Q&A with Natasha Choufani: The perspective of a Lebanese Actress

Ralph Hage

Staff Writer

Actress Natasha Choufani, who performed the leading female role alongside George Khabbaz in his play “Ma’Al Wa’t Yimkin,” joined Outlook for an interview to share her thoughts on the stress upcoming actors and actresses experience, the pressure of needing to look good, her work, and women’s role in the art scene.
The actress will be featured in “Blahza,” “Shababeek” and “Ward Joury” this Ramadan; and the first screening of her play with Khabbaz was on LBC during the Easter break.

How Did You Know That You Wanted To Be An Actress?
When I was young, I used to watch TCM. I was in love with old movies. They seemed so dreamlike. I grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 90s. It wasn’t like today. Other than school or seeing friends once a week, we didn’t do much. The only things we could do for fun were movies and books. It didn’t help me in my studies but it fueled my imagination.

You Knew When You Graduated From School That You Wanted To Act?
Yes. I was in a school focused on science and math that didn’t care much for the arts. They were focused on their students becoming doctors and engineers or businesspeople. I would personally try to stay connected to the arts in my own time. It was a relief for me to find myself in Gulbenkian Theater in LAU on my first day of university.

Did You Feel Pressure From Society To Not Be An Actress?
Of course, people are usually against it because the art scene in Lebanon is very disorganized, stressful and unsure, and lacks the financial and moral support for artists. The syndicates are split and politicized. There is no proper health insurance, protection or basic needs provided for registered artists and there are no strong requirements for someone to enter the syndicates. We have to find individual means of support. This affects our performances and work and in turn affects the industry. If artists can’t have the support they need, then how can they work properly? That was one issue among the usual stereotypes of the industry.

Did You Enjoy Playing The Lead Alongside George Khabbaz In His Play ‘Ma’ Al Wa’et Yimkin’?
I did. It was my first leading role and an overwhelming experience. Every day was about whether the audience will laugh or clap or cry when I expected them to; if it didn’t go the way I wanted, I had a tough time sleeping that night. But, it was overall a big learning experience, especially since I working with respected and experienced actors. The amount of responsibility I had – looking back at it now- seems much scarier than when I was actually doing it. It is quite surreal to think that 100,000 people came to watch.

Can You Tell Us About The Challenges You Feel Regarding Physical Looks For Celebrities?
We don’t see people in their natural form on Lebanese TV. I don’t mean that it’s wrong for a woman to fix herself. Every woman has the right to feel beautiful. She should do it for the right reasons and to protect her identity, and not in order to conform to what is expected of her. This pressure also affects our acting. We feel like we should always look wonderful even when we are crying or screaming or depressed. I once played the role of a drug addict and my scene was cut because my hair needed some spray. You can imagine how I felt! Instead, I messed my hair up even more, and pointed out that my character was thinking about getting her hands on drugs, and not about flattening the baby hairs on her head.

Is There Anything You Would Like To Ask Of The Students Reading This?
I would just encourage people to support independent and underground projects by attending them and sharing them on social media. Watch plays that are done by students, watch plays and short film screenings that are posted around on the streets and cafes in Beirut – that’s how you can support this part of the industry.

What Do You Think Of Women’s Portrayal In Series And Films?
We live in a country that does not protect us. Our survival, dignity and quality of life is defined by how good or bad to us our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons are. And it depends on how much money we have in the bank. It’s a very difficult life. Sometimes they try to portray that, but it’s not raw enough. It’s not painful enough. It’s not strong enough to give an impact, because everyone is so concerned with not upsetting political parties or religious clerics or these people or those people and this affects the script. There are some writers like Tarek Soueid who write beautiful scripts. He understands the injustice done to women far more than most female writers. But there should be a collective effort. We need to see more stories that reflect the injustice of our laws and our society to women. I was in a series where there was a plot regarding a girl who has sex before marriage and regrets it. The man is forced to marry her and we realize that he was never serious about her. For some reason, the director assumed it was a rape scene. When I saw it, I spoke to the writer and she immediately changed the ending of that storyline, so that we don’t allow a rape to end up in marriage to “protect” the girl from society’s talk. There isn’t enough awareness on what kind of subliminal and not so subliminal messages are being sent to the audience. This was during the campaign to abolish Article 522. Luckily the writer was a feminist.

 

What Are Your Favorite Movies?
The film that made me want to be an actress was “The Glass Slipper” (1955), starring Leslie Caron. It was Cinderella, but I fell in love with the music, the cinematography, the dances etc. It was the interpretation that I connected with. It gave me beautiful dreams. I think I was 7-8 years old, and since then, the film and music have been engraved in my mind.

You Act On TV, Theater And Films?
I do. Each one has its challenges and benefits. In cinema, I love to observe the passion of the crew and director in indie projects or even student films. Every shot, frame, movement, thought, and detail has to be very well studied. Theater is the most challenging and most rewarding. When you do theater, your whole life becomes revolved around that. You can’t risk going somewhere too far and get stuck in traffic, you can’t have a car accident, or take up some risky hobby, or run down the stairs. You try not to get sick, but if you do; if your fever is 40 degrees and your bones are shivering, you’ll forget it the moment you go on stage. Because, whatever happens you have to get on stage. You have a message to give, and it really is a noble art, because a play mirrors society the way actors mirror people.

What Do You Think Is The Difference Between TV Actors And Theater/Film Actors In Lebanon?
Well, there are some respected actors in theater and film who now refuse to work on TV because of the lack of good scripts. Also, they don’t wish to conform to the TV formula that is followed. But most of them started on TV and once they solidified their names, they could afford not to continue on TV.
I think the younger generation of actors want to make a change. They don’t want to turn their back on it because they see how important it is. Not everyone goes to the cinema or theater, but most people do watch TV series, whatever the quality may be, so it’s important that it improves. I’m happy to see that this idea is very much present with my friends in the business. Whenever we meet up, we talk about these issues; how to improve the industry? How to push for projects that carry a message? There are some people who are doing it their way. It’s a small wave but it’s there. It makes me feel happy when I see people who haven’t lost hope on that.

These People Work A Second Job To Sustain Their Artistic Life?
Most of them, yes. There’s no way you can do this sort of thing independently. Unless you already are financially secure – which is not the case for most of them. A struggling artist is a romantic idea in our late teens or early twenties. But then it becomes a serious issue, so we all have to have another source of income to support our passion. We don’t have that luxury to just focus on our careers. This does have a negative impact, because we become more stressed about making money than about doing proper roles and projects. If there was an organized and respected system in Lebanon for actors, we wouldn’t be in such a position.

Do You Think Lebanese Cinema Has Potential?
Lebanese cinema is among the strongest cinemas in the Middle East and it is strong because of the independent artists who are working on projects and manage to make it to festivals abroad. We have Metropolis Cinema and several notable film festivals in Lebanon that show wonderful works every year. I can see the progress because I work with students a lot and I try to attend as many screenings as I can.

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