May Calamawy is particularly grateful for her Instagram account, as it got the ball rolling on her Moon Knight casting. The Bahrain native received a direct message from Moon Knight consulting producer Sarah Goher (who is also the wife of director/executive producer Mohamed Diab), which informed Calamawy that she was on their radar for a lead role that would later become Layla El-Faouly. Layla is an archaeologist-adventurer as well as an “acquaintance” of Marc Spector/Moon Knight (Oscar Isaac), and despite their history, she’s unaware of Spector’s DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder] until an encounter with Steven Grant, Marc’s other personality.
When a complex role requires an actor to do a great deal of heavy lifting, their process can sometimes alienate costars, but in Isaac’s case, Calamawy has nothing but praise for the way he handled his very complicated performance.
“Oscar was such a teacher for me on this project. He would move between the roles so effortlessly,” Calamawy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m a goof. That’s how I need to be to keep my energy going throughout, and if I was just being silly in between takes, he was right there with me. I was always like, ‘Thank you for being like this because this could’ve been such a different experience.’ And it’s not that any other experience is wrong, but this was fun for the intensity of the project.”
While Calamawy hopes that Layla creates more opportunities for other Middle Eastern women in the franchise space, she’s especially thankful to Ethan Hawke, who gave her the lift that she needed.
“I remember I messaged Ethan during the rehearsals, and I was like, ‘I feel like our characters need a scene together,’” Calamawy recalls. “He’s a master developer, and then the next day, he came in and was like, ‘So I figured out a scene that we need to put in there.’ He had a whole scene mapped out. And I remember there was a line where I was like, ‘I think we need this in here.’ And Ethan was like, ‘Cool!’ and he put it in and said it. So that whole process was so empowering for me because this was Ethan Hawke. I’m not really used to the development process of things or using my voice or trusting my opinion. So that moment was really huge for me, especially when we filmed it.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Calamawy also explains why she chose not to reference beloved performances from the action-adventure genre, including one of her favorite actors, Rachel Weisz, and her work in The Mummy.
So what’s it like to have a scene partner in Oscar Isaac who not only plays multiple characters but sometimes shifts to a different character in the same scene?
It’s amazing. Oscar was such a teacher for me on this project. He would move between the roles so effortlessly. In the beginning, he’d have to consciously get himself into it, but by the end, he’d be like, “Just a second.” He would just immediately move through it, and his energy was so strong with each character that we all could feel who he was at each [turn]. It was so much fun, and it was a really intense role. I’m a goof. That’s how I need to be to keep my energy going throughout, and if I was just being silly in between takes, he was right there with me. I was always like, “Thank you for being like this because this could’ve been such a different experience.” And it’s not that any other experience is wrong, but this was fun for the intensity of the project.
Was there anything unusual about the audition process?
I actually got a message on Instagram from Mohamed Diab’s wife, [consulting producer] Sarah [Goher], and she was like, “My husband is interested in you for this role.” So I messaged my manager, and I was like, “Is this real?” And she was like, “Instagram?” And I was like, “Arabs, we kind of do things in different ways, so maybe?” And then I forgot about it, but a week later, my manager said, “It’s real, and you got an audition.” And there was no information. The description was like, “Egyptian woman,” and maybe a few more things about her. “She’s known Marc from her past, and then she meets Steven.” I don’t even know if that was in there. But I did the audition, and two weeks later, I had a chemistry read with Oscar. And three days later, I found out I booked it. So it was pretty quick.
Did you reference any performances from this genre, such as Rachel Weisz in The Mummy? Or did you try to find your own way into it?
I love her so much. (Laughs.) But I realized that as an Arab woman playing an Arab woman, I didn’t want to pull from … Rachel Weisz is an inspiration for me as an actor, but I didn’t want to pull from someone who’s not Arab, which was difficult because I also don’t know any woman in the Middle East who’s been in a situation that Layla is in. (Laughs.) I grew up in Bahrain, so I more so started to take from my conditioning and the women around me. I used the way I would respond or react to situations, and I put them under the circumstances that Layla is in.
Can you begin to describe what this role means to you at this point?
I have a feeling that when this show comes out and hopefully, if it is expansive to women all over the world, especially Middle Eastern women, I think it’ll bring on a different meaning to me. I’m still working on it, but the role gave me the ability to find confidence within myself and to trust myself, so that was a really big gift. It empowered me in many ways, and all I can hope is that it can empower others as well and open doors for Middle Eastern women to take that kind of space.
Culturally speaking, is there an authentic detail that you were glad to see on the screen?
When we filmed the modern-day streets of Egypt, I felt like I was in Egypt. Mohamed Diab, the director, put so much emphasis on the details, whether it was the writing on the storefronts or a broken watermelon on the floor or how people interact with each other. The extras were Egyptian, and the costumes … There’d be little alleyways on the set that we wouldn’t even walk through, but it felt like we were on the streets of Egypt. And that, to me, was a gift because the whole thing could’ve been done on a green screen, and I think the energy of that will exude outwardly. For Arabs, that’s really special for something of this big scale.
Episode four is pretty wild. What was your first reaction when you read that script?
When we all read it, we were like, “How are we gonna do this? What is this? Is this cheesy? Is this good?” And after filming it, it’s now my favorite episode. (Laughs.) I love how it ends, and I love the nuance … I think it became [everyone’s] favorite episode after we filmed it.
As far as the physical acting involved, is this the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
I’m so new in this industry, but this was challenging. I definitely don’t have to be physical on Ramy. (Laughs.) The stunt team was French; they’re incredible, and I want to work with them more. But they were kind of like, “Just go do it now.” And you’re like, “What?” So they’d have a whole obstacle for me, and I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I would just throw myself in, and sometimes I’d hurt myself. Other times, I wouldn’t. But it was fun, and that was something that taught me who Layla is. I had to push myself in without thinking, and I was like, “Oh, this is Layla.”
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing about the making of Moon Knight, what day will you recount first?
Wow. (Calamawy ponders.) I remember I messaged Ethan [Hawke] during the rehearsals, and I was like, “I feel like our characters need a scene together.” He’s a master developer, and then the next day, he came in and was like, “So I figured out a scene that we need to put in there.” He had a whole scene mapped out. So I can’t pick a day because it was really that process. But before we filmed that scene, we were working on it with [directors] Aaron [Moorhead] and Justin [Benson], and I was offering my ideas. And I remember there was a line where I was like, “I think we need this in here.” And Ethan was like, “Cool!” and he put it in and said it. And then we filmed it. So that whole process was so empowering for me because this was Ethan Hawke. I’m not really used to the development process of things or using my voice or trusting my opinion. So that moment was really huge for me, especially when we filmed it.
Moon Knight premieres March 30 on Disney+.