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Kuwaiti Actor Haya Abdulsalam on Maintaining Her Identity, While Evolving with Razor-Sharp Focus

Director, actor, and producer Haya Abdulsalam is molding the future of cinema in Kuwait. As her star continues to rise, she reflects on maintaining her identity, while evolving with razor-sharp focus. 

Dress, gloves, earrings, Dior. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Haya Abdulsalam’s doll-like features appear buried in worry as she holds a phone, deep in conversation. Her eyes widen and her lips purse together. It’s a scene from Netflix’s recent drama Devil’s Advocate, a gripping series starring the Kuwaiti actor at the pinnacle of her 15-year-long career and “one of the closest to my heart,” she says, adding that she considered the production – which she also worked on – particularly successful. Trending within the first three weeks of release, the series went on to claim a position in Cairo’s top 10, while also seeing success in Beirut.

An event for the movie Shabab Sheyab in Atlantis Dubai. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Aired in July, Devil’s Advocate is a thriller written by Fatma Al-Amer and directed by Essam Abdel Hamid. It tells a story of a skilled lawyer who becomes entangled in the mysterious world of a businessman engulfed in crime. Abdulsalam masters the role of his clever lawyer. Don’t assume that her onscreen persona offers insight into her personal life, however. “None of the characters I have played resemble me,” smiles the actor. “I look for characters that are completely different to who I am.”

Abdulsalam is first and foremost a consummate professional. To slip into her roles, the actor prepares thoroughly. “I study the character from all social and psychological dimensions and look for pressures and comfort zones,” she says. “When I start shooting, I like to integrate myself into the situations according to the writer’s script and the director’s vision, so that the final result reflects these collective efforts.”

In her role behind the camera

Perseverance has not been the only key that opened the doors to the art world for Abdulsalam. The Kuwaiti actor, who turns 40 this month, was raised by an artistic family that nurtured her talent. Her late father Abdul Salam Maqbool was a cartoonist, her mother Khola an interior designer, and her sister Lulwa a director. “Art has been rooted in me since my childhood,” she shares. “I am a painter like my father and love decorating like my mother,” she adds. “Once I began working in the industry, I discovered that all kinds of arts are eventually epitomized to forge you as an artist.”

Her latest show Devil’s Advocate

Western movies such as Titanic, Braveheart, Waterworld, and My Best Friend’s Wedding, along with actors such as Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, and Kevin Costner, have had a lasting impression on her. Abdulsalam recounts that her decision to try her hand at acting was somewhat incidental. Both her parents had earned a master’s of arts degree in the US, and she aimed to follow in their footsteps. She originally applied to study art direction but was not accepted. She went on to study at The Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Kuwait, majoring in acting and theater directing. “Academic attainment may help build a solid foundation for the artist, but it is not necessarily the most important factor,” she considers. “A true artist needs talent, determination, and must love art.” Her first breakthrough in the industry was in 2008 when she played the role of Nasima opposite the great actor Souad Abdullah in the series Umm Al-Banat (The Girls’ Mother). The experience was a success and earned her the love of an audience eager to discover her emerging talent. Quickly, she began receiving bigger roles that offered her a greater platform to prove her acting skills.

Dress, Roksanda; shoes, Casadei. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Abdulsalam has worked with leading Kuwaiti performers, such as Hayat Al-Fahad in the series Hibr Al-Oyun (The Ink of Eyes), produced by veteran Bahraini director Ahmed Yaqoob Almuqla, and the late artist Intesar Al-Sharrah in the series Rose Paris, among many other prominent names. “The great Kuwaiti artists represent the artistic history of my country. I have learned a lot from them: mastering time commitments, hard work, and respecting colleagues. Working with these artists adds to my experience as an actor and director,” she furthers. She is proud of her work to date, both in the acting and directing industries, which have welcomed and opened their doors to her. In 2013, she broke into television directing with actors Jassim Al-Nabhan and Asmahan Tawfiq. Her last series was Al-Najiya Al-Wahida (The Last Survivor) starring Huda Hussain.

