'Aladdin' Star Mena Massoud Talks Closing Hollywood Diversity Gap With Casting Foundation

Mena Massoud - Getty - H 2018
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The Egyptian-Canadian star launched his Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation to get emerging talent from underrepresented groups on the industry's radar.

Canadian Aladdin star Mena Massoud has launched his own charitable foundation to give the industry's diverse talent pool essential tools to jumpstart Hollywood careers.

"There's a glass ceiling in Canada," Massoud told The Hollywood Reporter. His upstart Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation aims to support talented artists from underrepresented groups, starting in his native Canada before eventually setting up in Los Angeles.

"Even though Suicide Squad comes to shoot in Toronto and is a great boon for our industry, for [local artists] it's not really a great boon because casting for lead roles is done out of Los Angeles," he added. Massoud recounted struggling for years as an upstart actor in Toronto before landing the titular role in Disney's live action Aladdin remake.

"Even though I'm very fortunate and grateful to have played Aladdin, there were still four, five casting directors who never gave me a shot in Toronto. They didn't give me the time of day. I never got to audition for them," he explained.

The Guy Ritchie-directed Aladdin starred Will Smith as the Genie and Massoud as the titular hero, a charming street rat who masquerades as a prince to win the affections of Princess Jasmine, played by Naomi Scott.

To help underrepresented artists also achieve Massoud's blockbuster status, the EDA Foundation will help them secure mentors, aid for training and even pay for headshots to get them in front of casting directors. Massoud also wants film and TV producers to cast authentically and fairly so artists from underrepresented backgrounds — whether based on gender, race, ethnicity or being members of the LGBTQ community — can accelerate their careers.

"With Aladdin, had Disney not wanted to cast authentically, I probably would not be in the position I'm in and gone on to do this incredible film," Massoud, who also appeared in Amazon's Jack Ryan, argued. For progress to be made, young, diverse talent must get access to basic necessities the Aladdin star struggled to secure when he was coming up.

"I went to theater school in Toronto for four years and grew up around actors, and things like headshots could cost you from $500 to $1,000. That can be a big deal for a struggling artist," Massoud insisted. And the biggest uphill climb, he added, is for artists from ethnically diverse backgrounds, whether they are from South or East Asia, Latin America or the Middle East.

"In the industry, artists of of color struggle the most. Caucasian artists have really solidified themselves in the industry, and with African Americans now we see directors and producers who vow to only produce work that shines a light on African American artists. But everybody in the middle gets lost," Massoud explained.

And roles for people of color or from diverse backgrounds are too often miscast. "With certain groups, the entertainment industry goes crazy to get it right. If you were to cast for Prince, and you didn't cast an African American, people would go crazy," Massoud, whose family immigrated from Egypt to Canada when he was three years old, told THR.

"But other groups get miscast without anyone raising objections," he added, while appearing in the Hulu drama Reprisal, opposite Abigail Spencer and Rodrigo Santoro. Here the EDA Foundation aims to make structural changes to get the industry to where all roles are cast on a level and fair playing field.

"The best person for the job gets the job. It's not about who you are and what the color of your skin is. Just the best person for the job gets it. Everybody, and not putting certain people on a pedestal and certain people not because we don't know much about them," Massoud insisted.

The EDA Foundation will assist all ethnically diverse artists, including actors, musicians and visual artists, and support will be customized for each artist. Massoud will also shortly return to Egypt to be honored at the 3rd Annual El Gouna Film Festival, where he will hand out an inaugural EDA award to a deserving ethnically diverse artist between the ages of 18 and 35 years.