supplied)

Not surprisingly, Emam’s love for cinema began on the sets of his father’s films, watching not only his father, but the dozens of people around him all focused on different tasks to make the film a success.

“I was amazed by what I saw. I wanted to join them immediately. I knew in my heart right then — from four years old — that I wanted to be an actor,” says Emam. 

Like his legendary father, Emam has excelled at comedic acting — something he does not take for granted.

“Comedy is harder than anything else, to be honest. It’s very hard to make the Egyptian people laugh. It’s very hard to make them accept you. I thank God that after doing a lot of comedy movies, the people have come to appreciate me in that role,” says Emam.

For “3amohom,” however, Emam didn’t want to lean only on his wit. He had always wanted to play a boxer and while the film features only a few boxing scenes, Emam trained as if he was scheduled for a debut fight. 

“I trained very intensively for eight months. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever put myself through. And because we filmed off and on for a year and a half, I had to keep myself in that peak condition the entire time. Not to mention keeping my hair bleached blond — which I’m not sure my head has forgiven me for,” says Emam. 

“The training did come in handy outside of the boxing ring, of course. It was a very hard shoot. In one scene, I had to do a fight with 20 different guys. I’d never pushed myself to that degree.”

While he plans to do more action films, and action comedies in particular, as he believes he thrives in fight sequences, there is still one role that Emam dreams of playing more than any other — to star as his father in an Adel Emam biopic. 

“I think I could do it. I really intend to try,” says Emam. “There’s another side to him that people don’t see: The father. The man that I know best. Really, I love him so much. I truly admire him. He’s my idol. I would love to be able to tell that story myself.”

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