To her die-hard fans, the first frame featuring Ahd Kamel in the BBC/Netflix drama Collateral might come as something of a letdown. In the role of Arab refugee Fatima Asif, the Saudi actor scrambles from the dirty floor of a garage where she is sleeping, quickly wraps a scarf around her head, and motions to a detective inspector (played by Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) that she cannot speak a word of English. After months of anticipation about her role, it appears as if her character is mute. Of course, it’s all TV buildup. As her part is revealed, viewers discover a complex woman who speaks Arabic with a grave, assured voice; while her English is, in fact, articulate and even warm, never robotic. In those early moments, words or not, Kamel holds her audience transfixed. The “first Saudi actor ever” to star in a Netflix series speaks with her eyes; her gaze hypnotic and unflinching.
“I never thought the day would come when I would be interviewing for Vogue,” she laughs. It’s a fair statement. Her journey has been bumpy – potholed with periods of uncertainty and recurrent heartbreak. Born in Riyadh in 1980, the only girl between four boys, she recalls being “a naughty kid.” The family moved to Jeddah when she was seven, and at 14, tragedy struck when she lost her father to cancer. Five years later, her mother would pass, also from cancer. “My teenage years were turbulent, there was a lot of loss and grief,” she says.
At the age of 17, Kamel was enrolled in Columbia University in New York. “After my father died, a lot of the traditional talk – you need to get married, find a man – didn’t often come out of my mother’s mouth. I was taught to depend on myself,” she says. Her journey of self-discovery would be laced with trial and error. Studying pre-law, she “fell in love with courtroom dramas” instead. She curtailed her time at the Ivy League school after one semester. “I wanted to be an artist,” she smiles. Following her mother’s passing, Kamel felt propelled to become even more independent. Of her urge for freedom and desire to break away, she reflects, “I didn’t want to be in Saudi; it was just too painful.”
Kamel next attended Parsons School of Design, where she studied animation. “I hated it,” she laughs. “It was too solitary. But I loved Parsons.” She remarks how she thrived in liberal arts, sociology, and art history courses. Her final thesis consisted of a 30-minute documentary with animated intervals. “I wanted to give Saudi women a voice. I only found four friends who would talk, though,” she says. It was Kamel’s first time behind the camera and it proved to be a defining moment. “After graduation, in a way, I felt like I was back at point zero, so I thought, why don’t I try out film school?”
Due to the past ban on cinema theaters in Saudi, Kamel didn’t grow up watching movies in the traditional sense. “I had TV, I watched a lot of Egyptian films. My first movie at a theater in London was Dick Tracy. Madonna was one of my idols. I used to sing her songs day and night, much to my parents’ dismay. My dad didn’t like me singing ‘Like a Virgin’!” Enrolled in the New York Film Academy, as she dipped her toes in cinema, it “grabbed her” back. “I was working for 14 hours at a time without even looking at a watch, which was unheard of for me,” she recalls. Along with learning the ropes of directing and producing, she caught the acting bug, but was reluctant to share her newfound passion openly. “I started acting only after I married. Under the umbrella of a man, it was deemed fine, as long as he agreed.”
Fast-forward to 2012, and the region and world’s curiosity was piqued by a new feature film: Wadjda. Kamel’s role in the first movie made in Saudi was that of the antagonist. “I was a little bit upset to play the villainous head mistress, but I quickly took a liking to her. For a change, I wasn’t a victim, I was running the show.” One of the most challenging aspects of being an actor is to find humanity within a character, Kamel says, and to give the audience access to it. Another is dealing with rejection. Kamel thinks back to auditions that have been followed by silence. Times when she has wondered if she was not wanted, or if she was too old. “As an actor, you are the instrument. Unlike a painter, you are the creation. When acting, you have to grow thick skin.”
Following 13 years in the industry, she now considers rejection to be her biggest teacher. “All the adversity I’ve faced has made me a better actor and more grounded. When you’re a novice, you attach all the glamour to it. The reality is a lot harder. If you manage to live with the reality, you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
That’s not to say that Collateral, a murder thriller set over four days, didn’t offer her some tremendous experiences. She recalls how award-winning director Sir David Hare was self-conscious to meet her, having never written an Arab character before. Touched by the courtesy, she knew she was working with the right team. She refers to Mulligan as “gracious and fierce.” She also speaks fondly of her refugee character Fatima – “a survivor and a fighter,” she says with pride.
When she began her journey in film and television, everyone told her she was crazy – “a girl from a country with no cinema industry. But the years passed, and here we are today,” she smiles. “Here” is northwest London. She considers the city to be home, as she would visit often since she was a child. She lives near a park, across the street from Abbey Road, where every day people cross the street to recreate the famous Beatles album cover, a sight that never fails to make her laugh.
She’s currently juggling a few voice-overs, commercial work, preparing for an upcoming role in Being, an American horror movie set to be released later this year, and developing her own feature film. She curls up with her laptop to write and rewrite in her go-to uniform of sweatpants and sneakers. “It’s a drama with a Cinema Paradiso feel. I’m writing the script. I feel inspired!” she says. “It’s called My Driver and I and it’s a bittersweet story, loosely based on my upbringing and my relationship with my Sudanese driver. He was a big part of my life. Around 12 years ago, I was told that he had passed away. I realized in that moment that I had taken him for granted. This movie pays homage to him.”
So much of Kamel’s story has been marked by loss, and yet, she is centered and hopeful. “I feel very blessed to do what I love. When I was younger, I was asked, ‘You come from a respectful family, why did you choose the arts?’” The mentality in Saudi is changing. As for women’s roles in cinema, she states that they represent the most notable directors in the region. “We have to tell our stories. Our need is much stronger than men’s. So many women have died – we don’t even know their names, just as the mother of so-and-so. My grandmother was an oral storyteller. The way she told her story and what she’d been through doesn’t just go away, it needs to be passed on.” Conscious of her own influence in her homeland, Kamel considers, “I like to think of myself as a tree. Being Saudi is part of my identity, but I’ve branched out, and now I want to be in a place where I can reach the world.”
Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography and videography: Philip Sinden
Stylist: David Nolan
Hair: Mike O’Gorman
Makeup: Michelle Dacillo
Location: The Chess Clu, London