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As a two-time Fulbright award recipient in acting and filmmaking, Shaza Moharam is a polymath when it comes to the world of the moving image. From her acclaimed role in the Egyptian/German film “Fakh” (The Trap), that was so well-received at its Cannes premiere, to her intimate award-winning debut documentary “Ahlam”, Moharam seems committed to excellence in all her work. No wonder she was recognized as Berlinale Talent, one of the world’s top 200 talents handpicked by the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.

The young thespian opens up about her move to Hollywood, past career and future ambitions. In her eclectic Los Angeles home, Moharam appears poised and graceful, a big contrast to some of the characters she masterfully embodied on the big screen. In “Fakh”, she portrayed Aya, a disheveled working class young woman attempting to escape an abusive and unstable partner and in “The Giraffe”, a subdued girl perturbed by an inexplicable pregnancy she tries to end.

You seem very different from the characters you played, how do you find common grounds with them?

It is interesting that I’d have a conversation with the audience after my film screenings and no one would recognize I’m the actor on the screen. I get it, my appearance and energy are drastically different.

Then again, I do feel very close to those characters. Capturing the mannerism and dialect specific to the role is a skill I acquired from living and working with people from many different backgrounds. But most importantly, the inner world and the emotional life of the character is something I feel I can channel through a combination of personal history, empathy, and imagination. I think the most important part of the work happens subconsciously by allowing the character to manifest itself through the actor. I believe we are all connected as humans and once we access that collective consciousness, all stories and emotions become available to us. Both vulnerability and strength coexist within me, both the masculine and feminine. It is a matter of finding the right frequency for that specific character in that particular moment in time.

How did Aya’s role in “Fakh” come about?

Initially, I was hired as an acting coach to train the non-actors set to play the leads. While I was away at the Dubai Film Festival, I received a call from the director informing me that, after shooting almost half of the film, they were forced to a halt. They were to reshoot after replacing the lead actress. I was offered the role. And I was so driven to realize the vision of the director and to do her story justice. I believe It was served indeed when “Fakh” was celebrated in Cannes, TIFF, and dozens of festivals worldwide.

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What a happy turn of events! How do you usually choose your projects?

I gravitate to character-driven, women-led stories. But I do like to stretch my muscles and entertain other offers. Good writing is everything. The best of directors and actors can’t compensate for a flawed script. Having worked as a script consultant for years, assessing proposals for film foundations like Doha Film Institute, I developed an eye for recognizing quality projects quickly. Being selective allows me to work exclusively with the kind of high caliber writing I’m so enthusiastic about.

What made you decide to make the move to LA?

I was offered an Artist Scholarship. I’m about to conclude my program as a visiting scholar at New York Film Academy’s Acting MFA.

Congratulations! And how was the shift for you? What’s your impression of LA?

It’s been intense to say the least. Having trained in acting in Spain, it is interesting to experience a contrasting viewpoint and get acquainted with a different pace. LA moves so much faster. It is exciting to be in arguably the biggest factory of stories. Somehow it does seem like everyone is pitching something all the time. The lifestyle and the film industry run like a machine. Even the approach to creativity is tailored to efficiency, speed and mass production. It can be overwhelming. Apart from that, there are a lot of perks to living in LA, bountiful nature, a vibrant cultural life and a lot of diversity. It is truly Cosmopolitan.

How do you feel about the calls for diversity in Hollywood?

I think it’s a big step that is long overdue. Hollywood has misrepresented most minorities and perpetually villainized certain ethnicities. Even though more projects now include talent from diverse backgrounds, I worry this might be a passing phase. I hope it’s not a trend to capitalize on or another publicity stunt, but a real commitment to diverse representation.

It fills me with so much hope and joy to see exceptionally talented diverse actors receive much-deserved recognition after years of hard work. Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Micheaela Jae Rodriguez, Chadwick Boseman, Rami Malek, Viola Davis, to name a few. I’m also thrilled to see filmmakers of Egyptian heritage carve their paths in Hollywood like Sam Esmail, Mohamed Diab and Tarik Saleh.

What would be your dream role in Hollywood?

Oh, that’s a tough question. If I had to pick only one, I’d love to play a secret agent. I speak four languages, I like to shape-shift, I’m intrigued by a character with a secret, and most importantly, I crave the opportunity to represent a Middle-Eastern strong woman who is not yet another one- dimensional Hollywood villain. Again, it’s that sense of justice that motivates me the most.

And how about a story you wish to share with the world as a filmmaker?

There is an idea that has been haunting me for a while. Somehow my imagination always takes me back to my hometown. The story is set in ancient Alexandria. It’s one that I need to tell, but I won’t give away any details yet. In time, I hope to welcome the right collaborators to bring it to life.

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Photos courtesy of Lea Salanon.

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