After an exhaustive, globe-spanning search, Disney finally found its lead actors for the live-action adaption of its iconic 1992 animated film Aladdin.
Mena Massoud landed the coveted role of Aladdin. Naomi Scott, best known for her role in the new Power Rangers movie, will play Jasmine. Presumably, both are performers who can act, dance, and sing at a Broadway level, as was requested by director Guy Ritchie and Disney.
While this is a relief for the studio, whose struggle to cast the film became international news, the revelation of Aladdin’s stars was not without controversy, particularly around Jasmine’s casting: Scott is of British and Gujarati Indian descent, and her selection disappointed many who hoped an Arab woman might be cast as the headstrong Princess Jasmine. Massoud, meanwhile, was born in Egypt and raised in Canada, and reaction to his casting was more positive.
Since at least 2,000 people reportedly auditioned for the roles between March and July of this year alone, there are a lot of disappointed actors in the world right about now.
Before the announcement of Massoud and Scott’s casting, we asked for actors to share their experience auditioning for Aladdin. We heard primarily from Middle Eastern and South Asian men eager to share how much the role would mean to them, how pleasant—though at times, confusing—the auditioning process was, and, most of all, how high the stakes felt for them as actors who don’t normally get the chance to play parts like this.
As one actor wrote, “Aladdin...was something I grew up trying to become.”
Fusion spoke, via phone or email, to five actors with varying degrees of professional experience about their Aladdin auditions. All of the actors we spoke with provided details and a timeline of their auditions, and submitted casting fliers, emails, or videos that confirmed their auditions. While several claim to have been shortlisted, each actor we spoke to said they had auditioned at least twice.
The actors complimented Disney for taking the time to travel to multiple Middle Eastern countries to meet shortlisted candidates, with many describing Aladdin as the role of a lifetime. One young performer from Hyderabad, India, wrote in to detail his exhaustive efforts—which included messaging several casting directors on LinkedIn—to send in multiple audition tapes.
We reached out to Disney for comment on this story and the casting process in general and will update if we hear back.
Aladdin strung together a few generalizations about North Africans, south-east and south Asians, and blurred out our distinctions. The movie takes place in the fake city of Agrabah—combining together “Agra,” the historical city in northern India, with “Bah” to make it sound more Middle Eastern, I guess.
But, the piece continued:
Aladdin, a movie that is super-orientalist, was paradoxically important for south Asian, Arab, and Muslim kids because it’s one of the few movies that addresses the fact that our cultures existed, by not specifically identifying them.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that several of the actors we spoke to believe that when it came to the role of Aladdin, Disney had no idea what it was looking for.
Actors said they heard that the studio was looking for an “unknown” actor with Broadway-level singing ability—despite the fact that actors of color are woefully underrepresented in musical theater—but also that they wanted big names. One actor told us that he was told by casting agents that the studio would prefer British actors so that director Guy Ritchie would be more comfortable (the film will be shot in London), and also that Becky G, the Latina actress and singer who starred opposite Scott in the Power Rangers movie, was considered for the role of Jasmine.
Of particular concern was the widely reported news that Disney was looking for either Middle Eastern or South Asian actors—as if the two were interchangeable. (And, in fact, the final casting of non-Arab Scott as Jasmine appears to confirm this thinking on Disney’s part.)
“We as Arabs do not understand why Disney [was] seeking Indian talents when the animated movie took place in an Arab city and the opening is titled ‘Arabian Nights,’” one performer, who wished to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly without fear of retribution, told Fusion.
It was a sentiment echoed by other Middle Eastern actors we spoke to.
Karim Metwaly, an Egyptian American actor and YouTube personality, told Fusion that a casting agent reached out to him in late April to audition. The email included a casting flier that listed specifications for the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine:
“These roles are Middle Eastern. Should be between 18-25 years old. Must be able to sing. Dance experience a plus.”
So when Metwaly, who said he has been asked to audition in the past for roles like “Syrian boy” and “terrorist leader,” heard last week that names like Dev Patel and Riz Ahmed had been considered for the role, he was disappointed.
“I have a flier that said only Middle Eastern. I couldn’t believe that, I thought it was great. It would be something huge if Disney decided to do this,” Metwaly told me over the phone. “This would be just good on their record because it’s just something that no one has done before and they could be the first. No one’s gotten a full Middle Eastern cast in a [Hollywood] film.”
When I asked Metwaly about how he felt about Disney’s ultimate choice, his response was simple: “Well, he is Egyptian like me, and I’m happy they chose him because he is Middle Eastern.”
These reactions speak to the general scarcity of roles for actors of these backgrounds—Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim alike. The high-profile, mainstream success of several South Asian actors, Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani being among the most recent, is still a relatively new phenomenon in Hollywood. In 2016, a look at Hollywood’s diversity numbers conducted by the University of Southern California found that Asians played just 5.1% of all speaking or named characters in TV, film, and digital series. In fact, in 2014, over half of all the projects USC studied featured no Asian actors at all.
Muddying the waters further is the fact that anti-discrimination laws prevent casting notices from asking for actors of a specific background. Instead, as with the flier Metwaly received, casting directors will focus on the character’s background, meaning that it’s perfectly possible for “passing” actors to play parts that don’t strictly reflect their personal backgrounds.
Beyond their wariness about the particulars of Disney’s process, the actors I spoke to talked about Aladdin as the role of a lifetime.
One actor of Middle Eastern descent who auditioned for the role six times said the film could be a good catalyst for nourishing Middle Eastern talent in Hollywood:
There’s complete value in casting Dev Patel, you know. There’s absolutely value in that. But it would be really cool, and really nice, the same way Dev Patel had Slumdog Millionaire, in the same way Riz Ahmed had Nightcrawler, it would be nice if a Middle Eastern actor has the opportunity to be Aladdin, because it would be a really big launching pad for that actor. And, in five years time, when Hollywood does another Prince of Persia, or Exodus, or Gods of Egypt and they say they have no one to have play those leads, they’ll start having those leads.
He, too, was relieved that Massoud was chosen.
Given the calculated intensity the Aladdin casting hunt generated, Disney surely knows the stakes are high for the final film it produces. Each actor we spoke to hoped the casting of an “ethnically accurate” Aladdin would open doors for them down the road, allowing them to break out of tired stereotypes and break new ground in Hollywood. It now remains to be seen whether Disney can grant that wish for Massoud and Scott.