Moon Knight became a household name in the superhero genre following the show’s premiere on Disney+, bringing in a reported 3.7 billion viewing minutes across its week-to-week run. Now that audiences have had enough time to sit and revel in the series finale, Moon Knight has maintained its relevance and acclaim heading into the 2022 Emmy season, with Marvel Studios choosing to submit the title in the limited series category. Unlike others in the race, one of the unique selling points of Moon Knight was its exploration of Egyptian culture. Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy stars as Layla El-Faouly, archeologist and estranged wife of Oscar Isaac’s Marc Spector. By the show’s end, Layla comes into her own and takes on the superhero mantle of the Scarlet Scarab, the alias of her father Abdallah El-Faouly in Marvel’s Moon Knight comics.
Previously, May Calamawy was best known for her role as Dena Hassan in Hulu’s award-winning series Ramy. In many ways, Deena and Layla share similarities, being Egyptian women who have been separated from their culture and country. In the case of Moon Knight, Layla’s screen-stealing personality forges her own exciting path in the Marvel Cinematic Universe outside of the titular hero himself. She definitely comes across “as a surprise to audiences used to largely one-dimensional love interests in the MCU.” In light of the show’s great success, we sat down with May Calamawy to uncover the nuance and care put into forming the MCU’s first Egyptian superhero. Moreover, we discuss the importance of seeing MENA and curly-haired representation on screen for women as well as her future as the Scarlet Scarab.
I wanted to first congratulate you on the huge success of Moon Knight. As an Egyptian woman, seeing a character like Layla lead a show of this scale is simply amazing and I know so many others feel seen as well, Mabrook (congratulations)!
May Calamawy: Thank you so much, that means a lot!
First of all, between Layla in Moon Knight and Dena and Ramy, you’ve played these women who are slightly removed from their culture or who have spent time away from where they are from. How much have you drawn from your own experiences in these roles?
May Calamawy: I spent most of my years growing up in the Middle East. At seventeen, I left and went to college. But then I did go back for five years, so I spent a big chunk of my time there. Over the years, there were a lot of obstacles in fully accepting my path as an actor and I just feel that, energetically, if we feel doubt about something, it shows up in different areas. I also had my dad asking if I was sure acting is what I wanted to do or making random comments about actors.
After my mom passed away, something gave me carte blanche to just do me. I realized life is so short and I don’t want to live for anyone else, I just want to live for what makes me happy. My dad was definitely nervous, I could see it. There were still hurdles that I had to overcome. My mom really wanted me to get married in my twenties and I really wanted to fulfill that for her, but it just wasn’t happening and I’m happy that I didn’t force anything. I couldn’t imagine just living for everyone else.
We’re all here having this human experience and, in my opinion, there’s so much more than trying to live by the rules of your society. I always say, just be true to yourself, do what makes you happy, and get to a place where you don’t need to rely on anyone. So naturally, I definitely liked bringing that into Dena and sometimes I even try to take her so much further, but I realize that just because I’m at that place, it doesn’t mean she is yet. I want every woman to be there, even if I still have so far to go, but I am past living up to certain expectations and I feel like Layla is already living that life too.
On the note of working on the character, how collaborative was director and executive producer Mohamed Diab in bringing Layla to life?
May Calamawy: It was collaborative from day one. He was such a fighter and advocate for Layla. I flew out to Budapest in March 2021 but starting that January, we had regular calls discussing the scripts and where we wanted to go. There was a lot of room to collaborate and bring in new ideas because there was no reference point as she’s not in the MCU. That blank slate, it’s intimidating, but it’s also fun because if there’s any space where you can justify making things happen, it’s the MCU! Mohamed and his wife Sarah Goher were really important because I never wanted Layla to fall into a trope, that was the main thing.
And she never does, which is fantastic to see. Speaking of authenticity, the scenes set in Cairo were not actually shot in Egypt. Do you think Moon Knight managed to bring Cairo to life despite not shooting there?
May Calamawy: I really think it does, and that was something Mohamed was saying from the beginning. I know he was telling Kevin Feige that he was going to make sure we showed Egypt in the most nuanced, authentic way that it can be shown, especially from a Western production and I really feel like they delivered. Mohammed was so precise about details, whether it was something like a Quran on top of the door or even a truck full of broken watermelons.
They built the sets in Budapest outside and walking around them, I was astounded by how much I felt like I was in Egypt. We had all these Egyptians who were playing the extras and did such an amazing job. The scene where Marc and Layla are on a boat on the Nile, we filmed that on a set in the studio. We were just in a little pool with a boat. Movie magic!
That scene might be my favorite. I made my father dig out this old family video of us on a boat from when I was roughly eight years old. I feel like that is such a specific cultural experience and Moon Knight nailed it on the head.
May Calamawy: The fact that it made you want to go back and remember your childhood and your connection to Egypt, that’s what this is all about!
Moon Knight is very focused on mythology, which is also a big part of Egyptian culture. Did you have any connection to mythology prior to the show?
