The Canadian star is catapulting to fame as he takes on the beloved role of street kid Aladdin, but he has a few wishes of his own.
Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith
May 24, 2019
It was the casting call heard around the world.
In 2016, when Disney announced it would make a live-action version of its 1992 animated hit Aladdin, it was understood that there could be no Hollywood whitewashing. Director Guy Ritchie and the studio needed to find actors of Middle Eastern descent to populate the film, set in the fictional ancient kingdom of Agrabah, where a street urchin named Aladdin releases a blue genie from its lamp. He uses one of his three wishes to transform into a prince to woo the independent-minded Princess Jasmine.
The producers issued a global casting call, and Mena Massoud — born in Cairo but raised in the Toronto suburb of Markham — sent in an audition tape.
“The first tape was a shot in the dark. It was like, ‘Of course I’m gonna do it, because that’s what I do as an actor,’” says 27-year-old Massoud on the line from Los Angeles, where he’s lived for the past two years.
“They spent months and months trying to find a singer who could act the role, and I think they slowly came to realize that what they really needed was a strong actor who could pull off the singing, and not vice versa,” he says. Aside from being a robust adventure story and romance, Aladdin is also a musical that includes the well-known songs “Friend Like Me” and the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World.”
Jonathan Eirich, one of Aladdin’s producers, noticed a photo of Massoud on the set of Amazon TV’s Jack Ryan, in which Massoud plays Tarek Kassar, a CIA colleague of Jack Ryan (John Krasinski). The producers checked their collection of tapes and found Massoud’s audition.
“Sometimes the stars align, and when something’s kind of meant for you, no one can get in the way of that.”
“They had that tape for four months, but no one had seen it, because that’s not who they were looking for,” says Massoud. “I think they probably got over 10,000 submissions from around the world.”
That discovery led to more auditions, which included two trips to London to work with a vocal coach and a choreographer, and to make sure he had chemistry with Naomi Scott, who plays Princess Jasmine. And when he finally got word he’d landed the role, Massoud says he could only think, “Sometimes the stars align, and when something’s kind of meant for you, no one can get in the way of that.”
Aladdin was filmed over seven months on grand sets built in Surrey, England, and on location in the deserts of Jordan. Will Smith rounds out the cast in the pivotal role of the wisecracking big, blue Genie. The filmmakers used CGI to create Smith’s towering figure, but that didn’t stop the star from making his presence felt on set.
“I couldn’t have asked for a more generous, genuine superstar to be working with,” says Massoud. “He showed up every day, even sometimes when he didn’t have to. A lot of the time when he’s big and blue in the film, he’s about 10, 12 feet tall, so I’m acting basically with a Ping-Pong ball somewhere very high up. And he still showed up every day and fed me his lines because he wanted me to have a genuine experience and response.”
“I went to the University of Toronto for neuroscience for a year because I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was sitting in calculus class one day, and it kind of just hit me that I wasn’t going to be able to do something I was passionate about for the rest of my life.”
Massoud immigrated to Canada when he was three years old. His family settled in Markham, Ont., where Massoud began acting in school plays at St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School and even served as the captain of his theatre improv team at St. Brother André High School. However, he believed his passion would be short-lived.
“Coming from an immigrant family, I was taught, ‘You can’t be an artist as a profession. That’s something you do as a hobby,’” he recalls. “I went to the University of Toronto for neuroscience for a year because I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was sitting in calculus class one day, and it kind of just hit me that I wasn’t going to be able to do something I was passionate about for the rest of my life.”
He left that day and switched to Ryerson University’s theatre school.
While Massoud’s parents continue to worry about his career choice — “My dad still thinks I should get my master’s and teach acting,” he says with a laugh — the young actor knows his timing is perfect, as Hollywood is finally getting the message that diverse movie casts are crucial to scoring with global audiences.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the visibly ethnic representation this film provides,” says Massoud. “I’m Egyptian-Canadian, Naomi is British-Indian and Marwan Kenzari, who plays [sorcerer] Jafar, is Tunisian-Dutch.” Throw in 500 extras from a diverse range of backgrounds, and you’ve got a multicultural spectacle.
“I think it’s important we all support each other and celebrate each other,” he says. “I’m trying to start a foundation that helps support visibly ethnic artists in Toronto, helping to break down some barriers.”
It’s a wish this big-screen Aladdin doesn’t need a genie to grant.
Relive the magic of Disney’s Aladdin in the glory of IMAX
The best way to experience this live-action version of the classic we know and love is in an IMAX theatre where the musical numbers, magic carpet, and towering genie will be showcased as they're meant to be seen.