DUBAI: At this point, 2022 might as well be deemed the year of Asser Yassin. The Egyptian actor already dominated the global conversation in Ramadan as the lead in “Suits Arabia,” a remake of the beloved American legal series. Less than two months later, Yassin has followed it up with what is poised to be the series of the summer — MBC’s flagship crime thriller “The Eight,” which already has garnered rave reviews and big ratings.
“The ambition of ‘The Eight’ is something I’ve never experienced before,” Yassin tells Arab News. “The production budget is in line with a top show in Hollywood — the highest I’ve ever worked on. The crew was very international. But, most important for me, the character was someone I’d never played before, and he kept revealing himself as we went.”
Yassin plays Adam, a man who suddenly finds himself at odds with the gang he’s long belonged to, surviving his own execution only to set off on a path to revenge. The character, created by Saudi writer Turki Al-Shikh, turned out to be a greater challenge to figure out than Yassin had anticipated.
“For each film or series that I do, I write an extensive background history for the character just for myself, to figure him out. For this, I couldn’t find a reference to any other character, not only that I had done, but in any other film. He just felt different. It was really interesting to me,” Yassin continues.
Yassin himself is a lifelong cinephile, a man who abandoned his degree in engineering against his family’s wishes because his love for film was so great. During what little free time he had at university, he starred in short films with his friend, who happened to be the son of the legendary Egyptian realist Khairy Beshara, who during the Eighties and Nineties made some of Egypt’s most significant films, such as “El Towk Wa El Eswera” and “Yom Mor... Yom Helw.”
Beshara saw some of the two friends’ films and told his son that he wanted to work with Yassin. It was a moment that changed his life.
“He’s my second father, a man I still call constantly,” says Yassin of Beshara. “He changed the way I saw myself, how I saw film, and how I saw life itself.”
Yassin has modeled his own career after actors such as Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, and others, he says, pushing himself to the limit on nearly every project he takes — sometimes too far for his own physical and mental health. Adam, however, a desperate character with violence in his heart, did not make him think of any of the films he’s long admired. For Adam, he had to go to people he knew.
“First and foremost, I thought of my grandfather,” he says. “Adam doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s an idealistic guy who’s driven to revenge after the events of the first episode after his sister and fiancé die. My father and my grandfather come from rural Egypt. There, we understand revenge, and we understand family.
“My grandfather was a superb man, a military man, extremely well-read. But when I was four years old, he came to me and said, ‘Asser, there are only four people you go to jail for. Your father, your mother, your brother and your wife. You kill for these people,’” Yassin continues.
When he sat down to write his character’s background history, he also thought of the father of one of his best friends, a surgeon who, in his free time, hunted ducks on the land he owned in Beheira, near Alexandria in Egypt.
“During the revolution, he was there hunting by himself. There were a group of people who decided that, since there was no security, they would go and take over the land. They went in with shotguns. To their surprise, he decided to fight back. Bullets started flying back and forth until he took to his car to run. They pursued him, still shooting, until his car flipped. They left, because they thought he’d died, but he survived,” says Yassin. “I imagined Adam sitting in the passenger seat of that car next to him.”
Yassin’s dedication on set was just as intense. With time, he’s learned to dedicate himself to the project overall, rather than just to his own performance.
“That’s something I’ve been doing on the last couple of projects,” he says. “I consider the whole show mine. I’m always there to give it my all, even if I’m not in the shot. It’s my project, it’s my baby. I literally spill blood for it, whether it’s in stunts, in anger or in stress. It was like that on ‘Suits’ as well. I’m there every moment with this intention in mind.”
On “The Eight,” that sometimes meant stepping in during moments of crisis. In one key stunt, a car packed with explosives was supposed to flip, after which Yassin’s character was supposed to escape in a helicopter. Yassin knew, as it the vehicle was one of the older Range Rovers with a low center of gravity, that it would be nearly impossible to pull off without proper preparation. “That went back to my engineering degree again,” he says.
As the sun went down, Yassin sat with the stunt coordinator. The explosives in the car went off, but the vehicle didn’t flip. As the filmmakers scrambled to figure out what to do with a shot that was already blown, Yassin took matters into his own hands.
“I threw everything I had aside, ran into the scene, got onto the helicopter, and left,” he says. “We had to get it done.”
Ultimately though, while Yassin has grown to have the kind of outsized presence on set that is reserved for only the top leading actors, his goal is not to take charge, but to create a space conducive to creativity, from top to bottom.
“I hate negativity, because in the end we’re creating. If I have tension with a colleague, I have to smooth it over somehow, or give it time until it fades away,” he says. “I have to have a strong relationship on set with everyone, from the actors to the director to the cinematographer to the gaffer. We all have to be on the same frequency. We’re all equal, at the end of the day. You can’t do well when you’re the only one doing well.”
While Yassin’s dance card is full at the moment — he’ll be a lead character in the “Sons of Rizk” sequels and has two other films in the works — he is hoping that “The Eight” will come back for multiple seasons, especially due to the response it’s already gotten thus far, both in Saudi Arabia and across the region.
“I think it’s an amazing project. It’s so rich,” he says. “There’s so much left to reveal in this character, and I hope we’re able to let this story unfold in season two.”