SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
The latest of Disney's live-action remakes of their classic movies is "Aladdin." The empire of Agrabah and the tale of Princess Jasmine and the common thief, Aladdin, has come to life. And, yes, it really is a whole new world, with a little help from the genie, played by Will Smith, Abu the monkey, a magic carpet and director Guy Ritchie. Naomi Scott plays Princess Jasmine, and Mena Massoud plays Aladdin. Mena Massoud joins me now from NPR's studios in Culver City.
MENA MASSOUD: Thank you very much. Thank you.
DAVIS: So you were born, I believe, one year before the original animated version of the movie came out. Did you grow up as a kid watching "Aladdin"?
MASSOUD: I did. Yeah, I did. I think the first time I watched it was probably back in Egypt, when I was a little baby. I have two older sisters, and they really looked up to Princess Jasmine. So it was on at the house before I could even walk and talk.
DAVIS: So I want to talk a little bit about that because you grew up in Egypt.
MASSOUD: I was born there. We immigrated when I was 3 1/2 years old, to Toronto. But I'm still very, very close to my culture and - back home in Egypt.
DAVIS: Why did your family move to Canada?
MASSOUD: We're - we're Coptic Christian. And my parents just felt like things were getting a little too dangerous when I was growing up. And they wanted to create a better life for their family. So they decided to immigrate.
DAVIS: It seems like when you take on a role like this, there is so much nostalgia for the role of Aladdin for people that grew up watching this movie. And I wonder, when you get a role like this, how do you approach taking on such an iconic character, even if the original was a cartoon?
MASSOUD: When I got my first callback, actually, I decided I wasn't going to watch the animation anymore. I knew that it was already ingrained in me. So I didn't want to get in my head about it. I didn't want it to influence my mannerisms or my character choices. I wanted to bring a fresh take to it. I just focused on who this guy is. You know, he's a - he's a young man who lost his parents very young. And he's had to fight to survive on the streets. So I just wanted to focus on those themes and his character arc.
DAVIS: There has been this conversation ongoing in Hollywood about representation and diversity. And "Aladdin" seems to be very much in that conversation. You know, the original version of the movie wasn't without controversy at the time or even now. You know, it played on some stereotypes about Arab culture. Do you think that the updated version has made efforts - and how - to sort of correct the things that the original may have done wrong?
MASSOUD: Well, I mean, first and foremost I can't remember the last time more than one culture and more than one ethnicity was represented on screen. And this film does a beautiful job of that. I mean, I'm Egyptian Canadian. Naomi's English Indian. Nasim and Navid are Iranian American. So we've just really covered our grounds and tried to represent as many cultures as possible. And that's something that really does not happen as often as it should in Hollywood.
DAVIS: Do you feel like, as an Arab, you felt specifically - you know, you want to protect this view of Arab culture, that it was reflected fairly on screen too?
MASSOUD: Yeah. We certainly wanted to represent the Middle East and the culture in a beautiful way. And as an Egyptian myself, I think we did that. You see a little bit of the beautiful dance that comes from not only India but the Middle East and the vibrancy of it. And we went to Jordan to try to get that authentic feel, which we certainly did.
We spent a lot of time in the Wadi Rum desert. It reminded me a lot of being back in Cairo. So, you know, I think this film takes a lot of steps forward. And hopefully Hollywood continues to build on that. I know I certainly will try to do that in my career.
DAVIS: I see in my notes here that Will Smith mistook you for a dancer.
MASSOUD: (Laughter) It's not so much that he mistook me as much as I just was so nervous, I didn't introduce myself. You know, the first time I met him, he was speaking to Guy Ritchie. And I had dance rehearsal. And I went over, and I thought Guy would, you know, help break the ice. And he didn't. And then I didn't say anything. So I walked away, and I had to come back and introduce myself properly.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Well, one of things - I want to talk about the movie itself. You're the title character in "Aladdin." But to me, this story also seemed very much a story about female empowerment. And...
DAVIS: ...No spoilers. We don't want to give anything away. But it does seem like the remake also has some updated versions or updated takes on relationships and on female ambition. And Aladdin really struck me as an ally to Jasmine in her ambitions.
MASSOUD: Yeah, I mean, one of the beautiful things that you can do when you're reimagining a story like this is that you can modernize it a little bit. And one of the ways we wanted to do that was tell a more Jasmine-centric story. So we wanted to show what a modern relationship between a man and a woman looks like. And, you know, I hope people enjoy that aspect of it.
DAVIS: Aladdin, I joke, said - to me seems like a guy that would wear a this-is-what-a-feminist-looks-like T-shirt if he existed in 2020.
MASSOUD: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I try to support all the women in my life. So absolutely, Aladdin tries to do that as well, and rightfully - rightfully so.
DAVIS: Mena Massoud plays the title role in the new Disney live-action remake of "Aladdin."
Thank you so much.
MASSOUD: Thank you for having me.
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