In each of their triumphant TV series last Ramadan, Riham Abdel Ghafour and Bassel Khaiat proved themselves to be topnotch actors – Abdel Ghafour as the uptight sister in La Totfea’ El Shams (Don’t Turn Out the Sun), and Khaiat as the corrupt psychopathic killer in 30 Youm (30 Days). Their fans are now excitedly anticipating the two stars joining forces in the upcoming Ramadan thriller, Rehla 710 (Trip No. 710), which will have viewers see them both in an entirely new light. eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham sat down with TV’s newest duo to learn more about their collaboration and their different journeys to dramatic success. A delightful conversation ensued, revealing their shared passion for entertainment despite their very different personalities, which charmingly complement one another.
Born and raised in Cairo, Riham Abdel Ghafour is the daughter of actor Ashraf Abdel Ghafour, while her mother was a two time winner of the Miss Egypt title, before she dedicated her life to being a stay at home mum. Abdel Ghafour attended Dar el Tarbya School and El Guizera Schools in Zamalek, and went on to join the English section of the Faculty of Commerce at university.
Abel Ghafour’s acting career took off by mere coincidence during her senior year at university. “I didn’t have an acting career on my mind whatsoever. It all started when I was attending a wedding full of celebrities, and Noor El Sherif, who was a good friend of my father’s, suggested the idea. I was intrigued by it, especially since I was such a shy person and I felt I could use this opportunity to change that. I was also in a place in my life where I couldn’t really think of anything else that interested me,” Abdel Ghafour explains.
“First I had to convince my parents, since my father was against the idea, because I was still a student at university, “she adds. “My mother was also very worried about all the ups and downs that come with this business and she was afraid it might get to me, because she and I have similar personalities. Later on, however, they became very supportive,” Abdel Ghafour recalls.
According to Abdel Ghafour, her first acting experience in director Mohamed Fadel’s Al Aela Wel Nas (The Family & the People) was actually less than ideal. “It was very tough,” she recalls. “I had no clue what I was doing at the time, and this discouraged me a bit.” It was not until her second acting experience, in Zezenya Part Two, with director Gamal Abdelhamid, when she fell in love with acting.
Nevertheless, Abdel Ghafour doubted herself many times throughout her career. Having married and had kids at a young age, pursuing an acting career has been very hard for her. She recalls that she made many mistakes along the way. “I was often hasty when it came to my career choices,” she says. “I was inexperienced, and I started taking on some mediocre roles just to be present on the scene, especially in cinema. I would take on random jobs as favours because I just couldn’t say no. When I watched those films later on, I would be so discouraged that I wanted to quit acting,” admits Abdel Ghafour. Eventually, however, Abdel Ghafour felt that acting became “a therapeutic experience” for her, as it helped her get over her fear of dealing with people and forced her to confront her shyness.
Although Abdel Ghafour is still awaiting her “I made it” moment, she is pleased with her important career milestones so far, El Rayaan, El Daeyaah (The Preacher) and La Totfea’ El Shams (Don’t Turn Out the Sun). “These three were huge turning points in my career. I have become way pickier and developed a perspective on how to choose roles. I try to be creative and think outside the box as much as possible, and I’m staying away from the ‘pretty girl’ traditional parts. In both Al Rayan and La Totfea’ Al Shams, I actually chose different roles from the ones originally offered to me, because they were more challenging. When I first told Tamer Habib I wanted the part of Fifi in La Totfea’ Al Shams, he was surprised and told me that I’m nothing like the character, but I convinced him,” recalls Abdel Ghafour.
Abdel Ghafour is convinced that viewers now are more critical when judging actors, and can tell a challenging part from a mediocre one. “I also believe that delivering entertainment to the audience is a message on its own,” she says. “There shouldn’t always be a grand moral behind every role I take. Nevertheless, with Fifi we wanted to highlight the fact that she was merely lacking love and in need of attention from others, and she wasn’t as strong as she pretended to be. However, I don’t always pick my roles upon this concept; the message is mostly embedded within the lines,” Abdel Ghafour explains.
Abdel Ghafour further proved her acting range when she starred in two other Ramadan series which aired simultaneously with La Totfea’ Al Shams. In the series, Ramadan Kareem (Happy Ramadan) and Al Zeba’ (Mercury), she played, respectively, the simple woman who is dying to get married, and the married woman who cannot bear children. Both characters were polar opposites from the character of Fifi.
La Totfea’ El Shams set the bar higher for me and I know that everyone will be anticipating what I will do next. I got numerous offers after last year, and I chose only one project that will be completely different for me, and I hope it turns out well. The fact that I’m working with Bassel Khaiat who is a big success himself makes me eager to assert myself even more,” declares Abdel Ghafour.
The project Abdel Ghafour is referring to is Rehla 710 (Trip No. 710), a much anticipated Ramadan suspense series, where she stars opposite Bassel Khaiat, along with Hanan Motawie, Walid Fawaz and Mai Selim. “The series has a number of characters and many storylines, but my storyline with Bassel, who plays my husband, is the catalyst for all the events. It’s really interesting and different from anything I’ve ever done before,” explains Abdel Ghafour.
Abdel Ghafour is happy that her family is very supportive of her career. In fact, her biggest fan is her eldest son, Youssef, who may even be interested in following in his mother’s footsteps. “I’m evolving as an actress and Youssef is proud of the direction I’m taking with my roles. While I’m flattered he took a liking to acting too, I have the same fears my parents experienced back then with me. However, I’m definitely more flexible when it comes to my kids. I’m telling Youssef about all the pros and cons and I will let him choose for himself,” she insists.
