Dress by CHANEL; Shoes by MIU MIU
As a journalist, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to conduct hundreds of interviews in my life, so I know how to sculpt the interview, how to throw the warm-up pitch to make the subject feel comfortable. My tried-and-true methods were quickly dispensed with after I posed my first question to the brilliant and fiery Razane Jammal. There was no small talk to be had, and her swift mind dealt with questions in a way that surprised me. I was down the rabbit hole before I had even noticed the talking white rabbit.
That’s what Jammal is — a white rabbit. She’s as unbelievable and rare as any subject of literary lore, a bundle of beautiful contradictions and brilliant barbs. She’s so real, so tuned-in, that it’s hard to believe that she also inhabits the glitzy, glamorous worlds of fashion and celebrity, where clothes are expensive and talk is cheap.
Let’s go through her vitae: She’s a luminous actor on the rise, a multi-faceted talent, an inspiration to women everywhere, oh yeah, and a brand ambassador for Chanel. In six short years, she’s had roles in Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos,” Tobe Hooper’s “Djinn,” (the first horror film shot in the UAE), and Kanye West’s “Cruel Summer,” co-starred along Liam Neeson in “A Walk Among the Tombstones”, and tackled the difficult role of portraying an Armenian militant in “Don’t Tell Me the Boy was Mad.” And did I mention that she’s drop dead gorgeous as well? Come to find out, this is one aspect of her personhood that she’d rather not focus on, but it bears mentioning because her looks play a bigger part in how she shapes her responses about her identity.
Although her career trajectory has been rising rapidly, Jammal is remarkably grounded. She’s a considered philosopher of the human condition, and moreover, a radically self-aware woman.
At first, I asked her what accomplishment she was most proud of, expecting her to list some of her roles, or her status as a darling in the fashion world. Her answer took me by surprise. “Being alive!” she exclaimed, “Staying a sane person in an insane industry – that’s an accomplishment. The work accomplishments, they go without saying. When you work hard, do your job, and are prepared, you’re going to slowly climb the ladder. But staying a balanced person, staying modest, staying kind, staying a good person, these are things that are most important. I think I’m a better person because of my job.”
Although her career has taken off, it has not happened without tremendous effort. She describes the difficulties she’s encountered with the sort of refreshing, bold-faced honesty that instantly attenuates me to her character. “You’re constantly directed toward negativity, constantly rejected, constantly put up for scrutiny, and it’s very difficult to handle. I’m happy that I’m balanced in my head,” she shared, and I congratulate her on remaining sane in the face of insanity, which is a rare quality to possess as a celebrity in our celebrity-obsessed culture. “I’m trying,” she laughs.
And she is trying, which is the exact quality that sets her apart. She’s conscious enough to recognize her place in the world, and to try to improve it by being a better person and supporting the good she sees in others. We’ve all seen the television shows that center on fame-seeking divas, and we eat up every second of the drama — the way they sweep into a room and demand that their needs be met, no matter how petty or absurd the request. Jammal is the antithesis to all of that. Which, coincidentally, makes her one of the most exhilarating personalities to watch both on-screen and off.
She continues to expound on the difficulties of being a young, female actor from the Middle East, stating, “You have to have a lot of stamina, ambition, and the will to be there. Few people dream of it, fewer people follow through, and even fewer actually achieve it because there are so many obstacles. In my job, rejection, being able to handle scrutiny — I won’t lie… A lot of times it makes you feel like giving up, because sometimes you feel hopeless. But then, sometimes everything opens up for you.”
I tell her that I think she’s the kind of person that’s inspirational to young women, especially young women in the Middle East, because they don’t often see people that look like them in mainstream media or on the silver screen. After all, she’s broken through to the other side in a difficult industry that is over-saturated with people clamoring for their 15 minutes in the spotlight. Yet, Jammal stands apart because she is serious about her craft, and hard-working enough to have earned this on her own even in the face of adversity regarding her gender and ethnicity.
“Yes, but when I started my career, I never thought about the impact it would have on people,” she reveals. “As an individual you struggle, we all struggle! It’s true! Everyone struggles at their jobs, their lives, their relationships… People that are idolized tend to be perceived as having superpowers, like they’re not human, and that makes me feel really isolated. I never want anyone to forget that I’m human; that I too, struggle. I’m surprised when people say I’m an inspiration because I don’t think of myself that way. I’m busy living it; I’m not planning it.”
I’m surprised when people say I’m an inspiration because I don’t think of myself that way. I’m busy living it, I’m not planning it.”
However, it is her high level of self-awareness — evidenced in such statements — that makes her an inspiration (whether she wanted the position or not), which ironically leads to role-model status essentially as a by-product of being an authentic human being.
