Up Close And Personal With Naila Mansour

We recently sat down with Naila Mansour to talk to her about her career and everything in between.

Naila Mansour is a British actor, best known for her role as Piabrm in the Eternal Telephone audio drama project at the British Museum’s Egyptian sculpture gallery.

The project was part of the Four Lives Display and was led by award-winning playwright Fin Kennedy, working with museum curators to create fictional responses to real people represented in Room 4: Egyptian sculpture.

Naila’s performance was highly praised for its emotive characterization and evocative storytelling. Other actors involved included Waleed Elgadi, Sammy Broly and Jumaan Zizzari while sound design & production was handled by Farokh Soltani.

In addition to her theatre work, Naila is also an accomplished screen performer. She recently starred as a super spy/super mum in David Tomaszewski’s latest short film NEIT which will be launching at Mammoth Film Festival (2nd – 5th March).

Naila’s introduction to acting began with training at various performing arts schools such as the Brussels studio Micheal Chekov and a short course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). 

We recently sat down with Naila Mansour to talk to her about her career and everything in between.

Up Close And Personal With Naila Mansour
Photographer: Jemima Marriott

What inspired you to become an actress and producer?

My very first memory of acting in a school play as a child, the feeling in the gorgeous costume and my father lifting me proudly at the end of it.

Producing just happened, I initially set up my limited company to develop some personal projects, and then my life partner David needed a company for the music videos he was directing in London, so we did that for a couple of years.

What did you learn from producing your own production company, NINAA Ltd?

That it can be great when everything works out, but it is also a huge responsibility when people are counting on you (crew or clients alike). I learned to be more assertive, to get confidently into money talks and big figures and to not be shy about it.

Can you tell us about your experience voicing the British Museum’s Eternal Telephone audio drama project as Piabrm and the main telephone voice?

I LOVED it. I grew up in Egypt, surrounded by Ancient Egyptian artefacts, so entering the colossal British Museum surrounded by those same objects, and recording in their in-house sound booth was super exciting. Voicing a character that existed in Ancient Egypt – this is a dream role on screen or as voiceover work. Piabrm’s story is a story of love. My father’s time with us was cut short – this to me is an ode to him of my eternal love.

What was it like working with the other actors involved in this project such as Waleed Elgadi, Sammy Broly, Jumaan Zizzari, Fin Kennedy (writer), Nada Sabet (director) and Farokh Soltani (sound designer/producer)?

Fin Kennedy greeted me in the Museum, and I had a private tour of the display before our recording. Nada the director was a strong woman who knew exactly what she wanted and Farokh (and his fab moustache) was fun, helpful and patient when recording. The perfect trio for this team! I already knew Sammy Broly and I was really delighted to meet Waleed and Jumaan virtually later on.

How did you find exploring the themes of war, migration identity & cultural assimilation through fictional responses to real people represented in Room 4: Egyptian Sculpture?

It was very touching – I felt emotional at times. A tombstone of Piabrm, made by her father, was found, with a depiction of her life and beliefs. Fin, Nada and I had a bit of a chat before recording, and even though the monologues are fictionalised, the fact is, she died young, and many women did at the time, especially in childbirth. All these themes are powerful, and it seems like the challenges with migration, identity and cultural assimilation were and are a universal theme, even now. It is interesting to feel connected to people from another time.

Could you tell us more about your role in David Tomaszewki’s short film NEIT as a super spy/super mum and what it was like filming during lockdown with VFX action?

We ended up being locked up together for far too long, with no screen work, production or directing going ahead. With only outdoor exercise allowed at the time, David rode his bicycle every day, and we chatted about our hopes and dreams, spotting amazing locations in the empty streets of London.

We had a backdrop at home, and NEIT was born. David would tell you this is the kind of role he’d want to see me in — to change the narrative of all the self-tapes he has helped me read. What started out as a little passion project at home, was not meant to be shown, but it became two years later this great smartphone movie.

How has being a Belgian-Egyptian actor and producer shaped your career trajectory?

Most auditions my agent receives for me are for Middle Eastern roles and having spent half of my life in Egypt makes me feel still very Egyptian and connected to that heritage. On the other hand, being Belgian-Albanian, and therefore of a very mixed heritage, I think gives me the ability to adapt easily to every situation. My hope is that these things shouldn’t really matter, but hopefully enrich everyone’s experience and bring more tolerance.

Up Close And Personal With Naila Mansour
Photographer: Jemima Marriott

Are there any other projects that you are currently focusing on or have in the pipeline for 2023?

There is a theatre project with the Baron’s Court Theatre called Dancing Alone Every Night by Uruguayan writer Raquel Diana. It’s an imagined story originating in the tragedy of Joyce Vincent whose death in her London apartment went undiscovered for three years…

And, on a lighter note, NEIT, our little smartphone movie, has gained the attention of some people in the film industry who are asking for the script of the feature film version!

What challenges have you faced throughout your acting career and how have you overcome them?

