NEW YORK • When Mena Massoud, star of the new Aladdin live-action remake, got the first callback for the role, he decided not to revisit the 1992 animated original.
Instead he wanted to draw inspiration from the underlying theme: a "journey of personal identity".
The cartoon does carry a well-intentioned, universal message of being true to yourself. But it has been criticised for promoting the stereotype of "barbaric" Arabs. And though it is set in a fictional port city in Arabia, its characters were voiced by a majority white cast.
Born in Cairo and raised in Toronto, Massoud, 27, has a rosier view of the earlier movie. "My parents knew the story of Aladdin far before the animation film," he said, adding that it is a "very positive depiction of where we came from".
Still, Disney needed to update the revival for woke audiences.
After a worldwide casting call, it wound up with a diverse cast that includes British actress Naomi Scott, who plays Jasmine and is of Indian descent, and actors with Iranian and Tunisian roots. Massoud, who had a recurring role in TV series Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan (2018 to present), beat more than 2,000 hopefuls who auditioned for the lead role in Aladdin.
The film has received mixed reviews. He explained in a recent interview why he thought it was "counterproductive" to critique the story and casting process. Here are edited excerpts.
Were you a fan of the animated Aladdin growing up?
Yeah, he's one of the characters I could relate to on a cultural level.
I have two older sisters. They had it on at the house before I could even walk, so I grew up with it.
Did you have any thoughts about the backlash it received for the original Arabian Nights lyrics and its portrayal of characters?
No. In my family, we celebrated the film because it was one of the few that had any representation for us.
It's very pretentious to start nitpicking things when there's not a lot of representation out there.
Casting for the live-action remake took longer than expected because it was difficult to find an actor for the lead role.
When I first saw the online casting call, I was very excited. I put a tape together... they were getting tens of thousands of tapes from around the world and the chance of my tape getting seen was very low.
I assumed the role was going to one of the established Hollywood stars. Four months later, I heard from my reps and I was shocked that they were still looking for someone. I put another tape together and flew to London twice to test for it.
When Disney announced that Naomi Scott would play Jasmine, some fans reacted angrily and said the role should have gone to someone of Arab heritage.
It's a funny thing that's happening online. The Middle Easterners want Aladdin to be a Middle Eastern story and the Indians want Aladdin to be an Indian story.
The truth is, it's a folk tale from the 1800s, and Agrabah is a fictional place that's a culmination of India and Asia and the Middle East.
In the original folk tale, Aladdin was of Chinese descent. So what we wanted to do was represent as many different cultures from that part of the world as possible.
What did you think of Will Smith's take on the blue genie?
I honestly think he's the only one that could have played it. I think the reason Robin's (Williams) genie is so iconic, is because he brought his whole self to the role.
And Will has done the same in his rendition... I think he nailed it.
What's next for you?
I'm shooting a series on Hulu called Reprisal, with Abigail Spencer and Rodrigo Santoro. It's very dark and dramatic, and very different from Aladdin.