Mena Massoud Celebrates His Dual Passions For Acting & The Vegan Life
In spite of his own struggles around procuring high-profile acting roles since his title performance in Aladdin, Massoud is a driving force in lending a hand to fellow actors of diverse voices.
How many times have you wished that you had a magic lamp that you could rub, and all of your wishes would come true? A $50-million lottery win? Done. The gift of good health? Done. Fame and its resultant fortune? Not always that easy to actualize. Just ask Mena Massoud, the Egyptian-born Canadian who was the star of the 2019 remake of Disney’s animated film Aladdin.
Part of a classic saga embedded within a larger story (The Thousand and One Nights), Aladdin, a fable which is rooted in Middle Eastern origins, is a master class in narrative highlights. There is a young boy, whose family is poor and seeks a better life; there is a sultan and his beautiful daughter, the princess Jasmine; there is an outsized genie with magical powers, whose mission and propensity is to grant the ever-famous three wishes; there are caves and magical lamps, intrigue and fluttering love. And, of course, there is the always-present evil character who cannot bear to see anyone happy, which in this case is the malevolent vizier, Jafar. Retold umpteen times, both on the big screen, as well as on the stage, the latest reiteration of this children’s story, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Toronto’s own Massoud, as well as superstar Will Smith as the genie, played to an audience whose eager attendance grossed US$1 billion when the movie came out last year.
Massoud, who was chosen to be Aladdin from the 2,000 aspirants auditioning for the coveted role, immigrated to Markham, Ont., from Cairo with his parents and two older sisters when he was three years old. “It was a predominantly white demographic at the time,” Massoud says. “It certainly wasn’t the city it is now. My parents wanted to make sure that we did not lose the sense and importance of our identity and that we continued to honour our culture and traditions, so they both worked hard to make sure the family stayed close. Mom would cook us Egyptian food when I came home from school; she cooked all of the time, and in fact, that is where my love of cooking really began. She had a passion and commitment to food and to the entertainment of others,” he says. “My parents hustled. My dad was a satellite engineer back home in Cairo, but in Canada — because he had to take care of three kids — he picked up any job he could. For a while, he was a pizza delivery guy; he also worked in a VHS factory. It taught me the true meaning of dedication and hard work.”
After attending St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School in Markham, Massoud went on to high school at St. Brother André Catholic High School, where he excelled across a platform of forums. Dori Elliott, Massoud’s highschool drama teacher, with whom he says he was close, called her student a shape-shifter — a quiet, gentle person until he got up onstage, at which point, she says, he was volcanic. “I would say that is an accurate description,” Massoud says. “I was an introvert in high school. I kept to myself until it was time for drama class, or improv class, and then I let loose. I was able to figure out who I was as a person during those times when I was up on the stage. I studied the sciences — chemistry and biology — but that is just something I did to please my parents.”
A high achiever, Massoud took drama throughout high school, while also running both the school’s improv team and the announcement team. It is no surprise, then, that the year he graduated, Massoud was the school’s valedictorian.
After graduating from high school, Massoud enrolled in the neuroscience program at the University of Toronto (U of T), where he briefly attended classes — “briefly” being the operative word. From the time he was a young boy, Massoud dreamed of being an actor. So it wasn’t long before he decided to leave U of T’s neuroscience program and en-roll at Toronto’s Ryerson School of Performance, in its four-year program. “I was drawn to the stage from the time I performed Peter Pan in elementary school,” the actor says. “In high school, I did a lot of stage work, appearing in productions such as Romeo and Juliet. Robin Williams [the actor and comedian who tragically took his own life in 2014], was always someone I looked up to, admired and respected, and not just because he was the voice of the genie in the animated Aladdin film . It was one of the few films that I could watch and relate to as a young boy, because it looked like my culture; I could identify with what was going on. Of course, there was also Mrs. Doubtfire, probably the film I watched the most, especially whenever I was feeling down or wanted inspiration.”
“For Me, It Is A Spiritual Journey”
By his third year, the aspiring actor had made a decision that film and television were going to be the routes that he would pursue. He had some success on television, including guest appearances on the television series Nikita, as well as Combat Hospital. He also had a six-episode recurring role in Poser, in 2011. In 2015, Massoud played Jared Malik in the Canadian drama series Open Heart. (Which only ran for one season.)
So with a burning desire to garner a higher profile in the movie industry and evolve as an actor, Massoud, armed with the $20,000 he had saved up from working in a series of restaurants, secured a working visa and moved to Los Angeles in 2017, where he “literally, lived in a closet,” he says. “I ran into another Canadian soon after I got there, who told me that he had a house with two bedrooms, both of which were occupied. But he said that there was a bedroom closet available that I could use,” Massoud shared in a January 2020 interview with fellow Torontonian Lilly Singh. “So I took it. It was, literally, a closet. I was able to get a mattress in there, but the roof was slanted, and every morning I had to lean sideways when I was coming out of the closet.”
