The latest injection of Disney nostalgia has finally hit Aussie movie screens in the form of the live action remake of Aladdin. And while we're still holding out for news of a live action Pocahontas remake (please Bob Iger, please), we excited to report that Aladdin hits the sweet spot for 90's kids who crew up in the glory days of Disney animation.
Stepping into the role of the world's most beloved street rat is Egyptian-born, Canadian-raised Mena Massoud, a relatively unknown, but soon-to-be household name. And for those worried about the handling of the 1992 classic, rest assured, the 27 year-old actor manages to lead the film into a whole new world (yes, we went there).
Backed by a Will Smith-ified genie and Naomi Scott playing Jasmine, Mena and co manage to bring the classic tale to life, without sacrificing any of the mystery and magic of the original, a tough task for Aladdin's leading man and director Guy Ritchie, but one they more than successfully achieve. Reboots of this nature face a tough balancing act; paying a respectful nod to the original whilst still injecting a fresh feeling of creativity. And Aladdin delivers a Cave of Wonders full of epic surprises, none more so epic than the performance of it's leading man.
Men's Health sat down with Prince Ali himself, Mena, ahead of the films release to give us the background on modern day Agrabah, the film's underlying messages on acceptance and training with the genie.
Men's Health: Aladdin is an iconic role to take on. There's obviously a lot of pressure and concern that comes with that. What were your big concerns and worries? Or did you know that you were going to nail it from the get-go?
Mena Massoud: Yeah, to be honest man, I didn't really have time to think about it. I found out on a Wednesday that I got the job, and on Friday I had to fly out to London for 7 months to start shooting this. I had tested already twice for it, and kind of just been in it, and I had been in this position before in my career where I had tested for things and not booked them, so I kind of learned that when you test for something and you book it, especially with something like this where they've done an extensive search, you just have to trust that they know what they want, and they got it when they cast you. I can't say that I was nervous, but I definitely understand the responsibility that I had.
What can fans of the original movie expect from your take? Have you approached it differently? Have you played homage to it?
Yeah, we've just done our best to bring this world and bring it to life because it's live action, and that means real human beings and real set pieces and things like that. I think we've created this incredibly colorful three-dimensional world, and the characters are incredibly complex and deep. We're just trying to make it real.
A huge part of the original is the soundtrack and the singing. Is that something that you took on in this movie?
I did, yeah. I did. We had dance choreography rehearsals and vocal rehearsals, and I had about six or seven weeks of prep before we even went to camera to kind of just prep for all that stuff. Then I kept on singing for about the next year and a half.
What are some great takeaways that you had from working with industry legends like Will Smith and Guy Ritchie?
Yeah, I think Guy really just through action taught me to be myself and not try to change for anyone, and Will in the same way. These are two incredibly grounded, humble people. Guy has an incredible way of surprising people every turn that he takes, and I don't just mean his artistic career. In life as well. There were things that I learned about Guy every day that I had no idea because he kind of just doesn't talk about them or doesn't gloat about them. Yeah, Will, I just had great conversations with Will about his career, and he kind of took me back to when his career took off and when he started doing iconic roles, and that's the position I'm in right now, and I hope to continue to be in. He just kind of talked me through that and how he dealt with it.
You all have the energy and a youthful spirit, for lack of a better word. How much of that carried off screen? Is that something that's difficult to harness and control off set?
That's a tough question because I think that's what acting is all about. I think being a good actor is all about harnessing things from real life and bringing it into your work. I hope that we did it beautifully and elegantly in a way that people can see that youthfulness and that struggle that youth go through. I know for me, Naomi definitely what we wanted to accomplish with Aladdin and Jasmine is that they're young, and they don't necessarily know what they want in life yet, and they struggle with their identity. Aladdin definitely struggles with who he is as a person and his value as a human being, and that's something that all youth go through. It's something I went through in high school. And something you kind of go through your whole life, so we definitely tried to bring that to life.
You're very dedicated to your training and diet, how long have you been plant based for?
Yeah, I went plant based about four years ago, going on five years ago, and it kind of really changed my life, man. I started not feeling as many complications in my body that I used to. I started feeling lighter. I had more energy, and when I booked Aladdin, I just wanted to kind of create a platform where people that wanted to transition to plant based living didn't have to feel like it was a militant place because I think vegans have kind of created this discussion where in order to be vegan, you have to give up everything, and you have to change everything about yourself and the way you live.
[I want] to encourage people to evolve vegan slowly, doing what you can do. If that means that you cut out meat twice a week, then great, you're an evolving vegan, and that helps contribute to your health and the environment. Yeah, we have our first book coming out in the near future, and we traveled North America and will be featuring about 50 restaurants in the book. Just trying to encourage people to eat more plant based.
Taking on a role like Aladdin, and having founded a movement like Evolving Vegan, you’re obviously into your health. But at the end of the day, you're playing a “street rat”. This is a physically intensive role because you've got all that choreography and live action, but you have to look hungry. How did you manage?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I'll take you through it a little bit. I mean, first of all, the one thing is I try to make my characters as real as possible, and I wanted to do that with Aladdin obviously in a massive way. This is a kid who doesn't eat a lot, but he does a lot of parkour, and he climbs buildings, and he does a lot of physical movement. A lot of calisthenics, essentially. He's using his body weight, and he's in shape. I definitely wanted to put on a little bit of muscle, but I really needed to cut body fat drastically as well, so me and my personal trainer just worked on getting my body fat down and trying to get my muscle up at the same time, which is incredibly difficult to do.
I just trained six days a week. I did a lot of cardio, did a lot of legs to kind of help burn that fat a little bit. I had boxing training with my stunt team as well, so that added a little bit of cardio. I think by the end of the shoot, I was probably the biggest I had ever been that lean. And to be honest, it's something that I still continue to strive to get back to. During filming, I had the luxury of working out with a trainer six days a week so I could really focus on it.
Did you train with the rest of the cast?
Yeah, I worked out with Marwan [Marwan Kenzari who plays Jafar] a couple of times. I don't know if we hit the gym other times, but I worked out with him a couple of times, and Will was definitely there. Will was actually the person who requested they build a gym for us, so him and his team were in there, and Will travels with his personal trainer as well, which is amazing. Yeah, I think we were all training. Naomi was training really hard as well. I just kind of had the luxury of doing the most stunts on this, so I wanted to be the most prepared that I could.
*Cliché question alert* If you found a lamp and you had three wishes, what would you ask for and why?
I would wish that people go see this movie and take away something from it that's going to help change their lives because I think that's what art is about at the end of the day. It's not just about entertainment. It's about helping change people's lives and making us feel something and I would wish that this film does that and kind of just transcends just being a film. I would hope that the world finds itself in a better place tomorrow when we wake up than today when we go to sleep because we have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to work on for future generations. I would say those are my two big ones right now.
Especially for young people. I mean, that's the other thing. Our film has a great diversity in the film, but also there's not a lot of films that come out about young people and people in their adolescence trying to find their way in life. The way Superbad did that and all these other films, this also is a story about two people trying to find their way.
Aladdin is in cinemas now.