Turning on the TV set as a teen to see Lebanese presenter Raya Abirached’s latest Hollywood interview felt like a treat. Who would it be this week? George Clooney or Angelina Jolie?
With her lively personality, a seamless ability to switch between English and Arabic and her natural rapport with global A-listers, Abirached has become a staple of entertainment broadcasting in the Middle East.
But growing up, the TV presenter had much more conventional career goals.
“I had started economics studies — I thought I was going to be, I don’t know, a lawyer or a banker in my life,” the 42-year-old told Gulf News tabloid!, speaking at the Dubai premiere of her latest film, ‘The Angry Birds Movie 2’.
While still living in Lebanon, she began working in media as a hobby to earn more money on the side. By chance, she got offered to do a radio show and a small segment on TV.
“The first time I had the camera on me, I felt that this was a little bit of a calling of mine. It was not intentional at all. But being myself is always something that felt very obvious to me. I don’t know how to do it any other way. And I know that there are other ways to present — maybe a little bit more composed and a little bit less spontaneous. But it’s not something that I would do well.”
The London-based broadcaster is best known as being the host of ‘Scoop with Raya’, where she airs sit-down interviews with actors, and the co-host of ‘Arabs Got Talent’.
Meanwhile, ‘Angry Birds 2’ marks her fourth foray into voice acting, following ‘The Angry Birds Movie’, ‘Hotel Transylvania 3’ and ‘The Smurfs’.
As the film hits cinemas in the UAE this Eid Al Adha, Abirached gets candid about her enduring legacy.
We’re used to seeing you interviewing the stars, but do you have a preference — to be the interviewer or the interviewee?
Oh, I definitely prefer to interview [people] myself. I mean I hope that it’s the thing I’m best at in my career. It’s my passion.
‘Scoop with Raya’ was one of our first major introductions to you. Did that start in 2010?
‘Scoop with Raya’ in its current format started in 2012 on MBC2. But before that, we had various versions of the programme. It started on MBC1, went to MBC2 for a short while — it was called ‘Stars’. Then it went back to MBC1 as an entertainment show that was called ‘Scoop’, without the ‘with Raya’. When we decided that ‘Scoop’ did not belong to MBC1, we really wanted to eventually establish it as the flagship movie show of the region, and it belonged to MBC2 in that format. It’s been there ever since.
The longevity is incredible — how do you feel about what you achieved with that show?
It’s always been my baby. It’s always been a show that I was extremely proud to present to audiences, because at the time, not everybody was a [full-on] cinema goer. So, a lot of people were watching movies on MBC2 — for instance in [Saudi Arabia]. Now I’m proud that we have kind of accompanied the opening of cinemas all over the region. When we started doing ‘Scoop’, there were maybe a few cinemas in Lebanon, a couple in Jordan and a couple in the UAE. All of a sudden, this has flourished into a cinema industry, where now we’re making movies in the Arabic language. Scoop has accompanied all these movements throughout the years... It’s a definitive show that covers Hollywood. It’s no longer a surprise that we have Brad Pitt on the show next weekend and The Rock is this Sunday.
You’ve seen the industry evolve, both the entertainment industry and the journalism industry—
And the movie industry.
How has it changed for you, personally, now that it has blown wide open with social media?
It’s so interconnected and you feel like you have a complete direct rapport with the fans. I know [which actors] they like, I know who they don’t like and who they’re interested in seeing. This is not something I thought I would have been able to have access to 10 years ago.
You can even see how they react to you, when you are trending worldwide on Twitter.
It was crazy! We trended worldwide this year with an interview with The Rock, we trended worldwide with a Ramiz Galal [prank show] episode [and] with my wedding pictures eight years later. Social media, I never understand how – I just post and then I see what goes on.
'Angry Birds Movie 2' is your fourth experience with animation. What surprised you the most about voice acting when you first tried it?
How much I enjoyed doing it. I remember the first ‘Angry Birds’ where we did Suka, which is the Arabic name for Matilda. I was in one of the famous studios in London, I think it was [Warner Bros Studios] Leavesden. I was enjoying so much being able to just be in a booth and not be self-conscious of anything and be able just to deliver a voice performance, which for me is a real intermediary between an acting role — which I don’t consider that I’m particularly good at — and a presenting role. Voice talent felt natural, special and spontaneous to me.
Have you been approached for any live action roles? What would it take for you to accept?
No, because I’m someone who is a TV presenter and I’m someone who supports cinema. I’m not going to also put myself forward for acting. I think it’s a different talent from what I do. Last year, when we did ‘Hotel Transylvania 3’, it was a full performance. It tips my toes into acting, without having the responsibility of [switching] between presenting and acting. I’m very happy where I am.
You’ve done voice acting, you’ve done broadcasting. Is there something that’s on your mind that you still want to get into?
One day, with the flourishing of Arabic cinema and Arabic filmmakers and me wanting to support them, I would like to produce maybe a film in the region. It’s something that I’ve had in the back of my mind for decades, but now I feel that it’s a real possibility.
I’ve spoken to directors who have gone into animation and they enjoy that they can share these films with their family and kids. Is that something you feel, too?
With Lola? Absolutely. I mean, she’s still too young to understand, but once she’s at a real age where she can enjoy animation films, I will absolutely involve her. In my mind, I have a full list of movies that I want her to start watching. She’s three, so she’s at the borderline age where she’s a little bit too young for a long form – she prefers to watch like, ten minute stuff. But I look forward to showing her all the classics when she’s older.
Is there an interview that you’ve done in your career that really stands out to you?
I remember my first interview with Robert Redford years ago. I had a 20 minute sit-down with him. It was a movie also [starring] Jennifer Lopez, I’m trying to remember how they all got together. [Redford starred in ‘An Unfinished Life with Lopez’ in 2005.] When he was talking, I felt so impressed by the life he led. This is someone who was involved in films, in directing, in producing, who was involved in politics, who was involved in social movements, who created a film festival, who had such a rich career, because he was famous. He was so inspiring to me. Every time I meet people like that – Jane Fonda, Bette Midler – you know, those veteran actors who have really lived their celebrity to the full, but for the right reasons, I’m very inspired.
Do you feel like you want to leave behind a legacy?
You know, I’m already very proud of the fact that people stop me and say that they’ve been watching my show since they were little and they’re [now] in their mid-20s. Some people might be offended. I find it amazing that they’ve grown up watching my show, that it’s been around for decades. So, I really hope that that, yes, if one day when I’m 100, I’m remembered as the ‘Madame Cinema of the Arab World’, that would be my legacy, I hope.
Don't miss it!
'Angry Birds Movie 2' releases in the UAE on August 8.