DUBAI: Ambition can be a frustrating thing. For Saudi actor Muhanad Al-Hamdi, it was almost unbearable. He could clearly see, in his mind’s eye, an image of himself opposite Hollywood royalty, starring in the sorts of films the region has never made. At times, he was embarrassed to share his dreams with others. After all, how could a young boy from the Kingdom, a place where cinemas had, at the time, been banned for years, ever will himself into that world?
Thankfully, the rules that once held back Saudi Arabia’s boundless creativity are gone for good. Just five years after the Kingdom announced its intentions to create an international-standard film industry, history is being made on an almost weekly basis, and Al-Hamdi, a one-time beloved MBC personality, finds himself a major part of those leaps ahead. This week alone will see the release of two of his groundbreaking projects years in the making: “The Cello,” the first international Arabic-language horror film, and “Hard Broken,” a crime-thriller series getting a global Netflix release.
“I’m so proud to be Saudi, now more than ever before,” Al-Hamdi tells Arab News. “Saudi Arabia feels like a rocket ship at the moment, everything is moving so fast. And the real beauty of these changes is that they’re lifting every industry up, so we can thrive in any direction we choose. It truly feels like anything is possible.”
Every artist has their own journey to success — and their own definition of what that means. While Al-Hamdi has loved acting for years, he admits that the craft itself was not his main motivation. In fact, it was stardom that Al-Hamdi yearned for — the kind of fame and glory that only marquee talents achieve. Then, one day at the beginning of August 2020, while on vacation in Beirut, Lebanon, Al-Hamdi was changed forever.
“It’s still hard to talk about, but I was very nearby when the (Beirut Port) explosion happened. I almost died. I came so close to death that I could smell it. For the first time in my life, I was keenly aware of my own mortality,” Al-Hamdi says.
“After the explosion, I quite literally changed into a different person. In an instant, I didn’t want the fame anymore. All those numbers that used to consume me now felt meaningless. What I needed, I realized, was to do good art for my legacy. I need to make something to be proud of — something that I’ll show my kids someday,” he continues.
Even in a changing Gulf region, however, creating art is easier said than done. Up until that point, Al-Hamdi had found success by chasing opportunity wherever it lay, eager to climb the ladder even when the rungs seemed non-existent at times.
He wanted to study acting, for example, but no acting schools existed in Saudi Arabia. Undaunted, he went to study in Kuwait, the Gulf country with the richest theatrical culture, and, after graduation, met an Emirati man who told him that true success was to be found in Dubai, and he would help him.
“He told me he had a meeting with MBC in two days, and that I had to book my ticket and join him. I told him ‘Of course.’ But at the time I didn’t even have money for a ticket. My friends lent me the cash, and I booked the flight and arrived. I didn’t even have a sim card or a place to stay,” Al-Hamdi recounts.
“I took a cab to Dubai Mall, and sat on the mall’s Wi-Fi for four or five hours just waiting for him to message. I started thinking that maybe he wasn’t serious, and I’d come for nothing. Then finally he responded, telling me he was in the Armani Café, and the next day we went to MBC,” he continues.
From that moment, his path to fame fell into place quickly. MBC agreed to try him out on their radio stations as a presenter, and after two months behind the microphone, a passing TV executive caught sight of his striking good looks, found out he was Saudi, and immediately ushered him into his office.
“He said, ‘What the heck are you doing on the radio?’ Within minutes I was sitting in a chair with the radio and TV managers both standing above me, asking me what I wanted to do. I said I’d cook in the kitchen or clean the floors if they asked me to, but I couldn’t decide this myself. A short time later, they came back and told me I had to be on TV,” says Al-Hamdi.
In 2019, just as MBC was about to make him one of the lead presenters on the morning show, Al-Hamdi landed one of the main roles on “Cairo Class,” a major MBC series, and audiences welcomed the turn. Within two weeks, he went from 30,000 followers to 1 million, and left presenting behind.
But after the Beirut bombing changed everything for Al-Hamdi, the path forward felt a little less sure. He was being offered role after role, and began turning them down one by one, a dangerous move for an emerging star. He dreamed of something international, a dream that was realized with “The Cello,” written by Turki AlSheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, and co-starring Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons and horror legend Tobin Bell (best known for his portrayal of Jigsaw in the “Saw” franchise).
“I was genuinely shaking before my first scene with Jeremy. I never thought this moment would come,” says Al-Hamdi. “I told him I was his biggest fan and it’s true, but he told me that we are equals. On set, we are all actors working together to create something special. He told me not to think about proving to him or anyone else that I’m good. ‘You’ll be good if you believe in the character. Never perform for anyone else but yourself. And never forget that we’re doing something for love, first and foremost.’ I’ll never forget a word of what he told me.”
Perhaps that was the moment Al-Hamdi decided what he needed to do once he left that set. He’s realized that he can no longer wait for the kind of stories that he wants to tell to come along so he can star in movies that he can tell his children about some day. If he wants to reach that point, he has to take fate into his own hands.
“I have so many ideas, and I’m fully committed to bringing them to life. ‘Hard Broken’ is the first step on that journey, a series based on a story by my wife, herself a director. I’m now writing four different stories — one about a real Syrian man who died near me on that same day that I was spared in Beirut. I have so many stories to tell,” he says. “I’ve become hungry — starving — for real art.”