Dina Shihabi: The actress blazing a trail for Saudi women

1 / 3
Dina Shihabi had begun her journey for film stardom, despite all the cultural obstacles she faced in the region.
2 / 3
Dina Shihabi on location for Tom Clancy’s ‘Jack Ryan.’ @ShihabiDina
3 / 3
Dina Shihabi and American actor Martin Starr from her 2014 film Amira & Sam. (Photo courtesy: social media)
Updated 17 May 2018
0

Dina Shihabi: The actress blazing a trail for Saudi women

  • Dina Shihabi is the first and only Saudi woman to be accepted to both Juilliard and the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, two of the most prestigious acting programs in the US.
  • Early setbacks helped me develop a strong work ethic, says Dina Shihabi

JEDDAH: The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival, which continues this week on the French Riviera, is a historic occasion for Saudi Arabia, as it marks the first time that the Kingdom has participated in the event.

The newly formed Saudi Film Council is debuting nine short films by young Saudi filmmakers, and hosting a pavilion where guests can network with fellow professionals and representatives of the Saudi film industry, and scout out prospective film locations within the Kingdom. After officially reintroducing movie theaters last month, and establishing an opera house and national orchestra, along with the now frequent staging of musical and sporting events, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an entertainment overhaul.

But long before any of these reforms began taking place in the Kingdom, a young Saudi actress by the name of Dina Shihabi was already blazing a trail for Saudi women in cinema as she began her own film journey in the face of regional and cultural obstacles. She was motivated to pursue an acting career and persist despite the challenges she faced along the way, and is now delighted to be witnessing the incredible, rapid changes for women, and the film industry, in Saudi Arabia.

Born in Riyadh to Saudi parents of Palestinian origin, Shihabi grew up in Beirut and the UAE, and started taking dance lessons at a young age. Speaking exclusively to Arab News, she recalled her first encounter with the performing arts in Dubai.

“I was 11 years old when I took Sharmila Kamte’s street-jazz class and everything changed,” she said. “I went home that night and told my parents I was going to become a dancer. And I wasn’t good at it — I could hardly move — but I was so obsessed with it that I would practice all day and night. I’d literally practice on my chair in school. Within a year I started dancing in Sharmila’s professional company and that’s what started my journey. It opened up that possibility in my mind.” 

Shihabi had her first taste of acting while attending high school in Dubai, where she frequently appeared in school plays. Her stage presence was noticed and she was encouraged to develop it further by her theater instructor, who advised her to pursue an acting career. At the age of 18, with the love of acting deep in her heart, she moved to New York City. 

“When I first auditioned for colleges to get an acting degree, I got rejected from every program I wanted,” she said. “I ended up going to a small conservatory for two years and then not getting invited back for the third year. I think about all these rejections so early on and none of it stopped me. It just made me work harder.

“I then started taking a class with an artistic director by the name of Wynn Handman, who was incredible. After studying with him for a year I got accepted to Juilliard and New York University’s graduate acting program, two of the finest acting programs in the US — far more prestigious than any acting school that I was applying to at 18.

“Rejection is a huge part of what this life is all about, and those early setbacks really helped me develop a thick skin and a strong work ethic.”

Shihabi was the first, and remains the only, Saudi woman to be accepted to both of these world-renowned acting schools. She graduated with her Master of Fine Arts in 2014 and quickly landed her first lead role in the 2014 romantic comedy film, “Amira & Sam,” in which she played Amira, an Iraqi-Muslim illegal immigrant living in a post 9/11 New York City.

Reflecting on her motivation for pursuing an acting career, a bold choice for a Saudi woman at the time, Shihabi spoke of a love of film that goes back to her childhood.

“I’ve always been a lover of movies,” she said. “I used to come home every day from school and watch one movie over and over again for a month. Everything from ‘Jurassic Park’ to ‘The Sound of Music.’ ‘Memento’ was a huge favorite of mine and started my obsession with director Christopher Nolan that has lasted to this day.

“But being an actor never came up in my mind as something possible. Growing up in Dubai, (wanting to be an actor) is not something that’s common. Then later, when I moved to New York to pursue both (dancing and acting), acting just organically won over. I feel like this life chose me. Everything happened so naturally and now I can’t imagine my life not as an actor.”

Given the rapid changes happening in Saudi society, both for women and the film industry, young Saudi women who decide to pursue an acting career may have things a little easier than Shihabi did. However, she is delighted about the sweet justice of equal rights and increased opportunities for women in the country.

“It’s so exciting,” she said. “I feel very proud of it all. I have so many female friends in Saudi Arabia who are business owners and have master’s and doctorate degrees, and I’m just so excited that the country they live in is going to better reflect the brilliant and powerful women that they are.”

This sense of shared pride is embedded in Shihabi’s identity as an Arab woman, but it was tested when she was starting out as industry professionals urged her to change her name — something many actors agree to for a variety of reasons.

“I was told to change my name because my instructors thought my Arab last name would limit my casting opportunities,” said Shihabi. “I didn’t want to. I love my true name and I’m proud of where I’m from. I grew up wishing someone who had a name like mine, and grew up where I did, was doing what I wanted to do, and so I wanted to be able to be just that.”

By insisting on keeping her given name, Shihabi is living proof that anyone with a dream can follow their passions without giving up their cultural and family heritage.