Dress, gloves, Erdem. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Abdulsalam garnered fame in cinema too, starring in Heaven’s Water, a short film that featured in several events including the Dubai International Film Festival and the International Arab Gulf Festival. She hosted a podcast called Massara on Shasha, a Kuwaiti production platform, in 2022. The artist embarked upon a quest to discover happiness through conversations with different celebrities and important personalities from her homeland including Dalal Al Doub, Ali Najem, Asrar Alansari, Bashar Al Shatti, Sulaiman Al Qassar, and Bader Al Shaeebi. She admits that her journey has required much patience and deliberation. Over the past five years, Abdulsalam has learned to act wisely, refusing to compromise, and with focus on her work. “I never pay compliments, don’t mix personal and professional matters, and rise above pettiness,” she states. She respects everyone who follows and supports her, including Souad Abdullah, Hayat Al-Fahad, and Mohammed Daham Al-Shammari, taking their respective titles into account. Particularly, she considers her husband, actor, and producer Fouad Ali her pillar. She reveals that she discusses all her artistic matters with him and takes his advice. Today, she works for his company Bee Productions. “Fouad supports both me and the role of women in society, strengthens their position, respects them, and knows their value and strength,” she says. Abdulsalam admits that she has encountered the opposite. “Some male artists are jealous of successful female artists who were able to surpass them. I have noticed this with some actors and directors.”

Coat, Ferragamo; jumpsuit, stylist’s own; boots, Giuseppe Zanotti. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Meanwhile, accolades have come in droves for Abdulsalam. She has been honored with many local acting and directing awards, including the Dubai’s Distinctive International Arab Festivals Awards (DIAFA) for Best Actress in 2019. Never one to rest on her laurels, she works to continuously improve herself, her performance, and her artistic personality. Throughout her professional process, she watches her work, taking notes, and reading to develop her ideas further. Abdulsalam considers herself to be the first and most important critic of her art. “I never care about personal criticism. But I respect an artistic one and make sure to take it into account,” she offers. Her diplomacy in dealing with this manifests in her relative distance from social media, regardless of her almost eight million followers. “I do not keep up with social media. But I am sure it has a great and powerful impact on society,” she says. “I try my best to use it to promote my work and show a small part of my life.”

Dress, Valentino; shoes, Christian Louboutin. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Abdulsalam lives fully with her work and art, but she is also a woman who enjoys silence, peace, and comfort. She likes spending time with her family and loves animals deeply. “As I have become more involved in the issue of animal rights, my objections to some matters have increased. I stopped wearing fur and some cosmetics 10 years ago,” she says. She cares about fashion and enjoys keeping up with trends. Her penchant for sunglasses saw her design an entire wall in her house to feature her extensive collection.

Dress, boots, Rabanne; earrings, Elisabetta Franchi. Photo: Sam Rawadi

Central to Abdulsalam’s self is her Kuwaiti identity. Fiercely proud of her country and its productions, she considers her homeland a leader in the arts. “I am the righteous daughter of Kuwait who respects its customs and traditions, and therefore I enjoy the love and respect of its people. I represent the ambition of a strong Gulf woman of the Arab world who does not know the impossible,” she states. Abdulsalam believes that women hold a special place in her country. Their value is reflected in royal speeches. Meanwhile, several women have attained the highest professional positions. The actor is impassioned as she cites female martyrs who sacrificed everything dear to them for their homeland. She also pays tribute to its men who respect women. In her eyes, Kuwaiti women encompass all roles – the mother, sister, wife, daughter, friend, and colleague – something she is very proud of.

Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Kavya Raj Powell
Makeup: Sara Yuni
Style assistant: Wazina Nizar
Producer: Ankita Chandra
Assistant producer: Thanaaz Hisham 

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