I recently got the chance to talk to Houda Echouafni about her role in ‘Mesocafe’. Here, Houda talks about what it was like working with the cast and crew on-set and what her favourite holiday destination is…
Hey Houda. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘Mesocafé’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
Opposing the Saddam regime from within Iraq, Yusif is an underground blogger who risks his life to come to London to campaign for the immediate lifting of UN Sanctions. As political intrigue thwarts his heartfelt attempts to highlight the suffering of his people under the embargo, he finds himself increasingly taking refuge at Mesocafé, a little Baghdad in West London. With their Arab, Assyrian, Jewish and Kurdish heritage, members of the Iraqi community allow him into their lives, sharing with him their stories and dreams.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
I play Suad, A Iraqi woman who tries to help Yusif get his message across in the British media. she is media savvy, and very politically aware, she has lost her husband in Iraq, she doesn’t know if he is dead or alive, he is one of thousands who have disappeared under Saddam’s regime.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I was contacted by Ja’far directly two years before the shoot, he was given my details by someone at the BAFTA office, he sent me the script and we met for a coffee, we talked about what he was hoping to achieve with the film, there was no part for me at that time, but Ja’far decided to change the sex of the character he had originally written to a woman, so that’s how Suad was created.
How would you say this film is different and unique?
Firstly I think Ja’far worked brilliantly on a truly tiny budget, it was a real labour of love from all involved, It’s also very easy to forget the situation in Iraq before the fall of Saddam, most projects now tend to focus on the aftermath as opposed to the time during the sanctions, so that in itself was reason enough for me to do the film. It’s also very inspiring to watch someone write, produce and direct a film because you immediately feel part of something that is much more personal.
The film stars Daphne Alexander, Duncan Armitage, Julian Boote, Adam Dahrouge and your good self – with Ja’far ‘Abd Al-Hamid onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
We had to shoot a lot of scenes in a very short amount of time due to budget constraints, so there was no hanging about on set (which is usually the case with most films) and we all had to be very aware of our personal character journeys. so everyone was super focused, there ware a lot of night shoots that meant an exceptional amount of coffee was consumed by all. There was also a real sense of family and community on set which mirrors the events of the film, as Yusif is welcomed into this mini Baghdad in the heart of London.
Let’s talk a bit about you Houda. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?…
I moved to the UK at the age of 11 from Morocco, I am originally Moroccan/Egyptian. and I found Drama was the only class in school I was able to truly communicate in so after secondary school I studied Performing Arts and then off to Drama school. I went to The London Centre of Theatre Studies. and straight after school I was cast in Penny Woolcock’s ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ for Channel 4.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into the industry?
This is an industry you can break into at any age, but you have to be very aware of what you want out of it. As an actor you have many different routes. Drama school is the most obvious as it allows you to study your craft, but you will find that in the UK the teaching is predominantly theatre based. There are a lot of courses that focus on-screen acting. The Actor’s Centre is great for part-time courses and introduction into the industry. For me, the best scenario is to be a jobbing actor, so you ultimately do everything from film, TV, theatre and so on. Also to never say no to a job when you are starting, you will always learn from anything you do. even the smallest job can teach you plenty. and every meeting is an opportunity (today for example I went to help Toby Hooper, director of ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ for the editing of his new film ‘Djinn’) so as an actor you have to be a jack-of-all-trades, and there really is no room for diva behaviour, very few can afford that luxury
You’ve been in a number of films and TV series – who has been your favourite actor/actress to work with so far, and which project has been your favourite to be a part of?
In film, I learned a lot from Penny Woolcock, as a director she ran a very tight ship, it was also my first experience after drama school, and I was used to directors telling me what to do to a certain extent, but in the real world (as referred to at Drama school) I found I was on my own, the director casts you to deliver and their job is to tweak your performance so a lot of the work comes from you the actor. You have to bring very specific choices and commit to them. You don’t have the luxury of time like with theatre to discuss your relationship with the other actors, a lot of the time you meet your co-stars on set, and you are thrown into intimate scenes immediately. Working on ‘Waking The Dead’ with Trevor Eve and Sue Johnston is certainly a career highlight for me, they were two actors completely in charge of their characters, which meant that immediately you have to raise the bar when you are playing with them in any scene. They are also both so generous as actors that it is quite humbling.
What’s your favourite holiday destination and why?
Fes in Morocco is a magical place, I spent three months rehearsing there for a theatre project I am doing at the moment. It’s a city that takes you back in time, you feel as if you have time travelled to Arabian nights. Donkey carts are still the only mode of transport in the old medina with its tiny winding streets, and the best part is that it’s only a three-hour flight from London.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
I have a sci-fi film called ‘Piercing Brightness’ coming out soon in which I play an Alien God (amazing costumes). It’s directed by the acclaimed artist Shazad Dawood and was filmed in Preston. I am also playing Shahrazad in Tim Supple’s production of ‘One Thousand And One Nights’ that opened in Toronto this year and was the highlight at the Edinburgh International Festival this summer where it won the Herald Angel Award for Best Ensemble. We will continue our World Tour next year, but in the meantime I am trying to cram as much film and TV work as possible.
Thanks for the interview!