The Arab world should be on its feet in a standing ovation for the monumental feat of excellence that is Paranormal, Netflix‘s first original Egyptian series that has been receiving rave reviews globally. The series is based off of a beloved book by acclaimed Egyptian writer, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, who was the first contemporary author to write in the horror and science-fiction genre in the Arab-speaking world. His books, plots, and characters are cherished and celebrated and the series has been highly anticipated by fans. And it did not disappoint.
The story of Paranormal, directed by Amr Salama and Majid Al Ansari, follows a pragmatic hematologist, Dr. Refaat Ismail – played with delicate and precise nuance by actor Ahmed Amin – as he begrudgingly undertakes to track down the paranormal beings disrupting his quiet world. He is joined on his quest by an old flame from university in London, Maggie Mckillop, played by one of the Arab world’s most generous and talented actresses, Razane Jammal.
We were given the rare and wonderful opportunity to sit down with Jammal and discuss all things Paranormal, acting, and opportunities for more Arab work in the near future. Her laugh is infectious and she is mesmerizing even over an internet call. But it’s her talent on camera that sets her apart on a whole different level. By the end of the interview, as if we weren’t already, we are now completely and totally Razane Jammal stans.
Paranormal is one of the most popular shows streaming on Netflix at the moment. How does it feel and what does it mean to be a part of such a successful project?
Not only is it in the top two shows on IMDB, but I am also ranked the top 75th actress in the world. So this is an incredible achievement. And there are so many emotions because there were so many challenges in this job, especially because I was playing such an iconic character. From discovering who she was as a person, getting acquainted to the material, having to put on a Scottish accent, to finding the way she looks – like even her skin texture, they had to literally put freckles on my face – and discovering how she walks and how she talks. There were so many challenges, and it’s such a joy that it finally paid off and it’s being received so well all over the world. And there is a special place in my heart that it originated in the Arab world. And it’s awesome. And I couldn’t be more proud that I have had no petitions from the Scottish people!
Your accent was perfection. How did you work on the accent?
The first thing that I actually did was I flew to Scotland. Because in the beginning when I got the part, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing exactly. It was just a “foreigner speaking broken Arabic,” and then they said “British accent,” and then they were like “No, you’re actually Scottish.” And I found out when I got the part and I was like “What?!” I’ve played a lot of different nationalities, but I never thought in my life I would play a person from Scotland. So the first thing I did was I flew to Scotland. People thought I was a weirdo because I was randomly recording them speaking. I would see a person in the hotel that could look like Maggie and I would ask them, “Where’s your accent from? Can you sit with me?” I was working with two dialect coaches around the clock. I would walk around set with these weird devices to open my voice to try to get the correct voice placement of the Scottish people. Even when I speak Arabic. So people thought I was weird. I mean, they already think we’re weird because we’re actors, but even more so when I’m walking around with a tube tied to me and going ”OOOOO” [undulates her voice] and doing these warm -ups to be able to hit those notes.
Do you have a favorite role or project that you would like to do in the future?
You know, every time a person asks me this, I never know how to answer. Because as an actor you want to be fortunate enough to be able to play a lot of different and challenging roles. What I think was amazing about this set in particular was that it was such a harmonious set. Fifty percent of the people on set were women. It created such a harmonious environment, and an environment that was so positive for me to be able to express myself.
So if you ask me what my dream role or project is, I would have to say it has to be one that is challenging. But not just that. It has to be in an optimal work environment where I get to express myself the way I did on this set in particular, and work with a director that is open-minded and open to your comments as an actor and doesn’t just impose his vision. It was his vision, but there was a lot of cooperation involved. And that would be what I would wish for. Also, I would love to play a girl like in Girl Interrupted. Or a witch. I’m still waiting for that evil witch. But we’ll see.
Anything is possible. I thought you were going to say Wonder Woman. You’d be the perfect Wonder Woman.
So a story: I stood in for Wonder Woman. I went through a round of casting. They were trying to cast Kristen Wiig for the new one, so they cast me to play ‘Gal’ in the casting room while they were casting the other person. And I was like “Are you sure you don’t need another girl?” and they were like “we’ll see.”
What are you working on next?
So I’m here in Beirut filming a series right now. It’s a very challenging part again. It’s a ten-episode show coming out next year. But it’s nice to be working on a project at home. And to be working during COVID. I’m taking all the precautions, especially because being around my mother is a bit risky, so I’m not seeing people. I’m just working. That’s all I’m doing at the moment. Work is my life.
With the success of Paranormal, do you think that more doors for Arabic content and Arab artists will open globally?
Yes. Paranormal is based on an Egyptian folk tale and it’s by a very well-known writer, the late Dr. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, and we can already see how the world is responding to it. I have friends from all over the world responding to the material, to the story, and to the filmmaking. Definitely. I think it’s going to open a lot of doors. We have so much talent locally, so it’s beautiful that we’re able to be on a platform like Netflix that is connecting the world and bridging the gap between the East and the West.
I can only hope that the filming methods that we used, and the ethics that we employed on set, are also going to be applied. Because usually we don’t have the luxury of having time to do table reads. We don’t usually have two different directors. We don’t have the time for all of us to sit together to review the material and let it linger a little bit and get to know each other and create a bond of trust before going in. A lot of times, because people are filming very quickly in the Middle East, you just jump on set and you’re like, “Oh, hi everybody else!” and then you jump into an intense scene. And how Ahmed helped us is that the first scene that we actually shot was the scene where I hadn’t seen Refaat in 15 years. And that helped us as actors because we hadn’t necessarily acted together, but we were there. What also helped a lot was when I went to Scotland, I created a whole history between Refaat and myself. So when I got on set, I felt a certain closeness to the actor – other than he’s awesome and he’s amazing and he’s such a beautiful person all around – and he has the same acting technique that I do. He loves repeating. And then I was so relieved because we would just repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat and something would always come from it. And that’s from both our backgrounds in theater. And that helped us a lot.
Is that the Meisner technique?
YES! This is what I’m trained as. Now, I’ve obviously done a lot of Stanislavsky, and I’ve done Stella Adler, and I’ve done little things, so it was a mix of everything. It was Stella Adler because I was wearing a costume and a wig and it had texture and I was sort of entering a different world. It was Method sometimes when we were using circumstances. Because we were filming night shots and we were always chasing the sun like, “Oh my god the sun is going to come up come on, come on!” and we would use that urgency to help us during the scene. And Meisner because we would repeat, repeat, repeat. And give, give, give. It was awesome.
One last question. Were you the only non-Egyptian in the cast?
I’m actually from Scotland. Nah, I’m joking. You would be surprised to know that I did a DNA test and I am 2.1% Egyptian. So I do have Egyptian blood. I don’t know where from, but I do. But yeah, I am the only person who was a foreigner on the set.
But that works for your character!
That works perfectly for my character because they were either going to get a European person to speak Arabic or they were going to get an Arab who looks sort of European and speaks Arabic and can learn dialects. So it worked in my favor in a lot of ways. Because you know that first scene where she enters, and they go, “Who’s this girl?” I get that a lot when I’m in Egypt. And they don’t think I speak Arabic until I do and then they’re like, “What?!” So yeah, it really helped me. Everything helped me. Especially that I’m not foreign to Egypt. I’ve worked there before. It was nice that this time, I wasn’t just thrown into another world where I was a complete foreigner. So it helps Maggie. Because she knows the culture, but she’s still a foreigner, and I’m sort of the same.