Lean and fit, with curly dark hair, warm empathetic eyes and a dimpled smile that accentuates his piano key– white teeth, Massoud exudes a movie star aura. After seven or eight years of hustling for acting work in Toronto, things started to happen for this charismatic, genuine and passionate actor in L.A. “Jack Ryan got booked out of L.A.; Strange But True got booked out of L.A.; Aladdin got booked out of L.A.,” Massoud says. The actor made all the rounds, taking any audition that he could, although he did make a strict promise to himself: he would not play any stereotypical ethnic roles.
It is a testament to his charisma, passion and acting skills that Massoud was chosen to play Aladdin in Disney’s live-action remake of the movie by the same name. The worldwide search for the perfect Aladdin reportedly extended to 2,000 auditions for the coveted role. True to the power that is social media, before the announcement that Massoud had won the role of Aladdin, he had 4,042 Instagram followers. Three days after the announcement, his following skyrocketed to 23,200. As of September 2020, Massoud’s Instagram followers sits at 2.4 million.
The seven- to eight-month shoot for Aladdin involved gruelling 14- to 15-hour days, but the schedule was something that Massoud was used to from his four years of theatre school at Ryerson University, when he would wake up at 5 a.m., attend classes until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and then go into rehearsals afterwards. “It was the same type of schedule when we were shooting Aladdin,” Massoud says. “I would be up by 5 a.m., work out with my trainer, followed by stunt classes and voice lessons, then get ready for the movie shoot. My dad’s efforts taught me the true meaning of dedication and hard work.”
“If You Believe In Karma At All, Then You Have To Believe That The Karma From What You Eat Is Passed Down Into Your Body And Your Spirit”
While Massoud had appeared in the film Ordinary Days in 2017, playing the role of Ollie Santos, and also had a recurring role as Tarek Kassar in the Amazon Prime original series Jack Ryan (2018), Aladdin was a whole new level of stardom. The cast featured the blockbuster actor, comedian and rapper Will Smith; actress Naomi Scott, who starred in the science-fiction drama series Terra Nova and the Disney Channel film Lemonade Mouth; and, of course, director Guy Ritchie, who has directed such films as Snatch (with Brad Pitt); King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Sherlock Holmes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. While a lot of other actors might have been intimidated by such a star-studded lineup, Massoud says he took a page from his parents around managing expectations and staying focused on what needed to be done.
“To be honest, I block out my emotions when I am doing something important,” Massoud says. “There was a lot to accomplish, and I was focused on the things that needed to get done. For the six or seven months that we were shooting, I didn’t really think about it much. The acting for Aladdin was the thing that I was the least worried about. The singing and the dancing, the stunt work and the fitness training were my focus. I wasn’t tied up in my emotions; I just put my head down and worked hard, just like I was taught to do by my dad,” Massoud says. “I didn’t think about how big the role was or what was at stake. It was more about managing expectations around what the role would do for me. I don’t think that anyone thought that the movie would gross US$1 billion. [The budget for Aladdin was US$183 million, and Disney’s box office projection for the movie was US$400 million to US$500 million.] Nobody ever thought it would make a billion dollars.”
Massoud’s affinity for Robin Williams, who was heavy into improvisation, and the fact that in high school Massoud was head of the improv team, prepared Massoud for the improvisation he did with Smith in the movie. “It was something that came naturally to me,” he says.
Three of the top takeaways that Massoud garnered from Smith and Ritchie resonated post-release of Aladdin, more so than during the actual shooting. “I learned in a big way that in this industry, all you have to rely on is your hard work and dedication. No one is going to hand you anything, especially an artist of colour,” he says. “That is just not how it works in this industry. Even after Aladdin, I’m still having to fight hard for work. I have to produce and figure out what my next thing is. I think my parents prepped me well for that; as a family, nothing was ever handed to us.”
While Aladdin was a blockbuster box office success, acting opportunities post-movie have been less than stellar for Massoud. And while having a leading role in Aladdin was a dream come true, at this point, Massoud had adopted the attitude that beggars can’t be choosers. “Nobody is being invited to rooms because of COVID. It’s all self-tapes for everyone. But I’m open to doing pretty much anything. I am not one of those actors sitting at home, being real picky. I am just trying to get auditions, get tapes and trying to book something. I’ve had some great roles, but moving forward, I realize that I will have to evolve as a producer; I will have to produce my own things. I want to create opportunities for myself.”
