May Calamawy as Layla El Faouly in Marvel Studios' 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

In a memorable scene from ‘Moon Knight’, a teenage girl looks on in awe as Layla El Faouly swoops in to save the day, prompting her to ask: ‘Enti superhero Masriya?’ (Are you an Egyptian Superhero?).

The archeologist turned superhero’s affirmative answer was not just an act to flex her muscles, but it also effectively chipped away years of misrepresentation of Arabs in Hollywood, where men were often depicted as terrorists while women stood by as subservient eyewitnesses to this fallacy.

Egyptian-Palestinian actress May El Calamawy, who plays Layla El Fouly in the Disney+ series, gives a lot of credit to ‘Moon Knight’ director Mohamed Diab and Marvel, who took up the charge to rewrite the narrative with the right kind of story that correctly represented Egypt and all its mythical history. But it was also El Calamawy [SPOILER] who brought her own nuances to the character that ultimately takes up the mantle as the Scarlet Scarab, the protector of Egypt.

May El Calamawy as Layla El Faouly in 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

“I have received messages from people thanking me and they’re like, it’s so nice to see someone who looks like me. And it’s interesting, because to me, I’m still just one of them,” El Calamawy told Gulf News over a Zoom call.

Origins of a superhero

A still from 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Moon Knight, as a character, was first introduced in 1975, in the comic ‘Werewolf by Night’. Remaining in the shadows over the decades, unlike Marvel’s more colourful superheroes, the adaptation for the mini-series came as a surprise to many fans. And unlike the studio’s more light-hearted, family friendly content, ‘Moon Knight’ — led by Oscar Isaac — emerges as a dark tale of a man battling Dissociative Identity Disorder who shares a body with Marc Spector, a former mercenary and an avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance.

Seeped in Egyptian mythology, Marvel Studios made sure the writer’s room was stocked with research material to help the writing team. Not only were they given every comic book that Moon Knight had ever appeared in, but they were also provided with numerous reference books on ancient Egyptian culture and the various Egyptian deities. Experts visited regularly, including an Egyptian archeologist, to get the story right.

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Moon Knight director Mohamed Diab with May El Calamawy Image Credit: Disney

Egyptian auteur Diab, whose directing credits include ‘Cairo 678’, ‘Amira’ and ‘Clash’, now also holds the title of the first Arab director to release a Marvel project. Speaking about what attracted him to direct the series, Diab claimed he was intrigued by the lead character’s internal struggle, but on a macro level, also what it meant for his country.

“It’s great to be able to present Egypt’s ancient heritage and modern culture in a fresh and authentic way because most of the time Egypt has not been depicted as it truly is. But so far from the comics and from the way Marvel Studios is handling things, I can say that they are going the extra mile to be as authentic as possible,” he said.

May El Calamawy as Layla El Faouly in 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

The 35-year-old Bahrain-born El Calamawy gushed about the whole experience, while also grateful that the shoot served as a teaching experience for her with the lesson that everyone deserved the right kind of representation.

“It [playing an Egyptian superhero] is just as huge for me and it comes with a lot of self-acceptance. Throughout the filming, I felt my confidence growing. And towards the end, it felt like I was handed a real gift, where we all were deserving of that space, that we were worthy of being there and expressing ourselves fully,” El Calamawy said.

Social media audition

May El Calamawy Image Credit: Disney

Many in the UAE may recognise El Calamawy as the star of Tobe Hooper’s 2013 movie ‘Djinn’, which is touted as the first horror film to be produced here. But the actress was already a well-known name on the film circuit in the UAE, working in shorts and TV projects between 2009 and 2014, spending time in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

After she moved to the US to pursue acting, El Calamawy starred in several TV projects, including the 2017 National Geographic miniseries ‘The Long Road Home’, along with guest-starring on the Tea Leone-led series ‘Madam Secretary’.