May Calamawy: I didn’t have a connection. One of my really good friends knows so much and I would just message and ask her everything. She’s actually an Egyptian actress, her name is Rosaline Elbay. She has such a rich understanding of it all. So I would get a lot of information from her, but it’s definitely a world I want to dive into more. I don’t know if my bloodline reaches the pharaohs or maybe even further back, but at least we have an awareness of that kind of spectacle and mysticism. There have been so many different generations of different communities and people who have represented Egypt and that’s what makes me so proud to be Egyptian.
Out of curiosity, in terms of an acting partner, did you prefer doing scenes with Marc or with Steven?
May Calamawy: Oh Steven, Steven was so much fun!
The dynamic between Marc and Layla is completely different from hers and Steven’s. How much did you work with Oscar Isaac on building those dynamics?
May Calamawy: We didn’t really. Oscar just did such a good job that I felt like I was with two different people, I naturally acted differently. I felt so blocked around Marc whereas with Steven I was so open and more nurturing, but that just would not come out around Marc.
One of the most talked-about parts of the finale was the amazing costume you got to wear. How did it feel stepping into the Scarlet Scarab suit for the first time?
May Calamawy: There were many prototypes, it started with a little cloth and we would draw on it. By the time it came to putting it on, I remember that we quickly had to piece everything together to go film a scene and I didn’t really look at it. I had to wear this black cape so that no one outside would see me until we were in the studio. The way everyone else reacted when they saw it, that’s when I took it in myself. The costumes are not comfortable, but they hold you up in such a way that you can’t help but walk straight.
It was amazing because Megan Kaspelik, our costume designer, put a lot of work into [the Scarlet Scarab suit]. She flew out Wilberth Gonzalez, an artist who hand-painted all the costumes, and it’s so detailed when you look up close. So I felt like I was wearing an art piece with a lot of appreciation. The wings were fully VFX, so we had to always figure out where they would be in relation to the swords and how they would come out.
Have you gotten to see any of the reactions to Moon Knight as a whole on social media?
May Calamawy: I had a Twitter page, but I’ve forgotten my password and people are like, “Can you stop being annoying?! Figure out your password” (laughs). I think I’m subconsciously avoiding it. Instagram is taking up so much of my time and I generally try to stay off it, but I’m just so in love with the reactions. One thing that’s been amazing to see is that so many women have posted that they are wearing their hair curly, or that they’re throwing out their hair irons and that’s what makes me happy because I had to go through my own journey of accepting my curls and feeling beautiful.
There was a time when I left them curly and I can’t say I felt beautiful, looking back it pains me. I went through that and thank god I feel good in my curls now, but I wish everyone grew up that way. If that’s something Layla can bring to others, then I’m so happy. They brought in a hairpiece that mimicked my hair. In the beginning, they even suggested we straighten it and I did that too much growing up. I didn’t want to go back to that, so I was really adamant about them getting a hairpiece for continuity’s sake because curls, they will do what they want. Marvel really delivered because I loved it and they could just put it on and my hair was ready. It really helped me step into Layla and it was bigger than my own hair which was really fun.
It’s very encouraging to see a lot of Egyptian and Arab creatives at the helm of such huge productions. Do you feel like there has been a recent shift in MENA representation both in front and behind the camera?
May Calamawy: I really do. I experienced it on Moon Knight and I’m lucky to experience it also on Ramy, there are Arabs on that show which is a testament to Ramy [Youssef], he’s very selective with who he brings on board. With Moon Knight, it’s a testament to Kevin Feige and that whole team for creating that space. We are in a time where I think we’ve realized that the only way to get closer to how a region really feels is to have people most intimately bring it there, and usually that will be either people who’ve lived there or understand it at a very deep level.
I know so many women who are from the Middle East, one of my best friends is from Pakistan, we’re all actors working on our craft and I really want there to be a space for us all. I never want someone to question if they are pretty enough because I went through thinking I wasn’t pretty enough to be in a Western production and it’s an embarrassing thought to have, but I’m not going to say it wasn’t there. Often Western beauty standards don’t include how everyone around the world looks and representation is going to help us to feel that freedom and I think that’s happening more and more.
Finally, we have yet to hear any news about Moon Knight’s future in the MCU, but from your perspective, is there more of Layla as the Scarlet Scarab that you want to portray in the future?
May Calamawy: I feel that at the beginning of this story, we find her in a space where she’s deeply troubled and wounded because of the loss of her father. She’s found ways to avoid the pain through Marc and having this man in her life, but when that starts to shift and he disappears for a while, their relationship becomes sticky. They say you go through the most transformation when you’re in the deepest pain, and it feels like she gets thrown into that and really has to step into herself. I see parallels to that in everyday life when we grow up as women feeling like we need a man by our side or we need the man to do the heavy lifting.
I can’t speak for everyone but I’ve experienced it. And Layla finally gets to a place where she has to allow herself to be at her full power and realize that she doesn’t need a man. Obviously, it’s nice to have a partner but needing someone is a different thing. I think it’s really empowering to be in that space and I would love to see it explored more from her perspective. I love any story of a woman discovering herself and confidently standing in her own shoes. I don’t know where that can go yet, but I’m all for it.