Abdel Ghafour can’t stress enough on how she wants to have roles that will be remembered forever and how she wants to make good use of the chances she’s given, especially in cinema. “I still have a vision for my career that I’m working on achieving,” she says. While her main focus might currently be on her upcoming Ramadan series, she also has a film, Souq El Goma’a (Friday Market) to be released soon in theatres. It is directed by Sameh Abdel Aziz, and starring Amr Abdel Gelil, Nesreen Amin, Ahmed Fathy and Dalal Abdul Aziz. The rising star also still has a few directors in mind that she would like to work with. “Sherif Arafa, Kamla Abou Zekry and Mohamed Yassin are my dream directors,” she admits. She also adds that she would love to work in comedy in the future. “I still didn’t get the chance to do a good comedic role. I’m looking forward to a big comedy role after my next project. It would be a good relief from all my serious roles over the past few years,” she adds.
Born in Damascus, Syria, Bassel Khaiat studied at the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts and graduated in 1999. “I started out as an athletic kid. Then when I was about 10-years-old, I found myself setting up my own stage in the playground; I transformed it into a theatre with curtains and an audience, and I was mesmerised by this transformation. The next day, I enrolled with the acting team in school and when I finished school I joined the Institute,” Khaiat recalls.
Khaiat grew up in a very supportive environment for the arts. “My father is a huge fan of movies and my mother comes from a musical family, and she has a beautiful voice. So, all in all I grew up into a very encouraging atmosphere,” he explains. Khaiat is highly self-critical, however. “Everything I’ve done is still a number of experiences and I’m always on the hunt for the next exciting project, where I will get to see things from different characters’ perspectives and feel things through their skins and not mine. Of course there were moments when I doubted myself. Failure is an important phase in everybody’s life. It is the fuel for all your effort, and if it’s lacking, then something is seriously wrong,” states Khaiat.
Among his first on-screen roles were appearances in television series, such as Kan Ya Ma Kan (Once Upon a Time) and Al Tayr (The Bird), and in the films Komran wa Zaytoona in 2002, Roa’a Halema (Visionary Dreams) in 2003 and Bab Al Shams in 2004.
For Khaiat, acting as a job is a challenge on its own. “The mere fact of simulating human experiences and representing them to the world with a hint of objectivity is the real challenge. It requires culture, self-consciousness and so on and so forth,” the actor explains, adding, “It is not just about the role; it is about how you work on the character at all times. I love complex characters, ones with many faces. I try to unfold the character’s depths and present it to the point of perfection. As you can see, in every group of ordinary people walking down the street, there is always an exception and this character is the one I want to play. I don’t really believe in shallow characters. Even in real life, if you dig deep into anybody, you will find something worth your while,” he explains.
For Khaiat, the roles that really struck a chord were Yehia from Tareeky (My Journey) and Tawfik from 30 Youm (30 Days), and most recently, Osama from the upcoming series Rehla 710 (Trip No. 710). “With Tawfik I was only looking for pleasure. Success is not my first priority. I just want to enjoy the ride; I believe that triumph is great, but sometimes the characters we play are larger than life, and that’s completely fine, because art is not the craft of documenting life, it is rather an augmented vision of life. So, Tawfik is not the kind of person you might encounter every day, but if you look closely, you will find many attributes of him in a number of individuals around you. He’s a collage of many different personalities wrapped in one. He’s like the Joker Card,” Khaiat explains.
As for his character, Osama, in the upcoming series Rehla 710, the actor describes him as the “stereotypical human freak,” adding, “But you still feel sympathy for him, because he is a broken soul who can’t get himself to acclimatise himself with this world due to all the horrors he has witnessed throughout his life, which lead him to the conclusion that life is full of wickedness and deceit. He attaches love to loss, and he fears to love again, because he fears to lose again.”
Even though Khaiat loves to take on complex roles, he doesn’t find difficulty in shedding off the character after he’s done with a project. “I have been working as a professional actor for 21 years and I believe I have developed an ability to separate my worlds. I always make sure to keep my feet grounded, both in my private and professional life. I know when to take off the mask, if I may, and I know when to put it back on. When I go home, I enjoy the time I get to spend with my wife and kid before I get caught up in work again. It’s not about being attached to a character; it’s rather the extra dimensions that you personally add to it, like the accent, walk and look. Sometimes my wife notices this and she points out certain reactions that I might make that are not mine per se,” he explains.
While Khaiat’s main focus currently is acting, and specifically his upcoming Ramadan series, he does have a dream that he wants to achieve sometime in the future. “I would love to work as a director, but not for the time being. It is a visionary job, and it would take me time to be ready for it, but I will definitely work hard to do it!” he concludes.
Who is your dream dinner guest?
Riham: Brad Pitt.
Bassel: Daniel Day-Lewis.
How do you start your day?
Riham: Waking up with the kids.
What is one thing you would change about yourself?
Riham: Stressing out too much.
Bassel: Being edgy.
What is your favourite place to hang out?
Riham: Cairo Jazz Club.
When you are not working, what is one thing you like to do?
Riham: Travel somewhere with a beach or go to the cinema.
Bassel: Spend quality time with my wife and kid.
What is your best attribute?
Riham: I’m a giving person.
What was your first job ever?
Riham: Flight attendant.
What is your favourite film?
Riham: As Good As it Gets.
Bassel: Time with Gypsies.
What is your hidden talent?
Riham: Cooking (and I love singing, although I might not be that good at it).
Bassel: Cooking and playing football.
What advice do you have for people who are starting out in the business?
Riham: Take it easy and don’t rush into it. Always focus on the triangle (Script, director, producer).
Bassel: Work, work, work… Lots of work, and a hint of luck!
Art Direction & Styling: Maissa Azab
Photography: Khaled Fadda