An open letter to Aladdin’s Mena Massoud: Slow your roll

Dear Mena,

I can understand the frustration of not being able to get “a single audition” after starring as the lead in Aladdin, which crossed the billion-dollar mark earlier this year. It’s frustrating, especially when your co-lead Naomi Scott followed up Aladdin with another franchise movie later in the year. However, I think venting in such a public way, especially with a comment loaded with racial overtones, is a bit too premature, and you should slow your roll.

Some caveats. I’m writing this as an industry outsider. Also, I think your frustrations have some merit. Hollywood has not been the best industry for racial representation in the past, especially when it comes to creatives of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Also, statistically, an actor should already be rich, male, white, and conventionally handsome to make it big.

However, I also think that starring in a billion-dollar movie carries less weight than it used to. The movie-making model now is much more franchise- and studio-based, instead of the more actor-driven model that was present in the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, look at the recent movie poster trend, where the back of an actor (or stuntperson) is shown when before, it was actors’ faces front and center.

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Moreover, starring in a franchise role is not a guarantee of future success. Despite a decade on the big screen as Ron Weasley in the billion-dollar Harry Potter franchise, Ruper Grint’s live-action films have all grossed less than $1 million at the box office. After being cast as the titular superhero in 2006’s Superman Returns, Brandon Routh also struggled to find relevancy in his post-blockbuster career.

Source: Box Office Mojo as of 10 December 2019

Acting is a notoriously tricky industry and “not for the faint-hearted.” While it’s hard to get statistics on the number of jobs and auditions available, we can look at pay as a measure of success. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for an actor in the United States is about $17 per hour, a little above the $15-per-hour minimum wage in more progressive states. Moreover, most people find the most success a couple of decades into their career, rather than a couple of years after starting out. According to Payscale, the average American male will hit peak earnings at age 50 — nearly three decades after the start of his career. Mena, you launched your career in 2011, and I’d say you’re still at the beginning of your professional life and on the road towards (even more) success.

Source: Payscale as of 10 December 2019

To become world-famous and successful as an actor is also incredibly rare. A mathematician estimated that the odds of making it big, nevermind staying in the spotlight, was around 0.04% for actors. By most measures, you’ve already made it. The grand majority of actors — of any demographic — do not have steady work the same way you do, like a starring role on a brand-new Hulu show, a billion-dollar film that will forever be on your resume, nor can they call Will Smith “Will.”

Consider Rami Malek, a fellow actor of Egyptian heritage who just won the Academy Award for Best Actor last year and will star in the new James Bond movie next year. He’s 38. Ten years ago in 2009, he was an unknown name with Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian as his biggest acting credit. According to IMDB, in 2008, when he was around your age, he had no film or TV credits at all — potentially a year without any jobs. To get by, he admits that he also had to play Middle Eastern terrorists, a source of discomfort I’m sure you can sympathize with.

So what can you do right now?

First, you can stay in the news and social media limelight.

Sophie Turner, Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones, admitted that she got her role in the X-Men franchise due to having more social media followers than her rivals. In the leaked emails from Sony Entertainment, executives wrote that a social media following is a huge consideration when it comes to greenlighting and casting projects. To wit, your Google Trends score has risen in the past couple of days as your comments made their way through the internet. Yet, even with the recent bump, it is a far cry from the levels seen at the peak of the Aladdin marketing tour. Staying in the news can exhausting and fruitless, especially without a full-time marketing team behind you.

Source: Google as of 10 December 2019

Second, you can focus on the process.

One of the takeaways from Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers was that overnight successes are rarely what they seem. Talent and success take time, maybe even 10,000 hours or ten years of concentrated practice and work, especially when it comes to a creatively complicated profession like acting. Bryan Cranston, now a household name in his 60s because of Breaking Bad, said that, for most actors, “the bottom line is that sometimes they are simply not going to want you. And if they do want you, they may fire you. We’re going in a different direction.” So, Bryan Cranston advises to focus on the process: “If I attached [myself] to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to focus on character. My job was to be interesting. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.” Cranston walked the walk. He was the voice behind monsters in Power Rangers and did many commercials before being cast on Seinfeld at the age of 38.

The third is to create your own opportunity set.

In Mindy Kaling’s latest film Late Night, her character — a woman of color trying to break into the world of late-night comedy — literally brings her own chair to the writer’s room as a thinly-veiled metaphor for how Kaling had to write her own roles to break big. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the award-winning writer and star of Fleabag (and writer of No Time To Die) wrote and developed her own one-woman play that premiered in Scottish theater festivals before that play eventually became the hit BBC show. For many actors, a viable route would be to create their own roles.

In short, does it suck not to find another billion-dollar movie after your first billion-dollar movie? Sure. Are the odds stacked against you? Yes. Can you make it? Definitely. From what I’ve seen, you’re very bright, talented, and hungry. Also, as a fellow Canadian, I want you to succeed and join the likes of my boy Ryan Reynolds.

Looking forward to your next movie,

Paul

Special thanks to Jen Paolini and Silke Cummings

Film Lover. Squash Player. Economist. Currently in Hong Kong.

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