The Arab actress is a force to be reckoned with and has some salient advice for us all

A first-time parent at just 18 and now the mother of four, the former ballerina-turned-actress has multiple film and television roles to her credit, including this year’s hugely popular Ramadan series Ikhtefaa’.

Nelly is defined by the type of success that she has had to fight for. And she takes none of it for granted.  As she arrived in Venice for the recent 2018 Venice Film Festival, where she has been invited to sit on the jury for the past two years and is a proud ambassador for luxury brand Jaeger-LeCoultre, her views on the art of story-telling represent the cultural perspective of someone who has witnessed a lifetime of political turmoil and persecution around her.

A mesmerising mix of both her Russian and Egyptian heritage, Nelly is renowned for taking on feisty female characters that challenge stereotypes and break barriers, cultivating a role model status for female success in the Arab world. She shares some life advice with Emirates Woman, including some of the little-known secrets of her success.


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How did you become aligned with the Venice Film Festival and what does your role as a juror involve?

This is my second year as a jury member and I am really happy to be an ambassador for the festival’s sponsor Jaeger-LeCoultre who value the importance of film and art and how those two things come together. As a juror you are one of many people from different countries; you watch the same films but you have differing opinions. For me personally, I find that we have similar tastes to the Europeans whereas Americans are very different. People from the Far East have a different point of view again. I remember there was a documentary about China’s Maritime Silk Road and how it affects the lives of ordinary people. The jury member from the US was impressed but for me, because I come from Egypt and things like social and economic hardship are very common to us, it didn’t have the same impact. I thought: ‘This film took his heart. If you want to know what that really feels like, come to Egypt’.

How is the film industry changing in Egypt right now?

It’s changing for the better. There are films going abroad and the industry has many promising young directors. For example, in 2016 my movie Clash was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and was directed by a young Egyptian film director Mohamed Diab who I had previously made a movie with about sexual harassment. It was shown in 60 countries all over the world. It was an international subject matter and it was close to women’s experiences – even when it was screened in New York – as we all face the same issues.

You’re known for taking on challenging subjects in your films. Tell us about that.

In Egypt I like to do films that connect to real people’s lives. I have done films about drugs, prison, mental illness – about life. I have portrayed women who have been strong, then weak, and then strong again. This theme – of women rising to stand on their own feet – speaks to women.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing women in Egypt and the Arab world right now?

I’ll tell you something: I don’t divide the Arab world and the rest of the world. We are all women. I believe we should always stand for ourselves, never be weak, and believe that we deserve the best in life, relationships and work. I don’t divide our issues. My mother is Russian and my father is Egyptian so I know both cultures and the problems of all women are the same. When women are strong, they can be superwomen; more so than any superman. I believe women still need to fight for themselves. I say fight for yourself, your happiness, and your life but be positive about your future.

You had a promising ballet career when you were young. Was there a point when you made a conscious decision to give up ballet and take up acting?

No – it was a transition. I remember my first husband telling me I should give up dance and I remember saying: ‘I will leave you before I leave ballet!’.

Do the roles you play impact your life in a personal way?

In every role there is a part of me and I bond with the character I play. I choose hard, juicy characters to play. Sometimes the roles get me depressed.

Your come across as a woman who is very determined. Where does your fierceness come from?

I’ve  messed up a lot! I had to learn my lessons the hard way. When you are continuously pounded by life you become more resilient. Nothing is the end of the world except the end of the world itself.

You have four children. What advice do you have for women who need to manage multiple roles: family, friends, a professional life…

OK, I’ll tell you a secret: behind every successful woman is… her mother! I remember when I had my first son, I decided I would be a housewife and raise my baby. One day I was standing in the kitchen and washing dishes. My mother came to me and said: ‘What are you doing?’ and I told her I was thinking of quitting ballet. She said: ‘What is this rubbish you’re talking? I will wash your dishes but I didn’t raise you to give up on your dreams’. If my mum didn’t say this when I was 18 I would have a different life now. So my message to women is: never lose the sense of yourself. You need to be able to support yourself and live an authentic life. The only person you can depend on 100 per cent is yourself.

What can we expect next Ramadan from you in 2019?

Expect action, suspense, an exciting love story and everything positive for a change!

Your skin is incredible. What are your tips for well-being and staying healthy?

Be kind to yourself and other people. If you are kind you won’t feel the need for things like Botox or fillers. Love yourself and remember that positive energy nourishes outer beauty and it comes from within.

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Images: Getty, supplied.