Barbarella here after speaking with one of the stars of Zeina Durra’s latest film, LUXOR. The film follows a British aid worker who visits the Egyptian city and explores its rich history while navigating memories from her own past. LUXOR may be somewhat out of the wheelhouse of many AICN readers, as it offers no explosions, gore, or action, unless you consider Andrea Riseborough dancing with complete abandon in a hotel bar as action. But hey, our readers have a wide variety of tastes, and this is a film that will certainly appeal to some in its introspective approach. Starring Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh, the film silently observes Hana (Andrea Riseborough) sauntering amidst the ancient sites contemplating the past, both her own and those who visited the sacred places before her.
Karim Saleh plays Hana’s former lover, with whom she meets up and wanders the city. The actor has been working in Los Angeles, and my curiosity about employment for creatives in these times led to my first question.
Have you been working much through the pandemic, and if so, what is it like working in the days of COVID?
“Yeah, I've worked quite a bit. I've done a movie called PLEASE BABY PLEASE with Andrea again, and I'm on the Julie Delpy show that she's doing with Netflix called ON THE VERGE. I feel that it's been an experience. With all the precautions that we need to take and the masks and not being able to see each other's faces and having to wash your hands constantly, it almost promotes an atmosphere of I'm going to look after you if you look after me. You eventually develop a feeling that I'm wearing a mask because I don't want this person to get sick, and they don't want me to get sick. There's an atmosphere of collaboration and quid pro quo. What you lose in the usual kind of chit chat and human interaction, you gain in a feeling of mutual protection and mutual respect.”
That's kind of nice. How much did you know about Luxor and archeology before starting on this project? What were the most interesting things you learned about either of them from your involvement in the film?
“Prior to the movie, I had gone to Cairo. I'd seen the museum in Cairo. I had gone to the pyramids. I hadn't been to Luxor, but my parents are both writers and teachers so I had a certain amount of basic knowledge of Egyptian culture.
"Later in my own life, I became really obsessed with Carl Jung, the psychologist. Jung talks a lot about the archetypes, and a lot of his archetypes are derived and drawn from the Egyptian pantheon. So, I had a lot of exposure to the symbolism and the archetypal aspect of Egyptian life through reading the odd twelve or thirteen Jung books. I was presented with this script, and I saw the angle that it was taking on archeology, that it is drawing a parallel between Egyptology and Christianity, for example, in one sentence, and then drawing a parallel between Freud and Egyptology and all these influences. I understood that I was equipped to tackle that subject and that I was open to getting more information.
"What I truly learned being there was that the archeological perspective and the historical perspective are entirely different. The historical perspective, because it's so designed around the idea of who occupied Egypt during kind of what era, where you can think of Greek Egypt, Roman Egypt, Arab Egypt. You can think of dynasties-with-the-pharaohs kind of Egypt. That's the historical perspective.
“The archeological perspective is so geared towards really seeing it through the projection of the time. Seeing it through the eyes of the Egyptians gives you an open-ended ability to project whatever you're feeling onto what you're observing. So, although archeology is scientific, it's also open-ended in the sense that it doesn't overwhelm you with information and control your point of view. It lets you understand why something is here, how maybe they felt about it, and it kind of gives you space to make up your own mind. In making up my own mind, I discovered that these people were living in a time where their outer worlds reflected their inner worlds. They made a religion out of the manifestation of their inner world in these temples and on these walls, literally projecting them onto these walls, and that became really interesting to me.”
If you could go back in time, would you want to live in ancient Egypt? Why or why not?
“I wouldn't want to live in ancient Egypt because there were no antibiotics. I'm very attached. I think it wasn't coincidental that I was born in these times. I think I'm very comfortable with technology, with medicine where it is. I like that we're scientifically-minded. I know it changes all the time, and that the conclusions are never eternal, but it's interesting to be part of the world as it is today.
“The only thing that I missed is the kind of spiritual freedom, being able to be in a world where spirituality is ever-shifting because their pantheons changed a lot. They used to worship this person and then that person, and then they shifted the representation of that divinity into another kind of animal, or that divinity took another place in their constellations. I feel that, in a world where I grew up in the middle East where there's so much fanaticism and dogmatism, I really enjoyed the kind of fluidity of the ancient Egyptian religion.”
Yeah, that makes sense. What was your favorite location that you shot for LUXOR and why?
“The Sekhmet temple, because Sekhmet was represented as a lioness and not as a cat like she was represented in later days, in later dynasties. She represented this kind of healing divine feminine, and I felt that the statue was really overwhelmingly present and overwhelmingly humbling and really interesting to be around.”
Cool. In what ways are you similar to, and in what ways are you different from, your character Sultan?
“I'm similar to Sultan in the sense that I like to look at things. I like to observe things around me, and I like to draw conclusions about those things on a more intimate level. Sometimes, I feel that the outer world can be a metaphor for the inner world. I'm different than Sultan in the sense that I'm way more vocal than he is. He can be extremely gentle and withdrawn, and his strength comes in his ability to be discreetly supportive. I think I learned a little bit from him there, but I have a tendency to be a little bit more imposing than he is.”