“My work gets me to face a lot of my demons,” she confides. “You truly have to understand yourself, you have to honor your feelings, you have to be in touch with yourself and truly know who you are. A lot of people don’t want to face themselves; they’d rather take substances to forget, or distract themselves with stupid things on television. Whereas I live everything. I am forced to look at myself from within, which makes me want to be a better person, to change for the better. I think when I’m 60, 80, 100 — if I live that long — I will always strive to change, to be the best I can be.”
She pauses to consider what she just said. “In a way, that could be an inspiration, I think? To tell people that you can always change for the better. You always have a choice.”
Jammal’s choice was not an easy one, but it was deliberately considered. While the environment in the Middle East is not always conducive to strong women following their passions, especially in the realm of the arts, Jammal defied the status quo to pursue her dream, regardless of the hardships along the way. “Nobody told me I could be an actor. Everything was against me,” she confesses. “My parents didn’t want it; people don’t take it seriously in the Arab world; people simply don’t have respect for the art. Being an actor is misconceived, you know? And I’m being really, really honest with you — maybe I shouldn’t be, but this is how I really feel.”
Her openness leads her to disclose even more cold, hard truths about the industry, “My passion, my determination, my strength, my fighting to get what I want, are all so misconceived by other people who are judgmental about what an actor is. It is associated with bad things in the Arab world because the stature here is not the same as it is abroad. I am someone who is working on a craft, which deserves the same amount of respect as any other craft, but it is not perceived that way. Actually, it’s not just isolated to the Arab world, it’s something that happens throughout every level of the film industry: There is a stigma with actors, like, you can’t make it without getting your hands dirty. But, that’s total bullsh*t. I’ve never gotten my hands dirty! I’ve risen slowly but surely because of one thing: Hard. Work.”
She’s on a roll, so I prompt her to continue, which she does with red-hot passion, “To watch this stigma… I can’t lie and say it doesn’t hurt. Sometimes, it can be discouraging. You almost want to give up until you remind yourself that their perceptions do not matter, you know who you are, your parents know who you are, your friends know who you are, and that’s all that matters.”
Her next statement reminds me so much of the Walt Whitman quote “”Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” In describing her personality, she highlights the contradictions that make her the magnetic, complex entity that she is, “I’m a lot of things. I am goofy, but at the same time I am very serious. I’m educated, and I have worked very hard, so there are a lot of different versions of me. But, a lot of them I can’t express, like when I’m funny, or do a silly sketch… Being funny is associated with being stupid, yet the funniest people are the most witty, intelligent people in the world. People take themselves almost too seriously in the industry. I want to joke; I want to be a goofball. I don’t want to have to be pretty all the time. But, if you put out anything comedic or even educational, nobody gives a f***. All they care about is what you look like. And that is the biggest challenge in the Arab world: To put a soul behind a pretty face.”
I was floored by her statement, because she so swiftly cut to the heart of the matter, but she wasn’t quite done with the topic yet, saying “I just want to say, it doesn’t matter what you look like, all that matters is what is within, and that is the most important thing to me personally.”
And that is the biggest challenge in the Arab world: to put a soul behind a pretty face.
She tells me, “There is a lot of fire within me that I am not allowed to express,” and I respond that from what I’ve seen, her passion clearly translates to her roles. I ask her what it was like working on “Don’t Tell Me the Boy was Mad,” a film about Armenian genocide. She sets the scene first, and takes me through the schedule she had prior to filming, stating, “First, you have to understand — that year, I was filming a comedy in Cairo. I was a character that was eclectic and crazy; she was a quarter Egyptian, a quarter Ukrainian, a quarter Lebanese, and the last quarter she didn’t even know. And then the day I finished that, I straight away started this serious role. So, I was doing a lot of research about Armenian genocide, and this role changed me a lot because I felt compassion for the Armenian people. They’ve been looked down on, nobody helped them; everybody turned their backs on them. Half of the world doesn’t consider what happened to them to be genocide. Well, it was. On a personal level, it helped me understand the historical side of things, but overall I was very concerned about being authentic. I did not want an Armenian girl to watch it and say, ‘You’re not Armenian, you don’t look it, and you don’t sound it.’ I always strive to be authentic, and to be authentic I have to feel what an Armenian person would feel. Every day they walk carrying that weight on their shoulders — the fact that no one will admit that it is genocide. Even generations to this day are affected by that.”
Jammal’s ability to completely immerse herself in her character, to learn a new language for a part, and memorize difficult scripts is exactly why she keeps landing meaty roles. “It was amazing to play a character that was deeper, darker… A real bad-ass,” she shared. “It is more interesting to me to play someone like that, than a ‘nice’ character. She had a struggle within, and I could identify with it.”