To that end, the actor has created his own production company called Press Play Productions, and its mantra is to give a voice to the unheard, to produce opportunities that showcase ethnic faces and diverse voices. He has also founded his own charity called Ethnically Diverse Artists (EDA; edafoundation. com) out of Toronto. EDA’s purpose is centred on giving back to artists of colour in Canada, particularly in Toronto. EDA’s mission is focused on inspiring inclusivity and diversity in the arts and entertainment industry. Currently, EDA has five to six artists who are being assisted in their mission to get noticed. EDA is facilitating headshots, sourcing internships and providing resources key to aspiring artists’ evolving careers.
Also, Massoud’s love and passion for food, which he garnered from the numerous meals his mother cooked for the family, have sparked a whole new lifestyle and a whole new career path for the actor.
“No Matter How Successful You Are, Or How Many Accomplishments You Have Achieved, Material Things Will Never Bring You Happiness”
“Two of my best friends and I started gradually cutting animal products out of our diet,” Massoud says. “To me, going vegan works better when you evolve into the lifestyle. After a while, I started to see progress at the gym. I felt better and lighter — spiritually and energetically. If you believe in karma at all, then you have to believe that the karma from what you eat is passed down into your body and your spirit. In that way, it has definitely been a blessing.”
In 2018, the passionate foodie founded a company with his two best friends, called Evolving Vegan, with a mission to introduce people to the vegan life. For his book, Evolving Vegan: Deliciously Diverse Recipes from North America’s Best Plant-Based Eateries— For Anyone Who Loves Food (released September 15, 2020, by Simon & Schuster), Massoud travelled around North America (pre-COVID-19), to find the best vegan food and meet change-makers in the field. Described as part cookbook and part travel guide, Evolving Vegan includes recipes from the cream-of-the-crop plant-based restaurants across North America, as well as some of Massoud’s own recipes and those of his mom. The book’s description highlights the role food and cooking can play in armchair travel during these times of restricted travel.
Initially, there was no publisher on board for Massoud’s book, so he self-funded the venture with his two partners. They travelled across North America — a road trip, of sorts — visiting plant-based restaurants and sourcing recipe excellence for the book. “We wanted to show people how accessible it is to be vegan,” Massoud says. “In fact, that are no shortage of vegan restaurants in Toronto, some of which I profile in the book, including YamChops, a vegan butcher shop that is the first of its kind in North America, and Sweet Heart Kitchen for their No- Bake Maple Pecan Pie. There is also a pitch in the works for a food/travelogue television series based on the Evolving Vegan book.”
Life in L.A. has been good for Massoud, but he admits that there are things that he misses about Toronto, including his love for the Toronto Raptors basketball team, a sport that he is well familiar with, having both played it in high school as well as being a member of the Ontario Basketball Association at that time. The recent postponement of the playoff games by NBA players has Massoud’s full support. “I think NBA players have an incredible platform right now. We all know that the majority of athletes in the NBA are Black African-Americans, and I think they are doing whatever they think is best. If that is postponing the games, then postpone the games,” Massoud says.
He also says that Toronto is one of his favourite cities, particularly in the summertime, when he enjoys doing the simple things, like strolling along Queen Street West and hopping into coffee shops. “Toronto is an amazing city,” Massoud says.
The year 2019 was a banner one for Massoud in the nominations and awards category. In addition to landing the role of Aladdin, the actor was nominated by the Teen Choice Awards for his role in the Aladdin movie, and GQ Men of the Year Awards nominated him in the Breakthrough Talent category, which the actor won. Massoud was also nominated by the National Film & TV Awards in the Best Actor category (for his role in Aladdin), as well as in the Best Newcomer category.
Being authentic and being true to himself are fundamental to Massoud, who is a big fan of the Branch Rickey quote, “Luck is the residue of design.”
“I love this quote, because in reality a person has to work hard to get themself into a position of garnering that luck,” the actor says.
If bestowed three wishes from the proverbial magic lamp, Massoud’s wishes would include the hope that 2020 would turn around; that the coronavirus would go away; and that there would be more love in the world, especially in the United States, around everything that is going on there. “On a more personal level, I wish that I could travel the world more; there is still so much of the world I haven’t seen, including Europe, Southeast Asia, the rest of Africa,” the actor says.
Following one’s dreams and discovering happiness are, to Massoud, the keys to living a dolce vita life. “Believe me, what I have learned, especially after these last few years, is that happiness comes only from within. That is something that Will [Smith] taught me as well. No matter how successful you are, or how many accomplishments you have achieved, material things will never bring you happiness. For me, it is a spiritual journey.”