'Aladdin' star went from playing ‘Al. Qaeda No. 2' to Disney royalty

From golden lamps to mystical genies and magic carpet rides, the legendary Disney film Aladdin has returned to the big screen with a relatively unknown Toronto-raised actor leading the way.

This remake stars Mena Massoud in the title role, whose charismatic presence brings Aladdin to life in the live-action film.

“This story meant a lot to me growing up so I hope we can continue to do that for the younger generations and do it justice for the older generations,” Massoud told Yahoo Canada.

The narrative in this new version of the film stays true to the Aladdin we know and love, set in the streets of Agrabah, but the filmmakers added a few more contemporary touches. Princess Jasmine in particular, played by Naomi Scott, now has strong political dreams and audiences will get to hear a new song that expresses the character’s strength and empowerment.

“We wanted to modernize it a little bit and make it relevant in our times,” Massoud said.

The most highly anticipated performance in the film comes from Will Smith in the iconic role of the Genie, originally played by the late Robin Williams. Fans of the original film were quick the judge the look and feel of the blue, hyper-muscular CGI version of the character.

Mena Massoud as the street rat with a heart of gold, Aladdin, and Will Smith as the larger-than-life Genie. Disney

Smith’s performance is quite a departure from the spunky, high-energy, bigger-than-life voice performance from Williams. This new version of the Genie is a lot more relaxed, but the humour still shines through, just in Smith’s personal style.

Massoud’s Canadian struggle

Despite working with Hollywood stars like Smith and Aladdin director Guy Ritchie, the path to success for Massoud hasn’t been as easy as it may seem. The 27-year-old “lived in a closet” with a friend when he first moved to Los Angeles in 2017 and experienced the struggle of a Toronto-based actor trying to land his big break.

“It’s tough, I feel like in Toronto there’s a little bit of a ceiling here because of the way the industry is set up and we have to continue to fight to change that,” Massoud explained.

Aladdin is the most diversely cast film in Disney’s history, an achievement Egyptian-born Massoud is particularly proud of.

“We’ve seen a lot of films in Hollywood that really celebrate one group or one ethnicity but we tried to celebrate many...the Middle East, parts of Asia, Europe as well,” the actor said. “My first ACTRA gig in Toronto was ‘Al. Qaeda No. 2’ on a show called ‘Nikita,’ so it’s great to see it moving in this direction.”

Massoud is also personally trying to help artists of all ethnicities achieve success through the Toronto-based foundation he is starting called the EDA Foundation (Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation).

“Hopefully the newer generations have an easier time getting to where they want to go,” Massoud said.

When the Disney star returns to Toronto, you’ll likely catch him walking along the Queen West neighbourhood into Trinity Bellwoods Park or enjoying his favourite vegan food in the city, particularly the vegan pizza at “Apiecalypse Now!”

“It’s really dirty, you just have it once in a while and it’s perfect,” Massoud said.