For Asser Yassin, acting isn’t about creating a character from scratch, but rather searching within one’s self for certain traits that can be accentuated on screen. But when playing intense roles, such as drug addict Mohamed in his latest film “Zay El-Naharda (Just Like Today), this approach has had dire repercussions.
“It’s very psychologically hectic, says Yassin. “You don’t live the character; it’s actually inside you . You become the character for a certain period of time.
“Getting out of this, the ups and the downs, he continues, “confuses you about who you are, what you are. Sometimes you don’t understand your emotions because you don’t have them. On the long run it makes you numb.
I caught up with Yassin between meetings to discuss future and current projects. Dressed simply in jeans and a white shirt, he spoke about his concerns regarding this acting technique, but the mechanical engineering graduate has no doubt that this is the only path – or maybe the price to pay – to make it in the entertainment industry.
In “Zay El-Naharda, the recent smash thriller directed by Amr Salama, Yassin’s extensive research led him to one important conclusion: “Addiction is about extremes more than about the drug that you are getting addicted to. Many people don’t know that some are born addicts, meaning that their reactions are [extreme], Yassin says. An addict, for example, would spend up to 12 hours studying, fall madly in love and turn disturbingly violent in any scuffle.
Preparation for “Zay El-Naharda started three years ago. Back then, Yassin was still at the threshold of his career, with only a couple of TV roles under his belt.
Although he began the research at the time – attending addicts’ anonymous gatherings and meeting some of them individually, in addition to reading – the project was called off. Eventually, work on the film resumed a couple of years later. This delay worked in Yassin’s favor. He had the time to develop as an actor and gain more experience.
Taking the challenge
The young actor contributed to building the character of the addict on several levels. Together with director Salama, he came up with an off-screen back-story for Mohamed and his relationship with Hala, played by Arwa in their second collaboration after “Ala Ganb Yasta (Pull Up, Driver), released earlier this year.
“I wanted to listen to him rather than just tell him what I want, Salama says of directing Yassin. A demanding director – he had Yassin audition for all Mohamed’s scenes in the film during the casting process – Salama had given the rest of the cast their homework: to come up with the back-stories of their characters and how they envisioned their lines. At the end, Yassin was defending Mohamed’s life choices to Salama and the director couldn’t be happier with the end result.
“Asser lost weight to play that role and used to exhaust himself before each scene to get the right look and attitude on screen, explained Salama. In addition, the chemistry between Yassin with his co-star Arwa was so striking that the director said he wants to work with both of them in another film.
“Amr is one of the best directors to work with the actor. He accepts your input and uses it in his own direction, Yassin says.
But Yassin is not content subjecting himself to this sole filmmaking method; on the contrary, he wants to experience working with different styles of filmmaking and to learn from each director he works with to nourish the “ongoing learning process.
“At this point I want to learn every single aspect of acting; how to be flexible enough to be able to automatically know how each person [director] works and act accordingly; to learn how to adapt to working with a certain director. You can’t say no to the director’s vision, Yassin explains.
His dedication and talent have already caught the attention of many of the country’s top filmmakers. Sherif Arafa first cast him in TV, in the star-studded drama “Lahazat Harega (Critical Moments, the Arabic version of “ER ) and in cinema, first with a small role in “Halim and a bigger one later in last year’s award-winning blockbuster “El Gezira (The Island).
Acclaimed Dawoud Abdel Sayed also took notice, casting him in the lead role for his much anticipated new film “Rasa’il Al-Bahr (Messages from the Sea).
Many of the country’s leading actors reportedly turned down the role because the character is quite controversial. Yassin wasn’t at liberty to divulge more details about the role and plotline.
But Yassin is ready to take on this challenge and even more. Although it took him a while to answer a question about his dream – what it is and whether he believes he’s living it – the young actor seems to have a clear idea of what he wants from his acting career.
“I want the applause, he says, but not for the star that he will undoubtedly become, but for the appreciation for the diverse roles he is and would be playing.
A series of (un)fortunate events
The objective, of taking on as many diverse roles as possible, has been the backbone of his career and choices. He had turned down many roles that would have given him much-needed exposure for the sake of quality.
“Whenever I feel that I will succumb to a tempting offer, I say ‘ok I won’t work, I’ll be an engineer.’ Yassin, a graduate of the American University in Cairo, likes to remind himself every now and then of the choices – or maybe the sacrifices – he made.
After all, Yassin turned down a safe and secure lifestyle and a guaranteed career in mechanical engineering. In fact he turned down that same life which his character in “Zay El-Naharda mocks: that of the university graduate who works in a multinational, is married, has a laptop and a car, a son and a daughter.
Yassin quotes his character with the same ease and comfort as he recalls his own stories; after all, he says, he had to dig deep into his own character to find traits similar to Mohamed’s.
But it isn’t just the sacrifices or the realization that if he went back to engineering his younger brother would be his senior that is keeping Yassin in the studios. His current status as one of the most promising and sought after young actors in the local industry is well-earned.
He contends, however that the relatively short road to success has been tiring and humiliating at times.
After starring in many AUC theater productions, Yassin tapped into a merciless industry that didn’t seem to care about his talent, treating him as a “worthless extra at times. Acclaimed theater icon Soheir El Bably had even told him, when he acted alongside her in TV series “Qalb Habiba (Habiba’s Heart), that he won’t survive the industry.
But he did. Though he dismissed luck as a factor in his success, it’s a valid argument to say that Yassin is the product of a streak of good luck. His earlier roles were in projects that turned out to be box office hits blessed with unanimous critical acclaim.
In addition to having the artistic ingredients to propel them to film glory, “Halim happened to be Egyptian screen legend Ahmed Zaki’s last film while “Yacoubian Building surprised many skeptics with its brilliant screen adaptation of the monster-selling book of the same name.
In “El-Gezira, in which Arafa trusted him with a bigger role, the A-list ensemble cast, including Ahmed El Sakka, Hend Sabry and seasoned actor Mahmoud Yassin, all gave one of their best performances in years. On TV, he was first recognized in “Qalb Habiba, a comeback for El Bably. Even on the independent film front “Beit Men Lahm (House of Flesh), an adaptation of Youssef Idris’ controversial short story of the same name, created a buzz and initiated many debates upon its release.
For Yassin, it all comes down to God’s support. But he also notes that some of the works he participated in didn’t register with audiences at all, but even then he was often hailed as the standout saving grace.
Yassin is currently working on his first lead role in veteran scriptwriter Wahid Hamed and director Mohamed Yassin’s upcoming film “El Waad (The P
romise). Among his costars are pop singer Ruby – whom he says has the potential of becoming a commendable actress – Ahmed Azmy, Bassem Samra and Mahmoud Yassin.
So is he living his dream?
“Probably my dream is to live life; live life for a reason and find the reason I’m created for.
“I’m very satisfied with what I have, of how everything turned out, he says. “But I hope I won’t get blinded by the lights in the process.