Dina Shihabi: The actress blazing a trail for Saudi women

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


Inside Marvel’s biggest movie yet

Updated 22 April 2019
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Inside Marvel’s biggest movie yet

  • As ‘Endgame’ approaches for the Avengers, Arab News talks to three of its biggest stars

DUBAI: For the stars of what could well become the biggest movie ever made — “Avengers: Endgame,” the culmination of 11 years of Marvel storytelling, which opens in GCC cinemas April 24 — there is one rule: You do not talk about “Avengers: Endgame.”

The walls of secrecy surrounding the project are impenetrable. After the last installment of the series, “Avengers: Infinity War,” ended with a shocking twist, leaving half of the Avengers — and the universe at large — dead, fans were anxious to find out what happens next. On their latest world tour to support the film, Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) have turned volleying “Endgame” questions back into a sport.

“I’ve gotten real jaded about it. Now I’m really mean about it. I’m just like, ‘Next!’” Johansson tells Arab News.

“In the beginning of this press tour, we would try to skirt around it in these cute ways.” she continues.

“We’d be apologetic about it,” says Rudd.

“We’ve gotten really rough around the edges,” says Johansson.

“We all know the story. We can’t say anything! It’s hard for us but it’s harder for you. It’s tricky. I feel like early on I decided, what should we talk about?” says Rudd.

“We can talk about other stuff, like manscaping,” says Johansson.

“I’ll never not talk about that!” adds Rudd.

Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) kicked off in 2008 with the release of the first “Iron Man “with Robert Downey Jr., it has evolved, turning characters from footnotes to phenomena. Johansson joined Downey in 2010’s “Iron Man 2” to play Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, a deadly assassin turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. “Avengers: Endgame” will mark her eighth film as the character.

“It’s unprecedented (in cinema) to get the opportunity you really only get working on a very successful TV show — to be able to play a character for a decade of time. We’ve had this luxury of going away and doing other work, and then coming back to these movies, so we’ve all kind of grown,” Johansson tells Arab News.

“I can only speak for my experience, but I feel I’ve grown very much as an actor. I don’t believe I could have played this character in its current state, and certainly as you see her in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’ This is just the right time in my life to be able to play a character that’s fully realized like this, and it very much echoes my own journey as an actor or as a person. Who could have ever imagined that this would be so explosive? It’s crazy. It’s mind-blowing.”

Chris Hemsworth, who first played Thor, a character rooted in Norse mythology, in 2011 and is also about to reach his eighth film, began, as much of the cast did, as a fan.

“The first time that the Marvel universe came into my universe back in Australia, I was sitting there, straight out of high school, watching ‘Iron Man,’ thinking, ‘Oh my god, imagine. I wish I could be a part of that world.’ And then a few years on, getting cast in it as Thor, having the opportunity to embark on it. At the time I was wondering if this film even going to make it past DVD into the cinemas? Was I going to be recast?”

Like Johansson, Hemsworth also feels his portrayal of his character has improved with each film. With 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” Hemsworth believes he found his voice as the Norse god of thunder, finally able to put his own stamp on it, working with director Taika Waititi in a looser, more improvisational style. The film — a hit with both critics and audiences worldwide — revitalized the character. With “Endgame,” that tone is likely to continue, Hemsworth tells Arab News.

“There was more improvisation in this than the previous one (“Avengers: Infinity War”). The stakes were as high as they could be, but we found a great way to have another version, or more growth in the character, and found something unexpected again. That was so much fun. I’m very thankful that it happened this way, to finish strong, as opposed to the other way around,” says Hemsworth.

Paul Rudd joined the MCU with 2015’s “Ant-Man,” playing Scott Lang, a petty criminal who finds a suit that allows him to grow and shrink at will. Rudd has been the same reliable comic presence he has been since “Clueless” (1995) and “Anchorman” (2004), and if trailers can be trusted, his inclusion in “Avengers: Endgame” will add levity to the serious emotional weight the film promises.

Rudd has enjoyed digging deeper into Lang in each subsequent MCU appearance, also citing Hemsworth’s evolution as Thor as one that he admires.

“Sometimes you finish a movie and when you’re done filming it, you think ‘Oh, now I’d like to start it, because I finally have a sense of the character.’ In this one, there’s several chances,” he says. “Characters morph and grow, as we do as people. I’m different from who I was three years ago or four years ago. You get to know the character more, you get to know the world more, the other actors better, and as a result you get to go even deeper with the character.

“I look at Thor in the first movie and then in ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and what a crazy amazing journey that character has been on,” he continues. “These films provide the opportunity to explore many different facets of the character.”

As much as the respective performances have evolved during 11 years of the MCU, the cultural landscape and conversation around gender has also moved forward, with audiences much less likely to tolerate female characters who are token or one dimensional. Johansson’s Black Widow has evolved with the times.

“The character started as sort of a sexy secretary with a skillset on the side. We didn’t know, or certainly I didn’t know, how the audience would react to the character, my interpretation of the character, who was obviously a beloved character for a long time. I feel the next time we saw her in ‘Avengers’ (2012) she was sort of one of the boys, for better or for worse, and that made sense then,” Johansson says.

“As the fans and the audiences have pushed Marvel and all the studios and filmmakers to really throw up on the screen what represents what’s going on in the zeitgeist, and wanting to see diverse films and casts that represent their own aspirations and how they feel, the character has sort of grown in reaction to that,” she continues. “And the movies have grown in reaction to that fan encouragement.”