This is a hard one because most of the actors who haven’t had their big break yet face challenges I think. Personally, I could tell you many stories about how 9/11 changed how the world and the industry see people with my heritage, or how being a mom can be a challenge in how the world sees you (I think it is the same in other industries though). Maybe the kind of thing I remember is being asked to play an Afghan or Tamil, or bumping into an Indian-Pakistani actress at the same auditions regularly (we ended up laughing about it!). Perhaps the difficulty can be the lack of knowledge of cultures sometimes from industry decision-makers – but it is slowly getting better.

Do you feel having an international background has been beneficial to your work as an actor or producer?

Sometimes. I am still figuring out how to navigate it in a world that loves clear labels.

Has accessing global networks helped expand opportunities for film or television projects?

Yes, definitely. I met my agent in London and I’m being seen for interesting, varied and international projects.

How do you stay motivated when facing setbacks or difficult times in the industry?

I try to stick to my early morning routine that includes mainly three things: my gratitude journal, my guided meditation by Deepak Chopra and my green tea. Those are my daily practices. After an audition, I’ll have a bar of chocolate! But if I miss the acting and the practice, I sign up for a workshop or I go and watch a movie in my local cinema down the street, or to the theatre and remember why I love this.

Which actors have been most influential to your work and why?

As a kid, I grew up watching Judy Garland, Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez. We had the TNT channel in Alexandria and I truly enjoyed watching those long, old movies with my dad or my aunt.

Nowadays, Emily Blunt, because she’s a true chameleon and can play anything, I’d love to be offered roles that are so different and powerful! And she’s a mom.
Penelope Cruz who has always been herself, with her accent/heritage becoming part of her identity.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, Ramy Youssef and Lena Dunham, I truly admire how they brought their experiences to life while being such a huge part of the process (writing, producing – directing sometimes – and starring in them), they all are brutally and shamelessly honest power forces.

Sarah Shahi because of how her life and career took off when she decided to become independent! (She even found true love when least expecting it! I love that story).

Hiam Abbass, Lubna Azabal, Yasmine El Masri, Rami Malek and May Calamawy, because seeing people who look like me succeed helps me believe anything is possible.

Has technology played a role in helping facilitate production processes during Covid-19 restrictions or have there been new challenges to face?

Not for me. Maybe because I was pregnant during the pandemic and so scared of this new unknown virus, I really sheltered my unborn baby from all of it, I avoided everything and everyone for the whole first year of the pandemic. For some friends I know, their businesses took off thanks to technology. Maybe for mine, it would be making more smartphone movies. But not with two years (on and off) of VFX!

Do you think that digital platforms such as streaming services have had a positive impact on viewers’ perceptions of diverse casting decisions and increased representation within storytelling roles generally speaking?

Maybe so, if we think of the success of Squid Game or all the heroic fantasy series that has been doing so well on digital platforms, then yes. I sometimes wonder if what is on there is just a reflection of our evolution as a society (after the #BLM movement, and the #StopAsianHate movement, different movies came to light all over these platforms. It did not start on the platforms I think, but it does seem that there is an increased representation in the roles, but not yet in the lead roles.

Are there any emerging trends within production techniques that excite or interest you right now?

I have produced two high-end fashion photoshoots in London for a client in New York while having a meeting with photographers in Italy and Brazil on zoom. The client on one of the shoots supervised the whole thing online. This is the biggest change in the post-pandemic world and it works. Things that would have seemed impossible in 2020 are the way we work now.

Up Close And Personal With Naila Mansour
Photographer: Jemima Marriott

Have there ever been any moments while acting where something occurred on set unexpectedly that still sticks out to you today?

I worked in Spain with Antonio Mayans on a movie set where a lot of improvs were demanded, in the middle of a very hot summer in the desert of Almeria. Everything was a challenge, and suddenly, I had an extra scene to do (he played my father). I went blank, and the director and crew and actors were waiting. He saw my face and whispered to me ‘Always be ready to offer something, never wait for them to ask. Do your thing and worst case, they can cut it’. I jumped into the scene. Such good advice has stayed with me ever since.

Would you advise aspiring actors to pursue formal education before entering into their craft professionally or is practical experience equally important too?

Of course, practice is important. I would advise them to pursue formal education, especially in London where agents from the top agencies find their actors in the showcases of these Drama Schools. That network is so important from the start. But it isn’t accessible to everyone. There are great initiatives though, like the Identity School of Acting.

Are there any specific skills that are essential for successful filmmaking which often go understated but make a difference?

When I look around me, I can think of two people I personally know who have made a successful international career, and they are both very skilled in communicating with clients, producers, and investors, as well as cast and crew. I think their secret is accepting and letting go of their absolute ego, and giving space to a merging of thoughts and ideas. Filmmaking is definitely teamwork.

What advice would give someone if they wanted to create their own production company similar to yours?

I’d say, open your computer, find the Companies House website and just do it! It’ll cost you about £12. It is that easy in the UK. They give you two years with a lot of advantages before it gets more serious. There are a lot of resources online (HMRC), and your business banking department can help too. The UK is really good at encouraging this. And get a good accountant!

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