Femme Fatale meets tomboy is how I would describe Menna Shalaby, who is equal parts angelically beautiful and daringly bold.Menna Shalaby is a household name that fills cinemas and living room couches alike. She is the kind of gal who speaks her mind – regardless – and is very much likeable for that true ‘girl-next-door-meets-femme-fatale’ spirit she vapors. With a track record of eight years (knock on wood) Menna Shalaby is a household name that fills cinemas and living room couches alike.
She tells it like it is without fake ribbons and bubbly paper refusing to be part of a double standard movement she carries herself with pride and élan from one success to the other. We met for a chat on cinema, life and love.
How do you choose your roles?
Actually it is all about how I can connect to that character, if can feel that character or not. It doesn’t have to be a role I identify with in terms of principles or behavior I just have to find a way to feel it so I can play it.
Are there enough character roles for women in Egyptian cinema?
Well, there are not that many good scripts out there and at the moment caliber script writers are few, but I am sure that there is so much talent out there that just hasn’t surfaced yet, so at the moment most of the main character roles are male. It is also not by the size of the role but by the available depth that makes a character role.
Which of your roles are dearest to your heart?
I like them all, I like Jasmine in “Banat Wust El Balad” (Down Town Girls) a lot and Salma in “An El Eshq wal Hawa” or Hend in “Enta Omri”. I also like “Badal Faqed” although it’s a small role, I guess they are like your kids, you love them all. All of one’s roles are a product of hard work and commitment so I can say that I liked myself more in this or that film but there is no role I hate.
You have a track record others would kill for, how do you look back on that? Any regrets?
No regrets. Of course sometimes I ask myself why I did this film for example, but the answer is simple as every step leads to a better one, any bad choice taught me something and brought something good along. I am lucky that I have enough self-evaluation that I acknowledge my mistakes and am able to overcome them and move on. There are many people who supported me and stood by me in my career, no one really fought me or so, apart from that I believe if you are focused on your target and don’t waste your energy in looking around on who is doing what you will reach your goal.
Do you have friends in the field? Does that work?
My closest friends are from my school years, we go back to primary school. I think like in any industry there are friends you make at work and there are colleagues you like and appreciate. Most of the field are dear colleagues to me but I am very close friends with Sherin Abdel Wahab, Hend Sabry and Ahmed El Sakka for example. There is a certain gentlemen agreement between two actresses that are friends, who both agree that they share the same ambition to be the best yet without harming or backstabbing the other, simply clean competition and it is very important to have complete faith in destiny (“nassib”).
What about the constant ‘my name before your name’ issue we hear about in local media? Is that true or just the product of the yellow press?
When I sign a contract I don’t sign for the money but for various aspects such as what I will be gaining out of the role not on where my name will be placed on the poster. By the way the actor doesn’t decide the name placement as this is the producer’s decision. At a certain point in one’s career your name serves as part of the marketing for a film so the producer decides this name issue based on that not based on conditions actors allegedly set. Unfortunately, here in Egypt we have these name issues which are wasted energy if you ask me, I mean Robert de Niro could co-star with Keanu Reeves and the latter gets his name first in the titles, which is not an issue for them at all. There are differences in mentality, I guess.
You were part of the short film jury at MEIFF in Abu Dhabi, tell me about this experience.
Yes, for the first time (smiles). It’s an experience that I enjoyed very much and as much as it is a commitment and responsibility it is also a great learning experience to watch, interpret and discuss different films regardless of my personal mood, loyalties or beliefs.
Having been exposed to international films at the festival what are the differences you detected? Are we far apart?
We are not far apart, we just have a different industry composition. We need more institutions to back up art and cinema apart from the commercial factor. We lack well-educated believers and fighters for art and cinema. Madame Shwikar was on TV the other day answering all this in a simple sentence “a people without art is a country without a people” so what we need is more respect towards arts and education of the public to understand and appreciate art. This will reflect on filmmaking and will tighten the gap between our cinema and that abroad. We need more authentic believers, risk-takers and fighters who are passionate and respect this métier.
