Nelly Karim: The Queen of Naturalness

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Sat, 09 Mar 2019 - 02:00 GMT

File - Nelly Karim.

File - Nelly Karim.

CAIRO - 9 March 2019: Our star of the month is a dazzling actress; her beauty lies in her simplicity and all-time naturalness. She is the queen of a very special acting practice of her own invention; “In order to act well, you shouldn’t act at all,” says the first rule of the guidebook.

A strong independent and intellectual woman, a one of a kind genuine actress, an exquisite ballerina, and an outstanding mother and pure hearted person, she is the role model Nelly Karim.

Born on December 18, 1974 in Alexandria to a Russian father and Egyptian mother, Karim starred in 17 Egyptian films and nine TV series.

She has a number of respectable awards under her belt; Best Actress award at Cairo International Film Festival for her role in Enta omry (You are My Life) movie, Special Award from Cairo National Festival for Egyptian Cinema for her role in Wahed-Sefr (One-Zero) movie, Best Actress award at the Arab Film Festival for her role in 678 movie, among others.

As we celebrate the International Woman Day this month, Egypt Today sat down with the beloved icon Nelly Karim, who has genuinely depicted the strength, the purity, the dedication and the heroism of Egyptian women in most, if not all, of her work, sending a message of empowerment to every girl and woman who watch her on the screen.


1-You’ve done drama, comedy, tragedy, romance, as well as social and political roles… Which is the closest to your heart?

Every character I played had some of my own features. My main target is to sneak into the role smoothly; and eventually pull out a natural performance. But I have to admit that all the women I portrayed on screen are not me; they didn’t behave like me and their reactions weren’t like mine. First, I start to analyze the role, I get to know the environment of the woman I am going to portray, her outfit, how she looks like, her background… This helps me form the final image of the character. But I have to admit that I don’t prefer the political roles because I don’t know much about politics, I only understand everyday life issues.To explain more, let’s talk about my role in Eshtebak (Clash), which is considered a political movie, but my character was an ordinary Egyptian woman who doesn’t follow any of the political currents, and only seeks the safety of her husband and son. She just wanted the bus to arrive safely, to protect her family. When Eshtebak’s director and scriptwriter Mohamed Diab sent me the script, I told him it was a genius plot because it all took place in the back of a police van, at the time when the Muslim Brotherhood was ruling Egypt. I told Diab that there should be a woman in this police van to add another touch of humanity, which is the role I [eventually] played. At first, I suggested that this female character be someone like the late great actress Karima Mokhtar because she was a symbol of motherhood and safety, the ordinary Egyptian woman who doesn’t know anything about politics, and thus she can act as the voice of the country and the people who only seek safety. So, I liked Eshtebak and participated in it because of the humanitarian message not the political one; the idea that we are all at the end of the day humans, despite our different political affiliations. In the movie, each character had his/her own thoughts, principals and political beliefs but when it came to children and people’s safety, we found that all of them shared the same fear.

In general, I must be totally convinced with the role I am performing. I don’t prefer a certain type, I like to work in a good and integrated movie or series, whether it is comedy, tragedy, social, romantic or action. There is a huge difference between searching for a good project and just looking for a good role. I search for a good movie or series, where all the characters are accurately portrayed not just mine, a project with a good director and producer and a strong script with a respectable message… Throughout my experience, I’ve learnt that in our field every detail is important.

At the beginning of my career, I was just trying to experience all the genres, I was trying to know what cinema is and what TV drama is; how the good script looks like and how to choose my roles. My strong and weak point, at the same time, was that no one guided me, because when I started working in this field I didn’t have friends in this community at all; I didn’t know producers, directors or even actors, nobody advised me.

2-Which of the genres would you say was the most difficult to pull out?

All are the same; nothing is difficult once you understand the dimensions as well as the frame of the character you are going to play. What is difficult for me is how to find the project which has a suitable and homogenous cast, because many actors perform their roles greatly but the rest of the cast is weak so their efforts are wasted.

