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DUBAI: Mohamed Farrag did it the hard way. That’s why it feels different. As Arab News sits down with the award-winning Egyptian actor over lunch in Dubai, the proof is in the way passers-by greet him – they’re not just meeting a star, they’re meeting an artist whose work they deeply admire.
MBC Shahid’s new series “Room 207” is perhaps Farrag’s best work yet, and is just starting to light a fire across the Arabic-speaking world as we speak – firmly establishing him as a leading man, and his entire approach to acting confirm.
“If there’s one thing I want to change about this industry, about the mentality of acting in Egypt, it’s this: Anyone can be famous – if I kill someone, I’m going to be famous – but what’s the point of fame?” says Farrag. “Fame shouldn’t be a goal, it should be a side effect.”
At 39, Farrag has reached the point where he has earned the right to make such proclamations. After all, he was essential to the success of Mona Zaki’s super 2021 Ramadan hit “Newton’s Cradle”, which became the most watched Egyptian series of the year and continues to find an audience on Netflix, with many declaring it the best Arab has. series in years.
“Room 207,” since its first two episodes debuted on Oct. 31, has been rated even higher, drawing audiences large enough to make a second season a foregone conclusion, even with only half of the first having aired.
That a series that puts Farrag directly in the spotlight would get that kind of immediate reaction is no surprise. He has built years of goodwill from dedicated, scene-stealing performances across film, television and theater. What is perhaps surprising about the show is that it is an Egyptian horror series that has become very popular. In general, horror is a genre in which only imports enjoy acclaim in the Arab world.
“When I was first sent the script, I picked it up to look at it before I went to bed. I finished it at 3am and immediately called the producer and woke him up from a sound sleep. I told him no one was going to do this project but me. I made that vow to him. I needed it to happen,” says Farrag.
The series is based on a novel by award-winning Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, the third adaptation of his work since he passed away in 2018. The last, Netflix’s big-budget bet “Paranormal” (2020), failed to find an audience despite a massive promotional push, and while “Room 207” may share a passing resemblance, it resonates in a way which other adaptations lack, and captures what has made Tawfik’s paperbacks fly off the shelves for decades.
“To be honest, I started to think we were headed for a season two during the second week of shooting. And I’ve never felt that way before,” says Farrag. “This project has a very special place in my heart. I don’t choose to do something I don’t like, but this one is special. And it’s not because I’m the hero, it’s because it’s not like anything I’ve seen before. The vibes, the writing, the cast, the way we shoot — I really love it.”
Perhaps the reason Farrag reacts so strongly to it is that it taps into the precocious boy he once was, the boy who fell in love with television in the first place.
“When I was a child, I didn’t want to watch cartoons, I didn’t want to play with my sisters. No. I always watched TV – but very heavy series made for adults. It was drama, drama and more drama all the time. I was like an addict, looking at things meant for people much older,” says Farrag. “When I went to school, they asked every child what they wanted to be. I said I want to be an actor. I didn’t even know what acting was, but I was committed.”
At home, Farrag and his sisters watched movies on VHS until they found a scene they particularly liked. Then they would press stop, and Farrag would quickly write down the scene from memory. Then they would play the scenes together and record their best performances.
“I still have the tape recordings of our voices from when we were children. I still listen to them from time to time, when I miss the feeling. It was a feeling of innocence, of passion for acting. They were beautiful memories, and I still get emotional when I think about them,” says Farrag.
There have been many days since Farrag began his career that he’s needed those tapes – needed a reminder that he did it for a reason. It’s only in recent years, he admits, that he’s truly felt like he’s ‘made it’. For years, he felt insecure not only about his career, but also about his ability, and often struggled to watch his own films and series because of how harshly he would judge his own performances. But his ever-growing mastery of his art eventually overcame his self-doubt and made him a fixture on screens across the Arab world.
“I think I’ve grown up now. Some elements have changed in my character, and this is evident in my life, in my work and in the way I see myself. I used to put so much hate on myself, but I found a way out of it. I began to like myself, and I began to look at my work on screen with pride,” he says.
Farrag is in a particularly reflective mood. Maybe it’s because he just walked out of MBC’s offices, where he saw the ecstatic reactions the company has had to “Room 207” so far, and how committed MBC was already to making a second season happen – and him personally committed to Farrag as an A-list leading man for years to come. It was the kind of encounter that makes those harder truths easier to admit, knowing that the happy ending is already here. That boy recording his voice on the tape recorder is now a man helping to lead Arabic television to places it has never been.
“I have always loved what I do. Even during the most difficult moments, when I asked myself if I wanted to keep going, the voice inside me always returned: ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ But it feels different now,” he says. “I am filled with more pride than I have ever been before. I love everything I’ve done, but now I’m even more excited for the next thing. Acting is beautiful, man.”