I comment to her that the roles she takes on seem to reflect her multi-faceted nature, but she gently corrects me, “Roles don’t just appear. I wish it were like that. You have to prepare yourself, and wait for an opportunity. I was lucky to be chosen when this opportunity presented itself. I’ve been disappointed to not be chosen for other projects, but that’s the nature of my job. You just have to move on. You take on the next challenge and you don’t just give up.” Giving up is simply not in Jammal’s vocabulary, but she’s able to joke about the challenges she faces, saying wryly, “I wish I could say, ‘I would like to play this character’ and have the role just appear, but that doesn’t happen. Except maybe for Meryl Streep.”
And from one hard topic to the next we go, as I approach Jammal about feminism. It’s a hot-button topic in the year 2015, with many global conversations revealing how little people understand the term “feminism” or what it actually means to those who champion it. I ask Jammal what feminism means to her, and she’s ready and armed for the question. Her voice drops an octave, as she emphatically states, “This idea defines who I am. I mean I come from a divorced family, raised by a single mom. Although my father has always been a part of my life, I lived with my mom.” Growing up in this environment led Jammal to form a strong opinion about a woman’s place in the world, “De facto, we should all be feminists,” she proclaims, “This is a concept that speaks a lot to me. My parents gave me equal opportunities growing up. I wasn’t told ‘Oh, you have a pretty face, now you have to get married, you have to make a home.’ My gender did not affect my abilities, but not everyone has that.” And Jammal credits her mother as shaping her into the woman she is today, “My mom is a ferocious lioness. She did not stand in my way, and neither did my father, who is also a strong man. They always allowed us [Jammal and her sister] to express our opinions.”
Another strong woman informed Jammal’s character, and as she spoke about the family matriarch, her beloved grandmother, you can hear the emotion in her voice. “She passed away three years ago. She was a very important force in my life. She was the most educated woman I’ve ever met, and she was a woman that was filled with unconditional love. She was my source of unconditional love. That gives me strength.”
The strength imbued to her by the women in her life gives her the courage to speak forcefully and truthfully about her beliefs. She never hesitates as we speak, and unleashes wisdom like a modern-day sage. “I think today there is a lot of misconception about what feminism is. It’s not about trying to prove you’re better than a man, or about men being bad. Some people think that if you’re a feminist you hate men, but it’s the opposite! I could not be who I am without the male figures in my life: my grandfather, my father, my boyfriend. I think both men and women should be feminists. Being a feminist is this: as men and women, we all should have equal rights. And that’s it. Pretty simple.”
Dubai is growing and there are so many women behind that growth.
Her powerful words come with a side of industry criticism as well. “It drives me crazy to hear Hollywood stars say, ‘Don’t call me a feminist.’ How can you do that?” she questioned. “You have so many people listening to you. You’re supposed to shed a light on these issues, and educate people if you have that kind of platform. I hope for the day where we no longer point out the differences between a man and a woman; we simply say ‘that’s a human being.’ I think it’s important for us to unite. In Dubai specifically, I have found a lot of strong women. Everyone is working hard, accomplishing something, and Dubai is growing and there are so many women behind that growth. I especially love the women who defy stereotypes. I have so many opinions like this, but people run away the moment you say something serious. I have to be more subtle in my approach.” The ironic part is, Jammal should never have to be subtle, to be told to quiet down about her values and her beliefs, but those kind of micro-aggressions happen daily to the best of us.
I don’t want fame, I don’t want glory, I don’t want the money, I don’t care about that. I don’t even want people to know who I am.
All this real talk had me in my feelings, but I wanted to end things on a hopeful note. I ask her to envision herself a year from now, and imagine what it would be like if that year delivered everything she ever wanted. What would that look like? Where would she be? Jammal, true to form, refuses to mince words. “Honestly, I don’t know where I’ll even be tomorrow. It’s hard to imagine what I want from the future. I’ll be grateful just to have work, to still be surrounded by the people I love, and not lose myself, just take it day by day. In terms of achievement, you know what, I don’t want fame, I don’t want glory, I don’t want the money, I don’t care about that. I don’t even want people to know who I am. If anything, that’s the most inconvenient thing in the world. People talk to you as if you’re an alien. They just want to suck information out of you, but they don’t even listen to your answer. But you have to go through that to get better opportunities. That’s the other side of a double-edged sword. Ultimately, I want to continue growing as an actor. I look at what I’m doing now and think, ‘I could do more.’ But I hope that in a year, I will still find myself surrounded by the people I love, and get some good opportunities to showcase my talent. That’s all I want.”
Photographer Jeremy Zaessinger Stylist Amine Jreissaty Editor-in-Chief Haleh Nia Producer Quentin Chamard-Bois Makeup Artist Grigoris Hair Stylist Tomoko Ohama Prop Stylist Sir Arnaud Laurens Photo Assistants Matthieu Boutignon, Kader Benacer