The smart actor is the one who manages every time to place himself in a suitable cast; in other words, to be part of a project with the correct elements and base. The actor must accept to be part of a project if it has good idea and; not and of course he should be convinced with his role.

In general, what is more important for me than the story of the movie is whether it is executed well or not because there are always different points of views, people may like a certain story others may not but people will all agree on whether it is well executed or not.

For example, Sokoot hor (Free Fall) series was very difficult for me... I stayed for two months in a mental asylum, and the plot was psychologically very tough. Some said that this series is not a very successful one just because they don’t like this type of plots, but people used to discuss with me all the details of the series so this means that it was successful; maybe they didn’t like it but it succeeded because they discussed with me tiny details that nobody would know except after watching the series.

On the other hand, others saw Skoot Hor as a great series. There was a debate about my role; some thought the plot was depressing and frustrating because Egyptians specially and Arabs generally don’t like tragic stories, they tend to like more happy stories that are full of hope. We love stories that make us happy for many reasons, such as the circumstances we are living in; we are emotional nations that get strongly attached to the characters. They live the incidents of every episode as if they are part of the plot. In Segn el Nesaa (Women’s Prison) series, all Egyptians were waiting for Saber to die. In Taht el Saytra (Under Control), all were wondering whether Nada and Hatem would reunite again or not.

3-What is the hardest scene you have performed?

The most difficult scene for me is killing Saber in Segn el Nesaa. It was the last scene I shot in the whole series. But I have to admit that most of Segn el Nesaa scenes were so difficult.

4-How do you prepare for your roles? Give us an example; a certain character that took a lot of preparation from you?

My first movie with the great Egyptian director Kamla Abou Zekri was called Wahed Sefr (One-Zero). As this was our first cooperation, Kamla didn’t know much about me. She asked me to join the movie after watching some of my previous work and told me that my role was difficult and she explained to me the details of the character: Riham. I have a trait, I don’t know whether it is a strength or weakness; it is that I don’t talk much but at the same time I am a good listener. So I listened well to Kamla and stored in my memory how this character looked like, her details and all aspects… Riham was an ordinary humble Egyptian girl living in a poor neighborhood… I started working with the stylist Dalia Youssef on the outfit of Riham and how she would look like… I didn’t wear any kind of makeup on my face. I went to the studio and nobody noticed that I came nor greeted me or even talked to me. Then, I saw kamla and some of the cast sitting in front of the monitor so I sat beside them; suddenly, Kamla said “I want Nelly; where is she?” I told her I had been there for about an hour; she laughed and said “Oh I didn’t recognize you’’. She liked Riham’s look very much. One of the scenes was then shot in Wekalet el Balah area, where I was buying clothes and nobody there recognized me. So I absorbed the character from Kamla’s explanation and I really believed that I was this humble girl. I love this movie very much, because it made me understand why it is important to work with a good director, with a good script and a different subject.

Later, I worked in 678 movie, which was Mohamed Diab’s first experience as a director. I fell in love with the idea of the movie… The main characters were three girls, I don’t know why but many actresses had refused to participate in this movie until I, Bushra and Nahed el Sebaie agreed to make it. I wasn’t worried, although it was Diab’s first directing experience, because I felt he knew his mission well; and the story was tackling a prevailing phenomenon which is sexual harassment, but from a different angle.

After 678, I started working in Bent Esmaha Zat (A Girl Named Zat) series. It is another completely different stage in my career; a series adapted from a novel.
At the beginning, I didn’t know who Zat was and how things were going to go, but when you are working with a professional director who understands all the characters and has a vision, even if you get lost you will be sure that at the end he will put you on the right track.

Bent Esmaha Zat was quite difficult, not just because it included different age periods but because your reactions in every age is different from the other. For example, the way an 18-year-old girl cries is totally different from the way she cries when she is 60 years old; when you feel happy in your twenties is not like the happiness feeling in your forties and fifties; so I didn’t just act I had to understand the character’s psychology.