Don’t you feel that our film industry is somewhat corrupted?
I think everything nowadays is shaken and unclear. People’s behaviors have drastically changed to the negative. We go to work in the morning ready for a fight, worried and frowning instead of being energized to make a difference or a living. We became kind of lazy and stopped aiming for perfection at what we do, regardless of profession. Our energy is wasted in the wrong direction of how to be rude and aggressive, and we became very judgmental. All this reflects on cinema as well, it is part of this vicious cycle, in the end cinema and arts are a reflection of society. Can you imagine that a filmmaker would worry that the audience would not even understand the film? People’s tastes change in correlation with the corruption of society. But I won’t let this affect me, I am a good fighter and I am convinced that I am doing the right thing and that God gave me a gift which I am thankful for and I will work on enhancing this until I die.
Would you like to act abroad?
I would sure love to win an Oscar (laughs) any actor in the world dreams of that. But I don’t really chase acting abroad by auditioning or the like, it is not my target. My target would rather be that someday they offer me a role because they liked my acting in an Egyptian film so much they want me badly.
Who is Menna behind the camera?
Nothing spectacular, I am just like any regular girl, I hang out with friends, read a book or watch movies, if I am in the mood I would pass by the gym, but I don’t have a daily routine or habit I stick to. I like reading Ehsan Abdel Koudouss very much.
What makes you happy and what are your fears?
I am very simple. The sight of a cute baby could make me happy or buying myself something nice or a day that passed without any pressure or worries for example. My fears or worries would be to fail in something or not to be able to portray a role as I want to or not to be able to maintain what I reached so far.
I am very direct and easy to read, I don’t beat around the bush at all. Sometimes I try to stand above certain things and turn a fear into strength and other times I just worry and feel weak. This sounds contradictive but this is the way I am. What weakens or touches me is witnessing injustice, oppression or need.
Did fame change you?
Not at all. Sometimes my friends jokingly ask me if I don’t feel what I have, but I do feel it very much but what is the translation of that emotion? It is great to be liked by two or three persons around you and imagine if they are a little bit more, so being natural and relaxed is the right way to enjoy this feeling. Just be yourself is the best thing.
Do you have a role model?
Youssra, she is very strong and the Grande Dame of cinema, a mega star, and she is the simplest, most grounded and most liked person in this field. I learned so much from her, such as that the more God gives you the more grounded you have to be. Youssra is one of a kind and a true human being with a heart of gold.
Why are you single? Are men not marriage material nowadays?
Well, I would not go that far, but I frankly speaking the increasing double standards and hypocrisy in our society is somehow communicating to the girl to lie and twist herself to get a guy who is marriage material. I refuse to do that. I want a man to like me as I am and I want a man to like him the way he is and for what he is not for what he ideally should be. Any life a couple begins with compromises that make you not yourself is not worth living. In fact I even think that this is the women’s fault as they give in to such pressure and supply to meet demand. Men today have a certain distorted image of their potential wife in mind that many girls trick themselves into a marriage only to reach a dead end sooner or later, that’s why young divorces increase and many women stay marriage less in the first place. I am not talking about a women’s revolution but I am just saying that Prince Charming will not come galloping on his white horse to sweep you off your feet (laughs), but there is God given chemistry and love between two. So until I meet the man that I don’t have to twist myself for and who takes me as I am I guess I’d be single.
Do you think that successful women scare men?
I guess that in any profession that for a successful woman to be fulfilled and happy with a man he must be understanding, very self-conscious and sure of himself and successful as well. If one is missing the balance is shaken.
What do women want?
Security, happiness, success and accomplishment in what she does be it her home, work or life.
photography: Ahmed Mubarez
Dress by Malak El Ezzawy
Location: Imperial suite, Sofitel El Gezirah Cairo
Hair by Waleed, Al Sagheer Salons
Makeup by Looji, Al Sagheer Salons