“Never say no to a spinoff. I fell in love with her and her fight,” Calamawy said.
Actress Mai Calamawy jumped, dodged, kicked, and generally slammed his way through nearly every episode of Marvel’s latest TV outing,”moon knight.” As Layla El-Faouly, the wife/co-worker of Oscar Isaac’s Marc Spector, Calamawy held on and gave audiences a woman of action on par with Indiana Jones. But being the lone woman on a show comes with its own set of hurdles. “It was a challenge for me as an actor,” Calamawy told IndieWire via Zoom. “I could almost feel myself going into a pattern, where I was making myself smaller…because I was so intimidated.”
And while that sense of intimidation never fully dissipated, Calamawy said Isaac and co-star Ethan Hawke were fully invested in making sure she felt comfortable and heard. “So many times Ethan would laser focus on Layla and say, ‘This is what I want to see for her. I was just amazed and really touched that he spent 30 minutes wanting to do this; he wouldn’t even talk about his character. So I was lucky with them,” she said.
Calamawy also discussed the show’s intense stunts that left him with a broken finger and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: What initially attracted you to this project?
Mai Calamawy: I didn’t read the script before auditioning. Marvel has been very tight-lipped about this. I knew it was an Egyptian woman, there was maybe a bit more on the breakdown but nothing revealing. So my audition was just a guessing game, in terms of where I should go versus who would be Marc or Steven. Then about a month or two later I started getting the scripts. It was really confusing, at first, trying to figure it out, but the writing ends up really becoming your take on the character.
So many times, even when we started filming, my instincts would start to kick in and I [would] kind of confronting me and feeling like I would say this differently. Layla is so reserved and really observes what’s going on, which fits my way of working and that’s what started to give me a fundamental idea of Layla and the way she moves. It’s almost like a tiger, how he watches his prey for 20 minutes or more before he pounces. It was fun to start understanding her that way because there was no reference point of who that character would be in the MCU. I didn’t do a lot of roles, but I really wanted something a little more nuanced and different from me as an Arab woman.
What was the audition process like?
Sarah Goher, who is our consulting producer and [series director] Mohammed Diab’s wife contacted me on Instagram, and I’m already not that active on Instagram; I do not respond to messages. She’s like, “my husband is interested in you for a role in a Marvel project.” I contacted my manager and she was like, “Instagram? Damn.’ I was like that’s exactly what Arabs do, we’re going straight to it. My manager ended up finding out it was something that was really going on and I got the audition. I auditioned around mid-November 2022. Weeks later I had a chemistry reading with Oscar, which I’ve never read before, but it’s uncomfortable on Zoom. was like, “hey,” like Oscar and I were going to chat for a second and he said, “Let’s go.” So we cut to the chase.
When we were doing the final scene for this callback, we tried it in a number of ways. Then Mohamed came in and said something in Arabic, gave me a very direct note in Arabic, and I had a clear idea of where he wanted me to go with the scene. It was the moment that almost sealed the deal for everyone, but something about it was really special because my English is so much better than my Arabic. It’s such a poetic and profound language. I knew at that moment how lucky I was to be able to have this kind of communication on a set where there is this huge Western production, but I almost have this deeper information [of] where I can go with the character.
What were the challenges of being the lone female in a male-dominated series?
I sometimes think how I would be if it wasn’t for Oscar and Ethan, and we were maybe more on a similar level career-wise? I was really intimidated and didn’t want to do anything wrong. I noticed how easily they worked and tossed around with ideas, and it wasn’t that I had ideas and was too shy, I wasn’t getting ideas that as I went along as we moved forward and I developed more confidence, those ideas started coming. I was so anxious at first it was a block and I felt guilty. I even talked to Ethan about it once and he was like, “Well, hey, it’s not a competition.” And for me, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’ll never try to compete with you two, but I just want to feel like it’s an equal exchange of energy.’
The first day we shot, who was in [Steven’s] apartment, there was a time when I went to Oscar and I was like, “How about we do this?” and he’s like, “I love it” and he ran and told the directors. I look forward to the day when I’ll be more vocal, but I’ve found comfort in speaking to Oscar directly or Ethan directly. It could have happened otherwise. They could have been so mad at me. This is how we are [women] raised. We see inequality everywhere. I’ve been hard on myself many times because I was like “why can’t I just throw myself out there the same way?” But we are almost conditioned that way.
There was a backlash when the series was announced given that Oscar Isaac is not Egyptian. As an Egyptian woman, is there an additional responsibility to make Layla authentic?
Responsibility showed up for me in a way where I fought for certain things if something was wrong, or if I felt like I was falling into a stereotype. I would go talk to them [the directors] and just say, “That doesn’t make you feel comfortable,” whether it’s a reaction, a retort, or an expectation. I didn’t win all of those battles, but I was getting very passionate about them. I can only fight to be faithful to an experience that I have known or that I cultivate for this character. Apart from that, like May, I always say that I am an Arab woman. I cannot be responsible for all Arab women. I would love for all Arab women to watch the show and say, “Layla is awesome and I can see myself”, but it’s not realistic to expect that. So some people are going to look at me and say, “I get it,” and some people are going to say, “I didn’t feel like that. It didn’t show up in my upbringing. I wouldn’t do that. ‘is good.
You said you found the character through the stunts. Can you talk more about it?
I knew I had to be in good shape, that was a general expectation on a Marvel show. But they made me train for two months, two hours a day with the stunt team, then another hour and a half, five days a week, with my trainer where he observed. He also came every time I was filming for [sometimes] pump me up, because sometimes you’re filming at 3 a.m. and you need someone to help you warm up. With the waterfalls, it was different every day. The main fight choreographer, Patrick Vo, we had such an instant connection. I was so turned on and he was feeding on my excitement. He had different exercises every day with my two stunt doubles, and we were all learning similar moves. He was lining up an obstacle for me and all I wanted to do was sit down and figure out every part of it and he was like, ‘You saw them do it, go for it. Do not think about it. It’s become a big part of who Layla is: don’t think. Go ahead and find the solution then.
I broke my finger, my little finger in one of the scenes, and I didn’t know I broke it. Everyone was like “stop filming” and I was like “no, I’m going to finish the scene”. They just assumed maybe it wasn’t as bad as it was. I just wrapped a handkerchief around it and finished the scene. Then when I went to the hospital later, they said, “You broke your little fingertip. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s Layla.” I cut myself and thought “maybe I need to sit down”. Maybe not to this extent but I like to take care of myself. It’s so funny that she’s just an adrenaline junkie and I realized that about her. I never thought stunt work would get me there.
Is there a stunt you’re still shocked to have pulled off?
The most unexpected stunt was – I don’t even know if you’ll even call it a waterfall – but it was in episode four when I have to go down that sand dune. It was so high compared to what it looks like [on-screen]. I had to keep going up and down and I feel like I wasn’t running that fast when I look at it, but I was sprinting in those big boots in the sand. Every time I ran and prayed, “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.” There are all these people who want you to do this. I must have done it 15 times, all the way, and it was a unique sequence where I was running all the way, running around the truck, getting inside and watching the flares, then we cut. I was so impressed because I’m not the best runner. It’s interesting how the seemingly simple things end up being the hardest.
Do you want to see Layla do more in the MCU?
Never say no to a spin-off. I fell in love with her and her fight. Layla has so many mysteries about her that I feel like she deserves to be expanded upon. I believe it has a good strong message and it could continue to inspire and open doors for others. I find this work to have been my service that I can do and Layla feels like a part of it. So I would like to continue to serve in this way.
“Moon Knight” is now streaming on Disney+.