I will be a liar if I say that I prepare; I usually don’t do rehearsals, study the character or write its details; this is not me. My technique depends on absorbing the character, seeing where she stands, then loving and understanding her. I go to her own world, I know her background, how she walks, if she is thin or fat, pretty or ugly, how she sees herself, if she is psychologically stable or not. Even if all these details are not mentioned in the script, I start to imagine them.


5-What has ballet added to your character in general and to you as an actress?

I learned from ballet commitment, punctuality, patience and strength. Ballet is that kind of art that has a worldwide respect... it is a very sophisticated art. Since I was a ballet student, I was taught to respect my trainer, so I learned respect. Ballet is a very tough profession because despite the physical pain you have to perform on stage while smiling.

6-Can you describe a day in the life of Nelly during shooting season?

On a shooting day, I work from early morning till the evening. On my days off, I just try to carry out my duties that I had postponed. Sometimes, I decide to travel all of a sudden to any place or country. I love the sea, so I prefer to go to El Gouna or any other coastal city. Sometimes, I go to Alexandria for only one day to eat seafood; I love Alexandria because I was born there.

7-What movie or series would you consider milestones in your career?

The turning point in my whole career is Bent Esmaha Zat. Segn el Nesaa was more difficult, acting wise, but whenever I want to watch one of my series again and laugh, I always choose Bent Esmaha Zat when. I love it so much.

8-To what extent have Egyptian cinema and drama succeeded in portraying women, their life, problems, and challenges? What is the difference between women in the cinema in the past and today?

If we talk about Egyptian cinema in the past 40 or 50 years, we will find that the great Faten Hamama was the actress who paid the most attention to portraying Egyptian women’s problems and circumstances on the silver screen in her immortal movies Oreed Halan (I want a solution) and Embratoryet Meem ( Meem Empire).

From my point of view, the Egyptian woman is very strong; no one can oppress her. Oppressed women are the ones who chose to accept this, so being oppressed is the result of their choice.

Women in Egyptian villages and Upper Egypt are so powerful and prestigious… Egyptian women now work in all professions, there is no job Egyptian women can’t do.

I believe that women have a message in life. Egyptian women’s status is based on their own choices. If they surrender to injustices, they will be oppressed and miserable but if they want to be successful and work hard, they will achieve their dreams.

In Egypt, a mother is whom we can call the man of the house. She is the main backbone of the family because she is the one who raises kids, helps them in their marriage, takes care of her grandsons and granddaughters when she becomes a grandmother… her role in life never ends.

I wouldn’t have become Nelly Karim if not for my mother because she raised my kids with me and she continuously helps me. While I was shooting Segn el Nesaa, she fell sick and was taken to the hospital, my life was paralyzed because she is the one who brings stability to my life; without her I wouldn’t have been able to work hard and succeed.

Behind every successful woman, is a great mother who is even more successful than her. If you ever come across a successful married woman with kids, you have to know that there is another woman behind her not a man, most probably this woman is her mother.

9-Are we better off as women with more rights than our mothers and grandmothers?

I see that Egyptian women have now achieved more progress because now they have their own voice; they work in all jobs. Egyptian women have started to hold more sensitive and vital positions. Concerning their rights, I see that women now have taken their rights; or in other words, if a woman wants to take her rights she will. Nobody can prevent her; it depends on her strong will.

10-You got married at a very young age… do you support early marriage? What is the suitable age for marriage from your point of view?

Of course I am not with early marriage. I think any girl should first graduate from university, then work and achieve her dreams, plan well for her life, then see whom she wants to marry. The psychology of both men and women in their twenties is different from their psychology in their thirties.

11-What are the principles and values that you are keen to instill in your daughters and sons?

The most important thing is to be respectable, to respect people so that they respect them in return.

12-How do you balance the multiple roles you play in your life as an actress, mother, daughter and even a friend? Which role takes priority?

