Mena Massoud: After ‘Aladdin’ Made $1 Billion, I Still Couldn’t Get an Audition
Catching up with the Disney prince ahead of the debut of his new series, Hulu’s “Reprisal”: “It’s not always dandelions and roses when you’re doing something like ‘Aladdin.’”
Mena Massoud had just, in theory, become a billion-dollar man.
On the hot summer morning when we first meet in Beverly Hills, the young actor has a buoyant pep in his step. You could say he’s gliding. Flying even.
Depending on how ridiculous you want this metaphor to be, you might suggest that the rug blanketing the lobby bar at the Beverly Hilton had become a magic carpet of sorts, transporting Massoud to me to talk about his role in Hulu’s new noir series, Reprisal, his big breakout year in Hollywood, and that aforementioned cash haul: the live-action remake of Aladdin, in which he beat out 2,000 actors to play the title character, had just crossed the billion-dollar mark at the box office.
It turns out a billion dollars isn’t what it used to be.
The handsome 28-year-old actor—the kind of handsome that gets cast as Disney princes, with hypnotizing dimples such that when a stranger flies up to your window on a throw rug and asks “do you trust me,” you swan dive onto the damn thing—is in the mood to be candid.
It’s not a mood, really, though. It’s how he is when we first meet in Los Angeles. It’s how he is when we meet four months later in Georgia at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, where he received the Breakout Award alongside other 2019 rising stars like Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us) and Booksmart leads Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein.
It’s how he’s been his entire career thus far, recounting his experience as an Egyptian immigrant to Canada, the struggle to find roles that aren’t terrorists, and fighting to gain access to audition rooms where the waiting area is blanketed by all white actors.
Today, the candor is about that billion dollars.
“I’m kind of tired of staying quiet about it,” he says. “I want people to know that it’s not always dandelions and roses when you’re doing something like Aladdin. ‘He must have made millions. He must be getting all these offers.’ It’s none of those things. I haven’t had a single audition since Aladdin came out.”
It should be clarified that, at no point when we are talking about this does it seem like Massoud is whining or complaining or is in any way ungrateful.
The soulful, deep brown eyes, the bewitching smile, the jawline seemingly etched by Walt Disney himself, Massoud certainly looks like the platonic ideal of a nice guy.
But after spending time with him across several time zones and watching him interact with his representation, the students and festival staff feting him in Savannah, and his Reprisal co-stars—series lead Abigail Spencer comes over to plan cooking dinner together when they’re back on the show’s Wilmington, North Carolina set—he genuinely appears to be a nice guy, too. A nice guy who has spent the better part of an entire year on a whirlwind global press tour dealing with false assumptions about his life, his success, and what’s most important to him.
Massoud smiles a lot, and thank god for that. If you’ve seen Aladdin, you know what I mean. But there’s only so much a rational person can smile through.
It’s wild to me, I say, that he hasn’t booked an audition since Aladdin came out. Isn’t that the whole point of doing things like beating out 2,000 other actors for the lead role in a $183 million live-action remake of one of the most popular animated films of all-time with Will Smith as your co-star?
“It’s wild to a lot of people,” he says. “People have these ideas in their head. It’s like, I'm sitting here being like, OK, Aladdin just hit $1 billion. Can I at least get an audition? Like I’m not expecting you to be like, here’s Batman. But can I just get in the room? Like, can you just give me a chance? So it’s not always what you think.”
It was back in Egypt when he was a baby that Mena Massoud first watched Disney’s 1992 animated musical Aladdin. He has two older sisters who both idolized Princess Jasmine, so wisecracking genies, magic carpets, and “A Whole New World” were on constant rotation before he could walk or talk.
His family immigrated to Toronto when he was three-and-a-half years old. As Coptic Christians, his parents sensed that it was too dangerous to raise a young family in Egypt in the ’90s and headed to North America, with Massoud keeping strong roots to Cairo throughout his life. When Aladdin premiered, for example, he tweeted, “Egypt this one’s for you!” featuring a video speaking in Arabic.
Because it’s fun to find canny coincidences in profiles like these, it’s interesting and certainly cute that Massoud first got a bug for performing from watching movies starring Robin Williams, who of course voiced Genie in the original Disney film, when he was a kid. Chris Tucker’s Rush Hour movies and anything starring Sandra Bullock were also favorites. Basically, he surmises, he was drawn to charisma.
He channeled that during childhood performances as Peter Pan in elementary school and, later, as Mercutio in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. He loved acting but his family had ingrained in him that it was not a career option. “I’m Egyptian and my parents are immigrants and it’s like, you don’t do that.” So he studied neuroscience at the University of Toronto, before deciding to follow his passion and transfer to Ryerson University’s theater performance program.
Massoud’s first on-screen role was a character whose only designation was “al Qaeda #2” in the CW drama series Nikita. From that point, he set a goal to find characters who aren’t terrorists or bring negative connotations because of the color of their skin or ethnicity. On Amazon’s Jack Ryan, for example, he played Tarek Kassar, a brilliant CIA analyst and confidant to John Krasinski’s Jack Ryan. In the film Run This Town, he plays a fast-talking, razor-sharp mayoral aide.
