UNmir El-Masry has a gravely handsome face and a forehead that goes on for ever: he is like an Easter Island statue with matinee-idol looks. Audiences will have a lot of time to study that face in Limbo, a bittersweet British comedy about asylum seekers dispatched to a far corner of the Outer Hebrides (the film was shot in Uist) while their claims are processed.
Masry plays Omar, who is estranged from his family: his brother is fighting back home in Syria; his parents have fled to Istanbul. He and his housemates divide their time between waiting for the post, attending behavioural classes at the community centre (“Sex: Is a Smile an Invitation?") and bingeing on episodes of Friends. Nobody told them life was going to be this way.
It is a rare lead role for the 30-year-old actor, who was born in Cairo and raised in London. He has been in demand for several years now: he played a hotel chef opposite Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager before becoming a regular cast member on the Amazon espionage series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the futuristic Netflix thriller The One, and last year’s superb BBC banking drama Industry. He also has a brief role as a military commander in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The new film, anche se, deserves to catapult him out of his own limbo of supporting parts and walk-ons. This is Ken Loach subject matter shot in the deadpan style of Aki Kaurismäki or Elia Suleiman, but it wouldn’t work without Masry’s minimalist performance, which was good enough to earn him a best actor nomination alongside Riz Ahmed and Anthony Hopkins (the eventual winner) a last year’s British Independent film awards.
As Omar, he barely speaks, rarely smiles, hardly even moves. He couldn’t be more different in person – or, in questo caso, via video call from Morocco, where he has been in the Sahara all morning alongside Dominic West and Jack O’Connell shooting SAS: Rogue Heroes, a BBC series from the creator of Peaky Blinders. “Hence the ’tache,” he grins, sitting in a nondescript room and touching the black stripe on his upper lip.
It turns out that the stillness required to play Omar did not come naturally. “I gesticulate a lot," lui dice, “so it was a challenge to be expressive on the inside rather than the outside.” During one of the scenes in which Omar is shown in extreme closeup while he calls his parents from a telephone box, Masry had to learn to dial it back. “Early on, Amir was maybe doing too much,” the film’s writer-director, Ben Sharrock, tells me later. “We’re so close to him that every expression looks huge. I was asking him to do less, do nothing, and he said: ‘Buster Keaton?’ I was like: ‘Exactly!'"
Actor and director used that hangdog genius as a constant touchstone. “Ben would tell me: ‘We’re going in tight: this is a Buster shot,'" lui dice. “There were a few moments where I broke down because of the emotion and gravity of the scene, but he said: ‘Imagine you’re carrying two buckets of water. If you let them spill, we have nowhere else to go. Choose your moment.’ When we meet Omar, he’s been stripped of his identity: he’s numb, waiting to be reinvigorated. He’s holding everything inside him.”
Sharrock likens Masry’s work to method acting. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t break character between takes," lui dice. “But because everything had to be internalised, you could see the weight of the emotion he was carrying. It was almost overflowing.” In preparation for the part, the actor spent several months learning to play the oud, and met with asylum seekers in the UK. “You see this incredible strength in their eyes," lui dice. “One or two of them were even able to joke about their situation.”
The director had been in the middle of an international search for the right actor several years ago when he saw a still from The Night Manager in linea. “Immediately I was convinced that he was our man," lui dice. “Amir has a look that can hold the camera and the audience. I went to bed that night dreaming of him as Omar.”
At that point, Masry had already been acting for 10 years after a lucky break. On a business trip to Paris, suo padre, an accountant, bumped into Omar Sharif and introduced himself as a fellow Egyptian, then began talking up his son’s acting dreams. “My father has zero social inhibitions," lui ride. At that moment, he is distracted by a beeping on his phone. “There he is, calling me now! That’s so funny.” Answer the call, I tell him: we can get his side of the story. But he demurs. “He would take over the conversation, I tell you!"
Masry Sr introduced his son to Sharif on the phone and urged the boy to come to Paris immediately to meet him in person. “It was around my 18th birthday so my brother bought me a Eurostar ticket. I was petrified but when I got there, he took me in his arms.” In a photo of their meeting, Masry appears to be sitting on Sharif’s lap. “I was!” he hoots, as though it still hasn’t quite sunk in. “I really was. It was like I was with my grandad.”
The esteemed star of Lawrence of Arabia, who was then 76, gave Masry a ticket for the premiere of his latest film. It was there that he met its screenwriter, Youssef Maaty, who happened to be looking for an Anglo-Egyptian teenager to star in his comedy Ramadan Mabrouk Abo El Alamein Hammouda. As a cocky rich kid who causes chaos at his new school, Masry struts and swaggers through his scenes with the aplomb of a young Travolta.
Returning to the UK and training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), he got a rude awakening once he started going up for auditions. “When I was at drama school I could play anything," lui dice. “But the reality soon hits you once you’re out. I would find myself in the room for really cool jobs, then afterwards you find out who got the part and you think: 'Oh, so this is a pattern.’ Sometimes I’ll say to my agent: ‘Why am I not being seen for this role? A few of my friends in my age group are up for it.’ The answer is always: ‘They want to go a different way.’ Which means white. But then you think: ‘It’s not Downton Abbey, it’s modern, so where’s the argument?'"
He shakes his head. “That’s been a regular occurrence. I feel like I’m still trying to fight a narrative that I became aware of straight out of drama school.”
Like many Muslim actors, the roles that do come his way often reflect a larger cultural bias. But whenever he has agreed to portray terrorists – in Jack Ryan, or in the 2019 Danish film Daniele, in which he played the Isis killer Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John – he has insisted on nuance, complexity, empathy.
"Certo, being a Muslim myself, I have a problem with the representation on film and television," lui dice. “But what I like to do is sit down with the film-makers and find out why they’ve chosen to tackle this subject.” He had reservations initially about making Daniel. “I knew people who went to school with Jihadi John, and the way they described him wasn’t the person in the script. He wasn’t born a villain. He became a monster, and an abhorrent individual, but what led him to that? That’s the big question. It wasn’t Islam. That was only used as a tool. Having a director receptive to those things, as we did on Daniel, means that you can make those sorts of changes.”
Sometimes he even breaks with industry etiquette by writing to casting directors to question their choices and request opportunities. “Not to stick it to them, but just in the spirit of: 'Bene, why not me? Why can’t I be that person?’ Some may deem it cheeky but my dad always told me: ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’” His father must be proud. Time to say goodbye, so that Masry can call him back for his latest piece of career advice.
Limbo is in cinemas from 30 luglio.