I am not an organized person at all (she laughs). I don’t follow a plan to balance them; I act smoothly trying to do them all in the best way possible. I live my life day by day and and I carry out my duties towards my daughters, sons, mother, work and friends. The most important thing for me is that they are all safe with good health, then everything else will pass. I just try to be positive because there are always day to day problems, so the challenge is to wake up every day with optimism, full of energy, and think in a positive way.

13-Are you friends with your daughters and sons?

The four of them are my friends. Our relation is not the traditional one between a mother and her children; we are all friends and we talk to each other freely about everything. In general, I taught them how to be independent and responsible, I didn’t pamper them because I wasn’t pampered.

14- What are the problems facing the cinema and drama industries now?

Egypt in general has good potential for a strong cinema industry. I was a jury member in a number of international festivals so I watched movies from all over the world; what I can say is that the only weakness in our industry has to do with the topics and the ideas of the projects. Also, in order to have a strong industry, we should have a suitable cast and the right director; each director has his own taste and specialization.

Sometimes, we don’t know how to have a successful project. My point of view is that we are delinquent because up-till now we haven’t produced one movie with international standards that can compete globally. It is true that such movie will need a high budget but this can be achievable if all the Egyptian producers cooperate together; it can be a huge international success.

I have already suggested producing a massive production historical movie that talks about the Arab world’s history because unfortunately they produce movies tackling our history abroad, while we don’t. It will achieve a huge success and we have a wide range of Egyptian actors who are talented enough to perform in such movie. We have the money and the manpower but the point is that we don’t invest our money in the right place. In general, we need a plan for each movie; we need to know its strategy, its message and its idea. For example, the Indian cinema Bollywood has a very strong background, its market share now is very huge because India pays great attention to cinema and considers it one of the country’s main industries.

My daughters and their generation only watch foreign movies because we don’t have Egyptian movies for children. We need to have movies dedicated to children tailor-made to develop their patriotic sense. I used to live in Russia and I studied there; the Russians made dazzling movies to document the Second World War; I watched American movies tackling this period but the Russians ones were far better. It is an amazing thing when children get to know their history from the movies... Our children don’t know their history well because we don’t have such movies. What are the Egyptian programs directed to children? We should have pioneer producers to start making children movies because we are in deep need for this content. When one producer starts this line and others see how it is successful, they will start to follow his footsteps. I wish to take my daughters to watch an Egyptian children movie one day. We have Alf Leila w Leila (One Thousand and One Nights); each story [of these] can be easily made into a movie. Where is the Egyptian cartoon? I wish to see a good Egyptian cartoon movie.

15-Would you work in a children movie?

Why not? If the script is good and the whole project is an integrated one, I will be eager to be part of it. But at the end of the day, I am only an actress; I don’t have a production company to produce such a movie. We all have the elements to make a children movie but we lack the management that can gather all these elements together. We need to be more organized; also, all the filmmakers prefer to work in guaranteed projects, no one is willing to take risks, or think outside of the box and start this new line. We imitate each other’s success; comedy movies succeed then all producers start to produce comedy, action movies are trendy, then all prefer action projects. We need to have a variety of movies, not just limited types.

16-What is your dream role?

I wish to play a historical strong Egyptian woman. I prefer to keep her name as a secret until I do it one day (she laughs). I also wish to play the role of the late great belly dancer and actress Samia Gamal because I love and respect belly dancing but of course not the one present nowadays. I love upscale belly dancing. When I read about Samia Gamal I discovered how she was a great lady, simple, elegant, as well romantic and emotional in her love stories with Roushdy Abaza and Farid el Atrash. I wish to portray her life in a movie that people abroad would enjoy watching. When I think about a project, I want it to be executed in a way that foreigners can watch. For example, many foreigners, who are living in the US and Europe, watched Segn el Nesaa on Youtube, even without subtitles because the series’ credibility attracted them to follow it...

17-Which actor, actress and director do you want to work with the most and why?

The director is Dawoud Abdel Sayed, the actor is Khaled el Sawy, there are two actresses I want to work with again: Menna Shalaby and Hend Sabry.





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