PARIS: She’s just returned from her latest film shoot, but Nadia Benzakour is already thinking about her next project. It is out of the question for this Franco-Moroccan actress — who lives between Paris and Casablanca — to take a break. Benzakour has enjoyed a meteoric rise, acting alongside some of the world’s finest, and isn’t about to rest on her laurels.
As mentioned, a few days before we speak, she was playing one of the main roles in “Tehu,” the latest feature by French director Eric Barbier. That came shortly after taking a centuries-long leap into the past as Poppea, Nero’s second wife — a seductress who sows discord between the Roman emperor and Seneca, his fervent political advisor, committed to moral values.
That was in “Seneca – On the Creation of Earthquakes,” helmed by German director Robert Schwentke (director of blockbusters including “Snake Eyes,” “Red” and “RIPD”) and co-produced by Moroccan Karim Debbagh. Benzakour was in prestigious company; the cast includes Mary-Louise Parker, Geraldine Chaplin, Andrew Koji, and Louis Hofmann, while Tom Xander and John Malkovich perform the two lead roles.
Benzakour remembers the atmosphere on set as being akin to that of a theater production, where the actors form a real troupe. That went some way, she says, to alleviating the stress that most actors are likely to face when acting opposite Malkovich
“I was very enthusiastic; I had already seen him in rehearsal. I had the opportunity to approach him before shooting. He is an extremely simple and humble person. I said, ‘I’m honored to work with you.’ He just replied: ‘Hi. I’m John.’ And I was, like, ‘Yes, obviously.’” Benzakour laughs. “He is very attentive to everything that happens on set; it’s great to get the chance to see him at work,” she continues.
It’s not the first time that Benzakour has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in international cinema. She has worked with luminaries including John Rhys-Davies, Rufus Sewell, Mark Strong, Joe Dempsie, Carole Bouquet, Pauline Étienne, and more.
For a long time, Benzakour thought that, despite her passion for theater and film, she wanted to be a lawyer. At least until one of her acting teachers made her question her commitment.
“My sister had told me about the theater school Les Enfants Terribles, which was very close to her home,” she says. “I went to the open days and I was hooked, right off the bat. I started classes and one day I told my teacher that I was going to take time off to prepare for my law exams. Since he knew I was very invested in acting lessons, he replied, “But I thought you wanted to make it your job.” That is when I realized it was more than a passion for me: it was a vocation.”
She hasn’t looked back since. Not long after, she met director Nicolas Liautard, who expanded her knowledge of theater and her vision of what was possible on stage.
Pushed by a desire to explore her art further — and aware of having started her apprenticeship late — Benzakour headed to New York, where she divided her time between a job at the French economic mission and acting classes, hoping to perfect her skills in the home of Broadway.
Instead, the lover of the stage ended up honing her skills in front of the camera, thanks in no small part to her teacher Mary Boyer (whose own skills would later be on display in “Orange is the New Black”).
The next stop in what she refers to as her “Forrest Gump-style” life (because she’s always on the move) was Morocco, the country of her ancestors. She didn’t intend to stay for long, but that plan changed when “I met a Lebanese woman there who told me about a theatre project that I liked so much; we then embarked on the play by the Italian Dario Fo ‘A Woman Alone.’ Later on, I did several shoots there too.”
One of those shoots was the TV series “Salon Sherazade,” which propelled the actress to nationwide fame in Morocco. It also offered her a path into international productions, including “Sofia,” “Plus Belle La Vie,” “Spin,” “Tyrant” and “Deep State.” The kind of roles she was being offered started to change too.
“The funny thing is that I was given more and more roles playing seductive women, or protective and strong mothers, whereas before I played a journalist, an investigator, a warrior,” she says.
While Benzakour clearly still enjoys the challenge of inhabiting different characters — her 2022 releases include the TV show “The Colosseum” and the feature films “The Covenant” and “A Song for Juliette” — she has set herself a new goal — working behind the camera. She has already written two films, as well as a musical “on the theme of identity,” she tells Arab News. Given the success she has so far enjoyed in whatever field she has turned her attention to, expect to hear much more about Benzakour the writer-director in future.
- Adapted from an article that originally appeared in Arab News in French