This is an exciting time for children in Saudi Arabia, who will grow up with international entertainment options that were not available to previous generations. They will spend weekends at movie theaters and not have a second thought of our 35-year cinema drought. 

For those children who become inspired to act as a result, Shihabi advises a steadfast approach. 

“Do it. It’s a challenging but such an enriching life,” she said. “And don’t just become an actor — write and tell your stories. The world needs you. I need you.”

A versatile actress who relishes taking on a wide variety of roles, Shihabi has a particular fondness for the genre of drama.

“I love acting in dramas. I love how it feels to get sucked into a world when you’re doing a drama. There’s silence around the experience. It’s hard to explain but it feels like the character and world sinks into your skin so deeply.”

Always one to look ahead, Shihabi discusses some of her acting goals: “I’ll share the first three that come to mind: I want to make my own movies and TV shows; I want to play Hamlet; and I would like to develop an artistic partnership with a director with whom I can make a series of projects with.”

Next up for Shihabi is a notable role alongside former “The Office” star John Krasinski in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” an Amazon-produced series that will debut on its Prime streaming service August 31. 

She has also been cast in comedian Ramy Youssef’s upcoming Hulu TV show, due to premiere in 2019.


Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

Twenty-five years later, director Jon Favreau has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. (Supplied)
Updated 18 July 2019
0

Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

  • Jon Favreau, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner discuss Disney’s latest blockbuster remake.
  • ‘We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being,’ says Favreau.

DUBAI: There are few movies as resonant as Disney’s 1994 classic “The Lion King.” From its beautiful animation and memorable songs by Hans Zimmer and Elton John to its devastating emotional punch, the film has become a touchstone for an entire generation, one of the few films that unite nearly every person who has seen it across the world.

Now, 25 years later, director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book”) has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. Sitting in London, the first thing Favreau asks Arab News is whether we were part of the “Lion King” generation, and we were, mentioning to Favreau just how expansive the film still feels to us.

 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Director and Producer Jon Favreau and Donald Glover attend the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood. (AFP)

“That’s part of the challenge here! We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being. We would watch it next to one another and there’s certain sequences that hold up incredibly well that we tried to follow shot-for-shot like (the opening sequence) ‘Circle of Life,’ but there’s other areas where we had the opportunity to update it and make it feel a bit more grounded in reality,” Favreau tells Arab News.

Remaking it for a new generation seems obvious, but — to borrow from another Disney classic — it was a Herculean task for Favreau and the huge animation team that supported him. This version remains fully animated, but uses cutting-edge technology to make the entire film photo-realistic. The characters, story, and songs remain, but the film looks more like a David Attenborough nature documentary than an animated movie.

It wasn’t just the technology that proved challenging, either. Making sure that audiences still connect with these beloved characters without the expressiveness of classic Disney animation was something that gave Favreau pause.

(Supplied)

“I worked on ‘Jungle Book,’ so I had some experience in this area,” he says. “Pretty early on, we got to try some different things and when you go to human, you think it would make you feel more but it really feels kind of bizarre, at least to me. I was limited if we were to go photo-real. If you go stylized like Pixar it’s great, you can do whatever you want. If we go ‘Madagascar’ you can make them stick their tongues out. The minute you start hitting photorealism, you hit the uncanny valley when you push the performances beyond what the real animal could do. Part of what makes it look so real is we limited what we allowed the animators to do.”

To be sure that audiences would connect with the characters, Favreau relied a lot on the voices that supported them, bringing in an all-star cast including Beyoncé as Nala, Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa.

“If you look at a character like Pumbaa, to me he’s the most fun example, because when people saw pictures of Pumbaa they were like, ‘Oh my god! That’s horrifying! That thing looks like a monster!’ But when you watch the movie and you hear Seth Rogen’s voice coming out of it and the way the animators animated his body and what the character represents and feels, you have a tremendous connection to it. It’s a testament to the power of using techniques that we borrowed from documentaries or other films, where we limit ourselves to not anthropomorphize the characters,” says Favreau.

(Supplied) 

Eichner and Rogen both tried to remain true to the characters, but also stay true to themselves. “My idea from the beginning was that Jon cast us for a reason,” says Eichner. “He could have cast pretty much any actors. Anyone would have killed to do these roles and be in this movie. It wasn’t the right time to try a new persona. It would have been very strange had I all of a sudden had a deep resonant baritone. I figured he wants Seth to sound like Seth and me to sound like me — or at least what our public comic personas sound-like — and hopefully they’ll complement each other, which they did. Our goal was not to try a new character but to be as funny as possible together.”

As funny as Rogen and Eichner are in the film, it is still aimed firmly at kids — something Rogen hadn’t really considered prior.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen at the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood . (AFP)

“It wasn’t something that even occurred to me until we were making the movie and I was performing the bully scene,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is for kids!’ I have never done anything that was ever trying to instill any wisdom into kids in any way shape or form.”

The film’s wisdom, like the original, is far-reaching, exploring truths not only of family and loss, but of the corrupting nature of ambition and power, which Ejiofor explored in his role as Scar.

“Often, when people are obsessed with power and status, they aren’t really worried about what they do with it, they’re just concerned about getting it. It’s not something that’s connected to any kind of nurturing aspect for a community or anybody else. It becomes about the nature of obsession — obsession with power and status, and maybe status more than power, even though they are related,” says Ejiofor. “That’s one of the things that’s engaging and fun about the film and its themes.”