Entertainment

Toronto's Mena Massoud faces a whole new world as Aladdin star

Toronto's Mena Massoud faces a whole new world as Aladdin star
By Jonathan ForaniSpecial to the Star

Long before he would ride a CGI magic carpet, Mena Massoud’s world was all nerves and neurons.

The Toronto-bred actor, poised to catapult into global stardom Friday as the lead in Disney’s live-action , was a budding doctor.

“I was going to go on the path my parents chose for me,” said Massoud. But after a course correction 10 years ago, it all changed. When he spoke with the Star last month on the phone from Los Angeles, he was about to set out on an international press tour alongside Will Smith for the remake of the 1992 animated classic.

It’s a stunning position for the relatively unknown 27-year-old actor, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, and raised in Markham. The original grossed more than half a billion dollars at the global box office — in 1992 dollars — as part of Disney’s animation renaissance. The remake is projected to pull in upwards of $80 million US in its opening weekend in North America.

“I’m taking it in stride,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I have a lot of pressure, but I feel the value of the responsibility I’ve been given.”

It’s a responsibility Massoud never would have had if he didn’t cut his degree short, having enrolled in the University of Toronto to pursue neuroscience in 2009, and auditioned for Ryerson University’s theatre performance program after a year. But he was miserable in science. His adolescent experience acting in high school left an impression that he couldn’t shake.

“Dr. Mena” doesn’t ring true to the friends and colleagues that know him as Mena the actor, either. When he “quietly appeared” in Dori Elliott’s Grade 10 drama class at St. Brother André Catholic High School, the now-retired Elliott quickly discovered Massoud was a “bright light.”

“He had equal parts impish play and kamikaze-like risk,” his former teacher wrote in an email to the Star. “He could play both drama and comedy with ease.”

Massoud, who credits Elliott for encouraging him to follow his dreams and helping him audition for theatre schools, went on to have bit roles in shows like and while waiting tables at El Catrin in the Distillery District, before landing bigger parts in on ABC Spark and last year in Tom Clancy’s on Amazon Prime.

As a doctor, he would have had tremendous bedside manner to be sure, conceded Toronto filmmaker Ricky Tollman. But Massoud is a “total star,” he said.

Mena Massoud, left, and Will Smith in Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, opening in theatres on May 24.  (Daniel Smith / Disney)
Toronto's Mena Massoud in the title role as seen in Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin.
Toronto's Mena Massoud in the title role as seen in Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin.  (null / Disney/Daniel Smith photo)

“Nice guy to have tell you bad news about your health. But he’s a personality. That seems like something that would have gone to waste,” said Tollman, who directed Massoud in , the story of a fictional clickbait journalist trying to crack an explosive story about former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Massoud plays a smooth-talking Ford aide in the drama, which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival in March. (For any of Massoud’s old T.O. neighbours interested in previewing the actor’s style, he can also be seen in the Canadian indie film , which opened last week and is still screening in Toronto.)

He filmed his scenes in Toronto after production wrapped on in England. It was a kind of homecoming for the Canadian actor — he still has a place here, but he has moved to L.A. indefinitely.

“It was nice to be back on a crew with a lot of Canadian artists. It’s something that I want to keep doing as much as I can,” he said. “We don’t tell Canadian stories enough.”

He wants to change that, starting with a production company to support ethnically diverse Canadian artists. Like scores of ’90s kids, Massoud grew up watching and rewinding worn VHS tapes of , but the film resonated as more than simply an animated musical for the Egyptian-Canadian. “It was one of the few films where I could relate to this character looking like me, dressing like me and eating food like me,” he said.

For an actor with just a handful of films under his belt, he already has ambitions to change the world. He even started a company called Evolving Vegan to promote veganism. If he wasn’t made to change the world as Dr. Mena, he’ll try it in Hollywood. is a start.

“How often do we get to go to the biggest cinemas in the world and see diverse actors make up the majority of the cast?” he said. “I can’t change what casting directors do or what producers do. I can only change what I do. It’s time we start telling diverse stories.”