As she gets ready to present her film in Cork, Manal Issa is doing her best not to get swept up in the hype around her as one of French cinema’s brightest new stars, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
“Finally, she’s with me.” French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa is breastfeeding her five-month-old daughter, Sona, as she gives a phone interview.
The 25-year-old had to travel to war-torn Syria to secure papers for her baby; her husband is from Syria, where the nationality of a mother isn’t automatically conferred, so Issa had to apply first to Syrian authorities and then to the French embassy so that her daughter could join her in France.
“With the help of my husband’s brother, I had to go in and get her papers,” Issa says. “My husband couldn’t go because before the revolution, young people were conscripted into Al Assad’s army; my husband said no and escaped to Beirut, so he can’t go back or they can take him to the army right away. He doesn’t want to kill people.”
Issa’s life is so full of noteworthy talking points that she speaks almost casually about these impacts of global war and politics on her life. But the prejudice faced by her husband, exiled in Beirut where they met, is an affront to her, as is the US administration’s recent so-called ‘Muslim ban’.
“It’s disgusting,” she says. “He’s atheist but of a Muslim background, just like me. Even in Lebanon, he’s treated very badly. It hurts so much that just because he’s Muslim, and Syrian, some people assume I made a bad choice marrying him. He dreams of going to the US and he’s like, ‘I can’t go, just because of where I’m from?’ He’s a normal kid; he’s a barman, he loves music, video games.”
Now, Issa is back in France, amid the whirlwind of castings and meetings her life has so unexpectedly and so recently become.
The oft-repeated rags-to-riches tale of the screen actress discovered on the street and catapulted to fame often seems like a fairy tale. But for Issa, the myth is true, although the street in Issa’s story is replaced by the digital shopfront of social media; her big break came on Facebook.
She was studying in Angers University when she received a Facebook message: would she be interested in casting for director Danielle Arbid’s new feature movie?
“I told them, ‘Are you kidding me? Why me?’ They said I looked interesting. I went to Paris to cast for the role and a week later, they called me and told me that Danielle Arbid wanted to meet me. I went, and something happened, and I got the part.”
The award-winning Arbid, also of Lebanese origin, was looking for a new face for her semi-autobiographical feature, Parisienne. “We had all these natural points of connection,” Issa says. “We talked about our childhoods in Lebanon and moving to France, and how we feel about the position of women.”
Arbid’s decision to cast Issa in her coming-of-age movie about a young woman navigating the thrills and perils of life in the French capital alone paid off. Audiences were enchanted by Issa’s natural responses and unaffected beauty.
There followed a role in Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, and now, Hollywood beckons: “On Monday I’m casting for the part of Jasmine in the new Aladdin movie,” Issa says, and laughs, and breaks into a couple of bars of ‘A Whole New World’.
She is excited by the range of roles she’s being offered, but the engineering student and polyglot — she speaks French, Arabic and English, “and some Spanish too”— is determined to remain grounded. “I just hope I don’t become crazy, and turn into one of those crazy make-up girls,” she sighs. “If I get like that, I’ll stop acting.”
So far, there’s no sign of Issa being anything other than her own distinctive self. A self-confessed video game addict, she bestrode the red carpet at the 2017 Lumiere Awards in Paris, where she was nominated for a “most promising actress” award, in Doc Martens and a baby sling containing her daughter.
“I don’t like to stay in France when I finish shooting a movie because I don’t like people coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re amazing, you’re awesome,’ to me. I want to protect myself from that because it is crazy; always hearing those words can make us forget who we are. When I’m in Beirut, I’m just Manal.”
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