DUBAI: Mohamed Farrag did it the hard way. That’s why it feels different. As Arab News sits with the acclaimed Egyptian actor over lunch in Dubai, the proof is in the way that passersby greet him — they are not just meeting a star, they are meeting an artist whose work they deeply admire.
MBC Shahid’s new series “Room 207” is perhaps Farrag’s finest work yet, and is just beginning to light a fire across the Arabic-speaking world as we speak — establishing him firmly as a leading man, and vindicating his entire approach to acting.
“If there’s one thing I want to change about this industry, about the mentality of acting in Egypt, it’s this: Anyone can be well known — if I kill somebody, I’m going to be well known — but what’s the purpose of that fame?” Farrag says. “Fame shouldn’t be a goal, it should be a side effect.”
At 39, Farrag has reached the point where he’s earned the right to make such proclamations. After all, he was vital to the success of Mona Zaki’s super-sized 2021 Ramadan hit “Newton’s Cradle,” which became the most-watched Egyptian series of the year and continues to find an audience on Netflix, with many declaring it the best Arab series in years.
“Room 207,” since its first two episodes debuted on October 31, is being rated even higher, pulling in big enough audiences to make a second season a foregone conclusion even with only half the first having aired.
That a series that moves Farrag directly into the spotlight would get that sort of immediate reaction is no surprise. He’s built years of goodwill from committed, scene-stealing performances across film, television and theater. What is perhaps surprising about the show is that it it’s a homegrown Egyptian horror series that has become hugely popular. In general, horror is a genre in which only imports receive acclaim in the Arab world.
“When I was first sent the script, I picked it up to glance at it before I went to bed. I ended up finishing it at 3 a.m. and immediately called the producer, waking him from a sound sleep. I told him that no one was going to do this project but me. I made that vow to him. I needed it to happen,” says Farrag.
The series is based on a novel by acclaimed Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, the third adaptation of his work since he passed away in 2018. The last, Netflix’s big-budget bet “Paranormal” (2020), failed to find an audience despite a massive promotional push, and while “Room 207” may share a passing resemblance, it’s resonating in a way that other adaptations have not, capturing what made Tawfik’s paperbacks fly off the shelves for decades.
“To be honest, I started to think we were headed for a season two during the second week of shooting. And I’ve never felt that way before,” says Farrag. “This project has a very special place in my heart. I don't choose to do anything I don't love, but this one is special. And it’s not because I'm the hero, it’s because it’s not like anything I’ve seen before. The vibes, the writing, the cast, the way we shoot — I truly love this.”
Perhaps the reason that Farrag is responding to it so strongly is that it taps into the precocious boy he once was, the boy who fell in love with television in the first place.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t want to watch cartoons, I didn’t want to play with my sisters. No. I was always watching TV — but very heavy series made for adults. It was drama, drama, and more drama all the time. I was like an addict, watching things meant for people far older,” says Farrag. “When I went to school, they asked every kid what they wanted to be. I said I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t even know what acting was, but I was committed.”
At home, Farrag and his sisters would watch movies on VHS until they found a scene they liked in particular. Then they would press stop, and Farrag would quickly scribble down the scene from memory. Then they would act the scenes out together and record their best performances.
“I still have the tape recordings of our voices from when we were kids. I still listen to them from time to time, when I miss the feeling. It was a feeling of innocence, of passion toward acting. Those were beautiful memories, and I still get emotional when I think about them,” says Farrag.
There have been many days since Farrag began his career that he has needed those tapes — needed a reminder that he was doing this for a reason. It is only in recent years, he admits, that he has truly felt like he’s ‘made it.’ For years, he felt insecure not only about his career, but also about his ability, often having difficulty watching his own films and series because of how harshly he would judge his own performances. But his ever-growing mastery of his craft eventually overpowered his self-doubt, and made him a fixture on screens across the Arab world.
“I think I’ve grown up now. Some elements have changed in my character, and it’s clear in my life, in my work, and in the way I see myself. I used to put so much hate on myself, but I’ve found a way out of that. I started to like myself, and I started to be able to watch my work up on the screen with pride,” he says.
Farrag is in a particularly reflective mood. Perhaps it’s because he just walked out of MBC’s offices, where he witnessed the ecstatic reactions that the company has had to “Room 207” so far, and how committed MBC already was to making a second season happen — and committed to Farrag personally as an A-list leading man for years to come. It was the kind of meeting that makes those harder truths easier to admit, knowing that the happy ending is already here. That boy recording his voice into the tape recorder is now a man helping lead Arabic television to places it’s never been before.
“I’ve always loved what I do. Even during the hardest moments, if I asked myself if I wanted to keep going, the voice inside me always repeated back, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ But it feels different now,” he says. “I’m filled with more pride than I ever was before. I love everything that I’ve done, but now I’m excited for the next thing even more. Acting is beautiful, man.”