Interview by Paul Salfen
For many people stuck at home during the pandemic, escapism in explosive TV shows and films has been a blessing to take them out of reality. As a bit of counterprogramming, though, that also serves as its own bit of mystic escapism is a nice film about love and healing that takes place in an exotic locale called Luxor. Beautifully shot and acted, the film follows a woman (Andrea Riseborough) that reconnects with a former lover (Karim Saleh) in the ancient city as she struggles to accept her choices in the past while figuring out where she fits in during the present. It’s a feeling that may especially connect with viewers given the current reflective times.
Saleh has been active as an actor for around 20 years, but gets to shine as a leading man here in a way that he hasn’t been seen before, despite having been featured in works by Steven Spielberg (Munich), a popular TV show (“Transparent”), and even seen in a Marvel film (Iron Man 2) and an awards season film (Vice). But it appears after this, we should be seeing a lot more from this thoughtful, introspective actor soon.
Here’s more from Saleh:
AMFM Magazine: Thank you for being on to talk to us about this one because it was a nice movie and we really needed that in 2020.
Karim Saleh: I am delighted to have been a part of this film and for this film to have had such a wonderful reception.
AMFM: Watching this film is quite an experience – it’s not a typical narrative and more of a journey.
KS: Well, it’s introspective and I think it’s reminiscent of some work, especially French cinema, but especially in French cinema whereas things tend to get lost in the moodiness rather than the psychological component. I think the balance here of the contemplative moodiness of it is really there to support her psychological journey. I think it justifies that long form and those long parts of silence. It’s not just an artistic decision, it’s a reflection of what she’s going through. I think for me being privy to her healing journey is a central thread to the film.
AMFM: This seems like a good time for it to come out – people talking about their mental issues more openly and can discuss their journeys more deeply publicly.
KS: Yeah, and it’s not descriptive and that’s what I like about it. It doesn’t necessarily say this is the Freudian take or the Jungian take or the pharmacological take on this. It is someone that is trying to bring in everything she knows and misses in order to heal herself. In that process, there is a love story, there is a past, there is an archeologist – there is a gateway to a past where the unconscious is projected into reality. I think one of the fundamental thing Carl Jung says about the Egyptians is that they were living outwardly the projections of their subconscious. It makes sense that it’s therapeutic. Whether it’s the mysticism behind it or simply she needs the recipient for the content of her unconscious really, really makes sense, but it’s also really nice that they’re not dissecting the message behind it talking about one particular way of healing. It’s an open-ended question of what it takes to heal.
AMFM: I usually don’t read other critics’ reviews of films unless I’m curious of what they thought, but I read one that regardless of the review, they called the visual side of the film “travel porn” because it really did make you want to go there immediately. It must have been such a wonderful place to film.
KS: It is a travel porn and I think the city was conceived as some kind of portal. [Laughs] I think the Egyptians have succeeded at doing something, which is create a space where it’s possible to get to a “time zero” – a feeling of timelessness. I think it’s a travel port not to anywhere in particular but a travel port to the self. If you had been there with us, you would have experienced what we experienced and that is that this place doesn’t look unfamiliar at all and doesn’t look exotic in the way that we would use the word “exotic” – it almost looks obvious. There’s almost an immediate recognition with that place and it almost immediately begins to transport you when you accept it for what it is, which is a place where time has very little to no impact.
AMFM: It is a fascinating place. What do you think you’ll always remember about working on this one? Was there a certain scene?
KS: Yeah, there’s the entrance into a temple and Andrea and I were standing in front of this goddess who was later portrayed as a cat and her portrayal of a cat – and I’m interpreting, of course, but it was almost like she was changed into a cat because she needed to be domesticated and it’s almost the beginning domestication of the divine feminist, you know? Prior to that she was portrayed as a lioness and she was thought to be as destructive as she is healing, so she had to hold both ends of that duality to be able to accomplish her function. When Andrea and I stood in front of this most powerful representation of the divine feminine, we both experienced a real connection with the symbolism to the point where we’re playing in this really deep love story but I could almost hear her whisper to me, at the risk of completely sounding “woo,” I could hear that thing whisper things to me. Not necessarily clear, I understand that those were admonitions of my own brain, it was nothing weird, but I did feel a true connection to Sekhmet and that statue.