So, it's my understanding that you met Andrea shortly before filming. How do you go about creating chemistry when you're kind of thrown together so quickly?
“It just happened.”
It just happened?
“I mean, overwhelmingly, undeniably the chemistry was there. We worked with it, and it was fantastic. There are too many things that contributed to that happening that I can't even describe all of them, but what didn't happen is we didn't sit there and plan and read. When we met, we immediately felt that we were going to be on the same page doing this together, and it was overwhelming how much we silently agreed on how this was going to be.”
What do you respect or admire most about her?
“She's extremely open-minded and extremely committed at the same time. She is truly a really hard worker, and she commits fully to everything that she does, but she doesn't get caught up in her ideas about what she's doing. She remains absolutely flexible and absolutely open-minded while being that committed.”
What do you respect or admire most about Zeina Durra, the writer and director?
“Zeina is extremely discreet. What I liked about Zeina is that she's not exploitative in the sense that she won't take the Middle East and put the misery on screen. She’s not obscene in her depiction of conflict and of drama. She knows exactly where things belong, and she understands that pain and suffering and victims of war belong in the mind and the emotions of Hana. She has the discretion to leave that in the background but to still mention it and to still make it the central issue in Hana's journey.
“And I think that taste and that discretion make her an extremely elegant director and one that is really relevant. She becomes universal because she's interested in the process behind something and not just in the plot. Nobody ever tells you what happened. Nobody's describing a bomb going off or a building collapsing, nothing obscene like that, nothing voyeuristic. It's only through the pain of the main character that you can only imagine what she's looking at. I think that's a really good quality in a director. She understands context.”
LUXOR kind of joins past and present. Do you spend more time thinking about the past, the present, or the future?
“Well, I've been in therapy for so long... I think at the moment, I'm thinking about the future a lot because we're at a period where it's hard to imagine what the economy is going to be like, and it's hard to imagine what the industry's going to be like, so at the moment, I'm constantly planning. I think my therapy is a place where I get grounded in myself and what I'm feeling in the space with my therapist. And I think until recently, I must have been pretty caught up in my past.”
What about Sultan? Do you think he spends more time in the past, the present, or the future?
“Oh, he's a total past addict. As much as Hana is the central journey in the film, Sultan's discrete journey is that he's somebody who uses the past to escape, and her returning allows him to be in the world. She takes him outside of this kind of timelessness into the present, and she says, "I'm here, I have feelings. There's something serious happening close to you. There's a present. There's a now.""
What's one of the best things you’ve ever done and what made it so great?
“One of the best things I've done was to become an American citizen three years ago.”
“Thank you. And, yeah, it's something that I was very proud of. I grew up French and Lebanese. I hold both passports, but I never derived any sense of hope and security from either of those identities. [I became an American citizen] at a time where Lebanon was almost in turmoil, and Trump had been elected, and people weren't sure about what it meant to be a new American.
“But, I still felt very emboldened and very proud to be a first-generation American on my own. It made sense. I had been living here for ten years, and I really don't regret it because it's given me a confidence, and it's given me a voice. It’s given me a desire to participate in the life around me in a way that I've never experienced, being here for ten years and feeling like an outsider. It's really made me more active and more engaged with my surroundings.”
What's the best career decision that you've ever made?
“LUXOR was a pretty good career decision, although it wasn't a decision; it was going on instinct. I was drawn by this love story and the beauty of it. I think that was a very, very nice thing to happen to me. I'm really proud of it, and the experience itself was life-changing for me. I have a lot invested in that decision, honestly, not just because we're talking about it.”
What's something people would be surprised to learn about you?
“I don't know, but I think I'm a very, very disciplined person, and I think that sometimes when people see me, I look like fun times or chaos, but I'm extremely methodical, extremely disciplined deep inside. Maybe that's not surprising to others; maybe that's just surprising to me because when I hear myself say that, I think of my father. So essentially, no one's surprised that I'm becoming my father, except no one knows my father.”
Are you tidy or messy?
“I am, by nature, messy, but that would never show because I'm constantly organizing everything, and everything has to be kept perfect all the time. And then, it's almost like because I believe that I'm messy, I don't appear messy at all. Things are exactly where they should be.”
Oh, very nice. If you could change anything about yourself, would you, and if so, what and why?
“Well, I don't know if it's particular to me, but I would like to be able to be completely non-judgmental. If I could achieve a level of complete freedom of the mind, where I can look at anything without any preconceived ideas, I think I would have more pleasure learning about the world. I think that one of the ways that we diminish our capacity for joy is by constantly bringing our baggage to our experiences. I would love to be able to experience things as fresh and new as possible, and I think the removal of judgment is one of the elements.”
When it comes to relationships, do you believe in second chances? Why or why not?
“I do believe in second chances because I don't really believe that love goes away. I believe that when you loved someone and cared about them, there's always a possibility to heal and revisit it. I think love lasts, in different forms, but it lasts, and because it lasts, you can always go back to it.”
If you feel like taking a virtual tour of Egypt and seeing some stellar acting, LUXOR starts today On Demand and Digital. Check out the trailer.