DUBAI: It’s a strange thing, forging an identity. For years, Saudi actress Nour Alkhadra knew exactly how to introduce herself: “Hello, I’m Nour, and I’m a streamer and gaming entrepreneur.” That’s what she studied, that’s what she had dedicated her life to—that’s what she was profiled as in the pages of this newspaper.
How quickly things can change. With lead roles in two of the region’s most exciting new films, Netflix’s “The Matchmaker” and “HWJN,” Alkhadra will have to add another line to her bio: 2023’s breakout female Saudi star.
All of this started during COVID-19 lockdowns. Until then, Alkhadra was living in London, focusing on her gaming company WeGeek and her popular Twitch streaming account. The path forward seemed clear.
“Then COVID happened, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who am I? Why am I?’ It was a lot of depressive stuff,” Alkhadra tells Arab News.
“Then I put everything aside and started thinking about what I really felt like doing, deep down. I realized there was something I always wanted to do but had never tried: acting. So I started taking classes in London, and I fell in love with it. I wanted to start pursuing roles instantly,” she continues.
Alkhadra had lived outside of Saudi Arabia for 11 years, and a lot had changed since she left. While she had always loved performing in front of her family growing up, acting as a career was never a possibility, so it wasn’t a dream she entertained. But as she pursued a different life for herself, her home country began to transform, and a powerful new film industry was on the brink of taking off. Alkhadra wanted to be a part of it.
“I didn’t want to act just anywhere,” she says. “I wanted to act in Saudi. We have so many stories to tell. But when I moved back to Saudi two and a half years ago, I didn’t actually know anyone in the film scene. I started scrolling online forums no one really looks at, and trying to find somewhere to post an audition.”
Alkhadra quickly started making contacts, landing a few roles in TV series. It was all happening quite fast. So fast, in fact, that when she saw a listing for the film “HWJN,” based on the best-selling fantasy novel in Saudi history, she didn’t even have a showreel to send out, as nothing she’d filmed had been released at the time. Undeterred, she came up with a different plan.
“I didn’t have anything to show, but I did have a tape of myself I’d filmed at home where I’d taken scenes from movies and reenacted them in front of my camera. I had done two scenes from (Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic) ‘Pulp Fiction,’ taking Uma Thurman’s role of Mia Wallace in the exchange in the dining room with John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, and Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic ‘Ezekiel 25:17’ monologue. That’s what I sent to them as a tape,” says Alkhadra.
It never should have worked — but beneath the rough edges, that tape had a quality that Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri couldn’t deny.
“The director messaged me saying, ‘I saw your Pulp Fiction thing. I liked it. I really like the way you express things with your eyes and your face without the need for words. I was surprised he saw all that from that little video, but I played it casual. I said, ‘OK, cool.’ And that’s how I got my first movie,” says Alkhadra.
“HWJN is a romance between a supernatural being and a human—I play the human. It was such an honor, because it’s Saudi’s first fantasy film,” she continues. “I’m so excited to be a part of it.”
Alkhadra came back to Saudi to break ground, and followed up the Kingdom’s first fantasy with its first psychological thriller, a Netflix original entitled “The Matchmaker,” which was filmed in historic AlUla. She would once again play the love interest, but this time not one to be trusted. In it, she lures an unsuspecting man to take part in an ancient matchmaking ritual in the desert, a ritual which includes a lot less romance than he may have suspected.
“After I was cast, I went to Riyadh to meet with the director. We sat down and started off with, ‘OK, why is she like this?’ We then started coming up with her backstory, the depths of her pain and her anger, and even her kindness. We discovered she’s not actually a bad person, she just wants things to be fair. All that character building we did made it so much deeper — and it made her really make sense to me,” says Alkhadra.
Coming up this woman’s story, she could immediately feel, had awakened a creative impulse inside her. She started thinking of all those days and nights during lockdown when she sat in bed, making herself miserable with anxiety, She’d struggled with it for years, never able to shut her mind off, endlessly creating scenarios in her head for things that may never happen. But anxiety, she realized, might be misplaced creativity.
“I always used to think of my wild imagination as a curse. But actually, in writing, it’s a blessing. I knew if I wrote, I would be able to put my weakness to work for me,” says Alkhadra.
While there are more movie roles on the horizon, including another with Saudi production company Telfaz11 directed by Wael Abumansour which hasn’t been announced yet that should be hitting festivals in 2024, Alkhadra is currently writing her own film, a fantasy project inspired by both movies she likes and the many video games she’s fallen in love with over the years, a passion she hasn’t let die even though she never has the time to stream anymore.
“At first, it wasn’t even a fantasy. I was writing something from real life, inspired by a true story. I wrote the whole outline like that, but then, as I kept working, a fantasy element started developing naturally. It’s still a human story, but there’s more going on that I’m still exploring,” she says.
Alkhadra is emboldened, not just by her near-instant success, but by how much space is left to paint on the Saudi canvas. In a country with so many stories to tell, she’s excited to be one of those lucky enough to start telling them.
“We’re the ones who are setting things up for the next generation. We are the generation of pioneers, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to be a part of that. Tastes in Saudi are already changing — it’s Saudi films that are at the top of the streaming charts, at the top of the box office,” she says. “It’s so beautiful to see, and I can’t wait to be a part of where this goes next.”