Asrar El Beyout and More
A Chat with Hana Shiha
By Francesca Sullivan
Hana Shiha sits in Paul café in Mall of Arabia emanating an air of calm confidence. The unassuming sweetness relayed clearly in the interview is a far cry from the character she played in last Ramadan’s El SabaaWasaya (The Seven Commandments) a sobering tale of seven siblings who conspire to kill their own father. She will star in two new major series this year, one in Ramadan: The Pledge (El-Aahd) , a fantasy historical drama dealing with the struggles between a family dynasty (an Egyptian Game of Thrones perhaps?) and the other, a whopping sixty episode mystery drama called Asrar El Beyout (The Secrets of Houses). Not only this, she also stars in the new Mohamed Khan movie due out soon.
Shiha has been turning out consistently well-received performances since she first appeared on the big screen in Khaled el Hagar’s Hob El Banetin 2004. From a well-known artistic family (her father is a painter, and two of her sisters, Hala and Maya, are also actresses), she has turned her talents to TV sitcoms, drama and movies, even hosting her own comedy show in 2009. Cairo West Magazine caught up with her to find out about her latest projects, and take a glimpse into her busy life.
How different is your coming Ramadan series, The Pledge (Al Aahd), from last year’s series El Sabaa Wasaya?
In many ways it’s completely different. To begin with, whereas El SabaaWasaya was a contemporary story set in a very real place – the lower class areas of Cairo – Al Ahad takes place in a parallel world of un-named location, and at an indeterminate time. The costuming though is kind of ethnic 19th century. In the story, I play one of several main characters, part of a family dynasty, fighting for supremacy over three lands.
The series is produced by TVision, and heralds a major development in Egyptian TV drama as it will contain a lot of graphics to create the fantasy world, sort of along the lines of Lord of the Rings. We’ve filmed in lots of different locations, including Siwa, Wahat, Fayoum, and they have even created an entire village set from scratch in Mansouria.
I co-star with more than ten other actors including Arwa Gouda, Ghada Adel and AserYassin, and the script writer Mohamed Amin Razi (he also did NiraanSadiqa or ‘Friendly Fire’) is actually the same as for El SabaaWasaya. He has a slightly controversial way of working with actors, using complex story-lines with multiple characters.
What moments stand out in your memory from of El Sabaa Wasaya?
First of all the series was a smash hit, which was quite overwhelming. It was a far stretch for me to play the character of EmEm, a girl living below the poverty line whose descent into evil was hard to imagine. I worked with the director to try to get to the bottom of her, a person whose method of operating was to lay blame to others, who hypocritically went to pray even after committing sins. But she did intrigue me, and once I’d taken the first steps to understand her, I began to know how she could carry on the way she did. The relationship between EmEm and her husband Arnous really seemed to capture the public’s imagination; they believed in it totally. The thing with creating art is that even when you put your heart and soul into creating characters you can never predict the audiences’ reaction.
We did have some really funny moments during filming, and sometimes at the most dramatic times in the story. I remember the scene where the brothers are all there plotting the murder of our Dad and how it was going to be done. We kept descending into giggles every time Mohamed Shaheen said a particular line – and it was supposed to be a dark moment.
How do you prepare for a role?
To research a character I go to the street and observe real people, not only how they speak or move, but their attitudes. I never take references from other actors or performances. As actors we have all the tools that we need inside us. Every human has a heart diagram with ups and downs, all the range of emotions, and if my character has a less moderate way of expressing her emotion I simply amplify my own – that’s the method. In time I will become her – and then the challenge is to get rid of her afterwards; to reverse the process by which I was sucked into her – especially a character like EmEm! This sometimes needs work: meditation, healing.
You have just finished filming Asrar El Beyout (The Secrets of Houses) what message do you think it delivers to the audience?
The script for this series is interesting as it’s been created by the Clockwork Temptation workshop of writers under the direction of Dr.Karim el Adl, with supervision again by Mohamed Amin Razi. It’s a sixty episode series with so many lines that each writer gets to work on different parts of the script. My character Walaa seems on the surface an angel of mercy, working as a carer for an old lady – but then we discover she’s using her job as a front for another business. I like the layers in her. She is one of four girls working in a large residential compound, all related to the same man who has either been killed or has committed suicide. That’s the mystery.
What is its message? I can’t elaborate too much, but suffice to say that stories cannot always have a happy ending, and sometimes the bad guy just has to win! In Egypt we have always liked realism, and perhaps that is why there has never been much of a tradition of, say, political conspiracy movies until now. It wasn’t possible for us to get inside that world, but perhaps now, post the 2011 revolution, we can show more of what goes on behind the scenes and make it believable.
Asrar el Beyout will be aired in May, as the producers want to get away from only showing series during Ramadan, and it will have two seasons. In Season one the characters will get themselves into a certain situation, then in Series two they will have to resolve it.
What can you tell us about your new movie with director Mohamed Khan?
It’s called AblZahmat el Seyf (Before the Summer Crowds), and we finished shooting it in November. It had been a long time since I’d shot a cinema movie after working so much in TV series, and I was so happy to be back – especially in a film by Mohamed Khan, whose work I respect very much. It was an honour to be chosen as one of his leading ladies. I especially loved the shooting because it had a really different, nostalgic feeling, like one of those movies from the 1960’s I used to watch when I was a little girl. Perhaps that was because we shot it far away from everything on the North Coast, and it was quite different from a typical set. I play one of five characters, along with Ahmed Dawood, Magid el Halawani, Lana Mushtak and Hany el Mitawani, and the story is basically about two couples and an observer. The script, by first timer RhadaShahbandar, feels very authentic, and my character is one I found easy to get close to.
What advice would you offer women who are juggling work and domestic responsibilities, and how do you personally cope with such a busy schedule and family life?
First of all I believe women should work, and set an example for their children. I have two boys aged twelve and eight, and I’ve made sure they understood from an early age what my work involves. They’ve often been on the set when I’m shooting so I can show them why it is so time consuming. They are very supportive and love what I do; I’ll often come home late and find notes from them: we made you a cup of coffee for when you come home (it will be cold!) So when I’m shooting I vanish, but then when I’m there I’m really there, giving them quality time. You should never take anger or work frustration out on your children. Be their role model and show them the meaning of responsibility.
Late night or early riser?
Both! I’m naturally an early riser and like to get up at 6am, but when I work I become a night person.
Tea or coffee?
Sand or snow?
Favourite store/restaurant in Cairo?
I’m not into brands, I’ll shop wherever I find something I like. I love Starbucks in Dandy Mall and Paul in Mall of Arabia.
5 essential items you can’t travel without?
Day and night cream, my phone and charger, a book, lots of cash, and lots of pairs of shoes!
Veronica Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho.
Any current song on repeat?
‘Counting Stars’ by One Republic, and anything by Sade.
Last place you went on holiday to?
Who’s the last person you dialled on your phone?
What’s the best piece of relationship advice you’ve ever heard/had?
Here’s a piece of relationship advice I’d give others: Don’t change anything in yourself to accommodate another person. If it’s not really you, sooner or later the real you will come out!