Marvel ‘Moon Knight’ star May Calamawy fought to depict Middle Easterners as ‘just normal human beings’

·6 min read
Marvel ‘Moon Knight’ star May Calamawy fought to depict Middle Easterners as ‘just normal human beings’

May Calamawy as Layla El-Faouly in Marvel’s Moon Knight (premiering March 30 on Disney+, with new episodes weekly), also starring Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke, brings a fully realized, complex woman into this unique superhero world.

“At the beginning I had this like, ‘Oh, am I meant to play that woman in a leather jacket, who's always cool and sexy? And I'm just like, that's not me,” Calamawy told Yahoo Canada. “I'm the spaz who falls down…and so I wanted to bring that to her because I feel like that makes up a whole woman.”

“Every woman I know is this dichotomy of traits. You're strong and resilient, and women are nurturers and we give life but also, we're really vulnerable and sensitive, and we can feel so much. There were moments of struggle where I was like, ‘is Layla too vulnerable right now?’ And then at the end of the day I was like, this is all I know how to be and all I want to do is represent… I wanted to feel real.”

Oscar Isaac as Steven Grant in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT, exclusively on Disney+. (Photo by Csaba Aknay/Marvel Studios)
Oscar Isaac as Steven Grant in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT, exclusively on Disney+. (Photo by Csaba Aknay/Marvel Studios)

What is ‘Moon Knight’ about?

At the outset of Moon Knight we meet Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a gift shop employee at the British Museum, even though his real desire would be to conduct tours of the ancient Egypt exhibits. But his life is far more complex.

When Steven falls asleep, he is overtaken by these haunting experiences of a completely different life that results in him losing significant periods of time, requiring him to restrain himself in his bed at night. It’s then revealed that Steven has dissociative identity disorder and shares a body with American mercenary Marc Spector, the avatar of Egyptian deity Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), who turns into the vigilante Moon Knight.

Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT. (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)
Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT. (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Ethan Hawke plays antagonist Arthur Harrow, previously a partner to Khonshu but now an acolyte of god Ammit.

Steven/Marc team up with Layla (May Calamawy), whose father died on an archaeology mission, to stop Harrow’s quest to introduce Ammit’s new world order, as Harrow uses a scale of justice to rid the world of sinners.

Ethan Hawke as Arthur Harrow in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT. (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)
Ethan Hawke as Arthur Harrow in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT. (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Moon Knight is the ultimate example of a genre mixing experience, as we see in the first four of six episodes in the series. While some aspects of the story certainly lean into the horror aspect of the comic, at other times Oscar Isaac gives has this almost slapstick comedy that leans into a goofy and sporadic side of the character, which gives unique fluctuations in the story’s tone, even when the pace does start to stall at times.

The visual impact of Moon Knight is also core to bringing you into this world, with some of the most visually delicious scenes and landscapes we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they’re not even on the big movie screen.

One thing that Moon Knight certainly solidifies is that we don’t need a character to already be well established in the MCU to warrant a juicy story.

May Calamawy as Layla in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT, exclusively on Disney+. (Photo by Gabor Kotschy/Marvel Studios)
May Calamawy as Layla in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT, exclusively on Disney+. (Photo by Gabor Kotschy/Marvel Studios)

Showing Egyptians as 'just normal human beings'

Moon Knight director Mohamed Diab was particularly mindful of really, authentically showcasing Egypt throughout the series.

“As an Egyptian, we always see us depicted, or the Middle East depicted, in a way that is, we call it Orientalism, when you see us as exotic and dehumanized,” Diab told reporters ahead of the series premiere.

“Seeing even Egypt as Egypt, because 90 per cent of the time, Egypt is not Egypt. Imagine Paris and you’re seeing Big Ben in the background, that's how we see our country. So it's funny but it hurts.”

The director added that a significant aspect to showing Egyptians as “just normal human beings” is through the character of Layla.

Egyptian-Palestinian actor May Calamawy told Yahoo Canada that she learned so much from Diad who, as she described, was able to see a “big picture” of what the show would look like, particularly related to authenticity.

“If we couldn't film in Egypt, then we had to bring all of these Egyptian extras and an Egyptian designer and the storefronts had to look the same, and the streets had to really feel like Egypt, and the sounds, and it really did,” she explained. “How do you have a universe if it's not diverse?”

I think it's going to open so many more doors to different stories from different cultures, and also, once you start to see someone Arab on such a big scale, it just, I feel, does something to you and it gives you that permission to know you're worthy of also stepping out, and I hope that we see many Arabs doing that, and people of cultures who are generally not always represented on this scale.May Calamawy, Egyptian-Palestinian actor from 'Moon Knight'

When it came to the character of Layla in particular, Calamawy revealed that there were many conversations about who she was going to be within this narrative.

“We had many talks on what would make Layla who she is, you cannot have one woman represent all Arab women or a whole culture, that's not fair,” the actor said. “She has a determination in her and a resiliency and a fight, it's almost like a soft strength, and I find that in so many Arab women, and I think it's really cool to bring that to the screen.”

May Calamawy as Layla El-Faouly and Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector/Steven Grant in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT. (Photo by Gabor Kotschy/Marvel Studios)
May Calamawy as Layla El-Faouly and Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector/Steven Grant in Marvel Studios' MOON KNIGHT. (Photo by Gabor Kotschy/Marvel Studios)

At a press conference, Ethan Hawke stressed that Calamawy had to “fight” for her character on the male-dominated set.

“You had the hardest job because look at what you’re looking at right now, it’s a very male-driven rehearsal room,” Hawke said. “She had to fight for Layla all the time, and she did,… watching you ask questions, keep pushing, keep trying to make her a three-dimensional person and it was challenging because it's a male-driven story.”

“I just didn't know that I was going to be able to take the space to collaborate in that way and then seeing that I had it, I think it took me a second to trust my opinion,” Calamawy said in response.

“As someone who's grown up in the Middle East,...the more I ended up taking from myself, the easier it became because I wanted to find a story that would work with someone who had a similar conditioning… It was confronting in many ways, but when I felt OK to take that space, I felt like it was happening in a more fluid way.”

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