“Limbo” brought Amir El-Masry back to his roots. The British actor recently spent five months in Egypt after promoting the movie at the Cairo Film Festival in December. There was a heavy lockdown in London; he decided to stay put until things eased up.
“I have family [in Egypt], so it was nice to get to spend a lot of time with them,” says El-Masry, who was born in Cairo but grew up in London. It also marked a homecoming for his chosen profession: it’s where he first launched his acting career more than 10 years ago, with a nod for best new actor from the Egyptian Oscars in 2009.
El-Masry is having a wider breakthrough year. In the past few months, the 30-year-old British actor has seen the release of three new projects, two miniseries — “The One” for Netflix and “Industry” for HBO — and the independent film “Limbo,” in which he plays the lead.
“Limbo,” written and directed by Ben Sharrock, has taken El-Masry on quite the journey. The dark comedy was selected to debut at the (canceled) Cannes Film Festival last year. It instead premiered during the Toronto Film Festival, going on to play top international film festivals including San Sebastián International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, and the Cairo International Film Festival, where it won best film and the FIPRESCI Prize. The movie was nominated for two BAFTA awards and several BIFAs, including best actor for El-Masry.
The actor sums up the film’s impressive journey as “bittersweet.” “We’ve managed to essentially tick every box,” he says, referencing the various festival prizes the movie picked up before its recent release. “But we were all so separate from one another. We always celebrated by Zoom. The only time I got to celebrate [the film] properly with Ben, the director, was in San Sebastián and Cairo. After the audience watched it, I FaceTimed Ben and got him to watch everyone’s reaction.”
El-Masry stars as Omar, a Syrian refugee on a remote fictional Scottish island. His character, a renowned oud player, is simultaneously surrounded by his fellow asylum seekers and isolated from his family and culture back home. Although he carries his oud throughout the film, the instrument remains silent for most of it.
“[Sharrock] puts Omar right into the forefront of the narrative. There isn’t a Western savior character that shows him a better way of living,” says El-Masry, praising Sharrock’s depiction of Syria by centering the beauty of the country’s food, music, and culture. The filmmaker also pushes back against negative stereotypes of asylum seekers. “[Sharrock] gives [Omar] agency and reminds the audience that he would rather be back home with his family and playing music.”
Underneath its cinematic landscape shots and endearing characters, “Limbo” is a film about identity. That resonance was apparent for El-Masry whether they were screening the movie for audiences in Canada, Spain, Sweden or Cairo.
“Everybody relates to the idea of identity and losing your identity, and what it feels like to be in a completely different surrounding,” he says. “I’d love for [audiences] to take away that if you can lead by love and help, rather than hurt somebody, then it will be a better place. You can see that with all the different cultures in the film — they manage to get along. Even through the most dire circumstances, they manage to band together and help one another.”
Last year El-Masry was selected as a BAFTA Breakthrough, a program that provides support and mentorship for up-and-coming British talent. “They want to make sure that [your career] is a marathon, not a sprint,” says El-Masry.
The actor is filming the forthcoming BBC series “SAS: Rogue Heroes,” helmed by “Peaky Blinders” writer Steven Knight. El-Masry can’t say much about the project, except that they’re filming in the U.K. and Morocco. “I get to explore a different side of myself; something I’ve never tapped into character-wise,“ he adds.
He’s concurrently shooting an Egyptian film, which will mark his comeback within that market. “And it’s something new for me because it’s a love story, so it’s not something I’m used to in my career,” he says. “Because of the way my career started, I had to box myself into a certain category to survive.”
His early Hollywood roles were defined by his appearance — political dramas rooted in terrorism and international wheeling and dealing, like Jon Stewart’s journalist-hostage drama “Rosewater” and “The Night Manager.”
His recent roles are trending him in a different direction. “I relish just playing the everyday man,” he says. “I like to play the guy that everybody can relate to.”
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