“There’s always a wild card or two when you’re casting,” he says. “I’m usually the wild card. In a room of Caucasian guys, a director might be like, OK, let’s see, like, two guys who aren’t. And maybe they’ll be the wild card choice.”
He’s specifically talking about his experience auditioning for Reprisal, which launches on Hulu Friday. The noir thriller is centered around a femme fatale, played by Abigail Spencer, who, after being left for dead by her brother and his gang of gearheads, embarks on a violent revenge mission. Massoud plays Ethan Hart, someone who presents as a naive young thug looking to be recruited by the gang but who is really infiltrating the organization as a spy for Spencer’s character.
To call it a departure from Aladdin would be an understatement. Suffice it to say, no one sings a romantic ballad under the moonlight.
As Massoud is used to, it was mostly white actors in the casting room for Reprisal. He had just wrapped Aladdin when he went in for his audition, but no one seemed to be aware of that, least of all the show’s creator, Josh Corbin. “Josh had no fucking idea who I was.”
When he got the role, producers and Massoud’s team had to tell Corbin that they needed to run his casting past Disney, as playing a gang member in a violent thriller the same year as playing the title role in a Disney musical might be of concern to the family-friendly and notoriously image-controlling corporation. Corbin was confused. Why would Disney care who he cast in his show? “He’s playing Aladdin,” they told him. That baffled him more. “Aladdin? That’s an old cartoon.”
That Corbin had no idea who he was before casting him was very appealing to Massoud. So was playing a character this different from Aladdin so soon after.
“I feel like I'm going to be overlooked and underestimated for a long time because I am a young actor,” Massoud says. “I'm an up and comer in the sense that I've been doing this for 10 years, but to a lot of people, Aladdin's the first thing they’ve seen me in. So I think I'm going to be viewed that way for a long time. I'm going to have to work at chipping away at that.”
None of this is to say that Aladdin isn’t the greatest thing to happen to him so far professionally. After years spent wondering if he’d get a big break and what it might look like, Massoud can’t believe it came in something this big, this fun, and with this much Will Smith. (One of his favorite stories to tell about shooting the film is when he first met Smith during dance rehearsals. He wandered over during a break when Smith was talking with director Guy Ritchie, expecting Ritchie to introduce the two. When he never did, Massoud slunk away, with Smith assuming he was just a background dancer.)
He loved getting a chance to find more humor in Aladdin than people were expecting and showing off his athleticism in the film’s parkour-style action scenes. That the singing, dancing, and staging would draw on much of the culture he recognized from his own childhood but rarely saw on screen meant the world to him. He also loved that his version of Aladdin played a part in showcasing the remake’s female-empowerment bent.
To that end, NPR’s Susan Davis joked that his Aladdin “seems like a guy that would wear a this-is-what-a-feminist-looks-like T-shirt if he existed in 2020.” Truthfully, some fans would have been happier if Massoud had not worn any shirt at all. A vocal subsection online expressed both annoyance that the film decided to outfit Aladdin with a shirt underneath his vest—unlike the cartoon—and drooled over photos of Massoud himself shirtless after his casting. (See: “27 Hot Pictures of the New Aladdin That Will Have You Rubbing Your Magic Lamp.”)
Laughing, Massoud concedes that everyone knew there would be an uproar over Aladdin’s shirt. But it was a practical decision. “Guy Ritchie likes to ground things in realism. I don’t know if you’ve been out in the desert, but it gets fucking cold out there. He needs to have layers on.” Smirking, he adds, “Maybe if there’s a second one we can throw in a shirtless scene.”
The next time we meet it is anything but fucking cold. It turns out late fall in Savannah is the equivalent of a sweltering summer in most places. A combination of spending the last few months shooting Reprisal in the heat a few hours away in Wilmington and his Egyptian blood, he says, has helped him build up a bit of tolerance. But we’re still fanning ourselves when we meet up just after he receives his Breakout Award from the SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
He’s a bit bleary-eyed from the surreality of it all, nearing the end of a year that garnered him so much attention and, in this case, accolades, while spending such a large portion of it working hard on Reprisal. It’s a strange dissonance: the grind of working every day while celebration is happening in the industry around you, the presumption of some golden chariot ride through a breakout year when he’s still waiting to see a tangible change in his career.
Though he is excited for Reprisal to finally come out and show off more of his acting range, he’s learned not to get too ahead of himself.
“I think since Aladdin my expectations for things releasing and what they’re going to do in my career, I’ve had to really pull them back,” he says. “Because, you know, I got the same question about Aladdin and it was like, ‘Oh, you know, Aladdin’s coming out. How do you feel about what that’s going to do to your career?’ The big truth is I haven’t really seen a big anything from it.”
“As for whether people are gonna discover me from it or what it’s going to do, I literally have no clue,” he says. “I can’t tell you I know how things are going to work out anymore.”