AMFM: Wow, that is special. We’ve talked to Andrea before and she’s fantastic, but I’m sure working with her was special because there is something fantastic about her as an actress and I wanted to know if you put your finger on exactly what that was.
KS: Yeah, I mean, she’s infinitely committed and infinitely open. You would think that when someone commits, they’re making choices and it narrows the possibility, but with this particular actor, Andrea Riseborough, the extent which she is committed does not hinder her ability to be extremely malleable and extremely open to things around her and I think that combination is incredible. She doesn’t present to you with a construct, she doesn’t present you with an edifice that can shake you or become obsolete if things were to change. She comes in and everything is alive in her and she comes in and she’s almost not attached to any of it but it all exists at once. You get a sense that anything is possible with her.
AMFM: I understand you’ll be working with her again in your next film as well?
KS: Yes, it’s a completely different experience. We’re not playing lovers, we’re in a completely different position in this movie Please Baby Please, but yeah, we’ve experienced a completely different way of working together through this new project. It’s one in which we have less to do with each other – we’re more like far away triggers, but we’re more disconnected than we are in Luxor. We’re not as close, but it’s a heightened reality and I saw a completely different side of Andrea doing that with her.
AMFM: You’ve had a very interesting and varied career. What advice would you give to someone that wants to follow your path?
KS: It’s really important to stay very curious. The culture of acting is very, very rich and I think that studying acting is enriching and I think that the work of acting is enriching because you’re traveling and meeting people and exposed to different points of views, but this kind of fundamental curiosity, this openness I think is a great tool for an actor. Everyone is always concerned with their ability to emote, to learn an accent, to emulate physicality – and that’s all great technically. The real curiosity shows up on a screen in a way that I can’t explain. There are so many sources to draw from. I would encourage actors not to be disconnected from political life, from literature, from other forms of art. I think being able to draw from other pools is so enriching for an actor.
AMFM: What would you say your Hail Mary Moment was – the moment in your life or career where you just had to go for it?
KS: In 2003, I met the director Antonia Bird and she’s this wonderful British left-wing politicized, interesting, and politically-driven director and Antonia offered for me to play the terrorist that crashed the plane in Pennsylvania on 9/11 [The Hamburg Cell] and I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of Middle Eastern actors say, “I would never touch something like this. Why is that even an option?” but I truly felt that this having been real that I wasn’t betraying myself or anyone else by delving into something like this because it existed. As impossible as it was for me to understand it, instead of allowing the hatred for it to guide my choice, I gave myself an opportunity to go somewhere I could never go myself. It’s inconceivable to me to feel that way, so I starting trying to compose ways to make that work for me, so it was almost a journey of, “How much can I employ my imagination? How much can I employ my technique to make something work where I know I cannot make it work?” Working with Antonia was really transformative because she saw the ambivalence with which I tackled the part and that was perfect for the character because he appeared ambivalent and reluctant. By guiding me through that and helping me to make sense and make peace with that part, it taught me what my fundamental technique is, which is to bring myself to a part so much that eventually that the part of myself which I’m bringing starts crumbling and out of the rubble of myself, the character emerges a little bit. How much of myself can I work out in the process of finding this character?
AMFM: You’ve been working with amazing talent – including the great Steven Spielberg and now you’ve been able to work up to this with your name and face on the poster headlining a great film.
KS: Yeah, I think I’ve had the privilege of living under the radar for that long because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve been on these amazing sets and working with these wonderful people but I’ve had a lot of time to grow on my own and to process my experiences, so I didn’t have an opportunity to be overwhelmed by these experiences I was given because I was able to process them. I’m in my early 40s now and it’s put me in a place where I have the experience I need to have but also the amount of perspective I need to have. That combination makes me feel like I can pursue my own career without having the feeling I’m drowning or shooting in the dark. It gives me a confidence and I feel like I’m at a point where I have more confidence than ever before.
AMFM: Depending on where viewers are in their lives, they may get something different out of this. What do you want people to get out of this film?
KS: Although it is not thematically the subject of the film, I think love is really important to this film because I feel like love is almost the gateway between reality and the imagination. I think the things we have in common are love and the imagination. No matter what our beliefs are, imagination kicks in, so for me those are fundamental human functions, so I think those two fundamental things are crucial for us beginning to explore oneness and come out of a divisive concept.
Luxor is available on demand and digital on December 4th.