However, it was in 2018 when her first big break came with a role in the Hulu comedy-drama ‘Ramy’, where she played Ramy’s sister, Dena Hassan, which then led her to her role in ‘Moon Knight’ as the first Arab superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

May El Calamawy in Moon Knight Image Credit: Marvel Studios

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, El Calamawy spoke about landing the audition through, wait for it, Instagram.

“Mohamed Diab’s wife Sarah [Goher, who also served as a consulting producer on ‘Moon Knight’] messaged me on Instagram, like, ‘My husband’s interested in you for this Marvel show.’ I asked my manager if it was real — because you get a lot of weird stuff on Instagram! She did some fishing, and she’s like, ‘Okay, it’s real, and I got you an audition.”

Ammit voiced by Saba Mubarak, in Moon Knight Image Credit: Marvel Studios

What ultimately cinched the role for her were how huge a champions both Diab and his wife were of Layla as the channel to represent Egypt on screen and El Calamawy was ready for the challenge. On her own terms.

“I remember telling Oscar that I don’t want to take inspiration from someone in the West like Angelina Jolie in ‘Tomb Raider’. I think she’s wonderful, but everyone was comparing us, and even though there are similarities, I wanted to bring my own nuances to the screen,” El Calamawy told us. “It’s so beautiful to look at women from different cultures and it was important to bring those differences to the screen. That was really important to me.”

May El Calamawy and Oscar Isaac in 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

This meant that the Arab actress was eager to work on everything, from accent, down to her hair. “Our women [Egyptians] have curly hair and we often change the way it looks. [During the shoot] I would be confronted with my own desire to tame the frizz and I really had to keep reminding myself, it’s not about me and any of my insecurities. It’s just about allowing others to feel seen. And it’s the best feeling when even one person tells me they appreciate it. I feel like my job is done here.”


Oscar Isaac on transforming into Moon Knight

Director Mohamed Diab-1658831217969
Oscar Isaac with director Moahmed Diab in a behind the scenes image from 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

American actor Oscar Isaac explored some dark places to become Steven Grant, a man battling dissociative identity disorder that transforms him into Marc Spector, a former mercenary and, ultimately, an avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance.

“The first step was to just really read a lot about people that suffer from dissociative identity disorder, and just to get a sense of what it feels like to have to live with that and how it manifests itself,” said Isaac at a media roundtable, while speaking about how he prepped for the role.

Ethan Hawke as Arthur Harrow and Oscar Isaac in 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

“It was about finding the character of Steven that I’d want to play for a very long amount of time, because I knew it was going to be a long shoot. I saw an opportunity to create a really different kind of character to one that I’ve played before. And so once I found him, then it was about figuring out the counterpoint to that, which was Marc, and how to make them as contrasting as possible.”

Switching between two distinct characters wasn’t easy for the 43-year-old actor, but he finally worked out a system that worked for him. “I asked if we could just stay in one character when we would shoot. I mean, if we could that week, or at least on that day. And then as it went on, I got more comfortable.”

Oscar Isaac as Moon Knight and Ethan Hawke as Arthur Harrow in 'Moon Knight' Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Much like his ‘Moon Knight’ co-star May El Calamawy, Isaac was keen on bringing authenticity to the story that was seeped in Egyptian lore.

“When I spoke to Kevin Feige [President of Marvel Studios], before starting, he was most excited about the Egyptian lore and Egyptian mythology and that this was an opportunity to really delve into that world. And of course, in Western movies, there have been big ones about archaeological adventures like ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Tomb Raider’ and ‘The Mummy’. So obviously we were aware of those things but I think there was an opportunity to try to do something different. And, and the most different thing was to actually get someone to direct it that is from the area.

“So to hire Mohamed Diab [director] to bring real authenticity to the series, and a real modern point of view, was the right move. It’s not just the same old Western cliché and idea of what Egyptian history is.”

Don't miss it!

'Moon Knight' is streaming on Disney+ in the UAE