TV & Movies

Disney Finally Found Their "Diamond in the Rough" to Play Aladdin

Fans made a wish for more culturally appropriate casting, but do these picks deliver?

Aladdin runs into casting issues: Still from the animated movie Aladdin with the main character of Aladdin grinning at the genie

(Credit: Disney)

It’s tough to find the perfect man—just ask Disney. The filmmakers recently announced at the D23 Expo that up-in-coming Canadian actor Mena Massoud will appear in the live-action version of Aladdin alongside Power RangersNaomi Scott, who will play Jasmine, however, their search for the stars was reportedly far from simple.

The film’s director, Guy Ritchie, and Disney Studios searched extensively for Aladdin‘s title character, but after seeing an estimated 2,000 actors, they had not been charmed. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film was set to start its six-month shoot in July, “but finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult—especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”

Just let that quote sink in for a minute. Yes, the one where they insinuate that finding a Brown actor who can act, sing and dance is basically like searching for a “diamond in the rough” (shout out to The Hollywood Reporter for that reference). This is all despite the fact that with their combined populations, there are more than a billion—yes, that’s with a b—Middle Eastern and South Asian men, and also that both regions have thriving entertainment industries. It’s almost like the film crew needs a magical genie to make our wish for culturally appropriate casting come true. (Massoud, who has been cast as Aladdin, was born in Egypt and raised in Canada where he attended Ryerson University’s School of Performance.)

Consider for another minute the numerous barriers for Middle Eastern and South Asian actors to break into the entertainment industry in the first place. Not only is there auntie-perpetuated stigma of going into—gasp—the arts, but there is also the challenge of getting cast for roles beyond cab driver, terrorist or “ethnic best friend.” Even when the characters are drawn, they all fit the same mould. I’m of Indian descent, and growing up, the only Disney princess I was “allowed” to be at Halloween was Jasmine (or that random girl from The Jungle Book who legit no one remembers).

To be fair, in Disney’s global search for the celebrated street rat, the film’s team joined forces with casting directors from around the world, including Egypt, London, Abu Dhabi and India. And yet, that only made their so-called “challenge” even more confusing.

Perhaps they’re had a hard time finding a young Middle Eastern man who resembles the O.G. Aladdin because the animated character was legit based on Tom Cruise and voiced by Full House’s Scott Weinger. TBH, he was basically a white guy with a tan and parachute pants. 

But in an industry where Jake Gyllenhaal can be The Prince of Persia and Emma Stone is an acceptable choice for a half-Asian character, Aladdin was supposed to be different.

Massoud told Defective Geeks that being being a visible minority in Hollywood has definitely affected his career. “I can’t compete for roles that require me to be Caucasian or African-American, even if those characters really connect with me and intrigue me,” said the actor who can currently be seen on TV as Tarek Kassar in Jack Reacher. “The competition may be less, some people would say, but the amount of work to be had is less as well. However, I think the industry is growing more and more and starting to support actors of all cultural backgrounds.”

As with its upcoming live-action version of Mulan, Disney told audiences Aladdin would cast culturally appropriate lead characters for the new version of the classic film. But the news of their casting “challenges” really pulled the flying carpet out from under those who hoped for the best.

Before casting Massoud, the studio reportedly considered go-to Brown boys like Dev Patel and Riz Ahmed. Social media users were also quick to offer suggestions including super hottie Zayn Malik, Canadian Avan Jogia and a plethora of Bollywood actors.

Some actors even put their own names forward, including The Big Sick‘s Kumail Nanjiani and WWE’s Mustafa Ali.

While Twitter was filled with suggestions, users also pointed out that since Aladdin is set in Agrabah, a fictional Middle Eastern city, South Asian actors should not have been considered. That debate has fuelled some backlash against the casting of Scott as Jasmine, who is half Indian and half British.

At present, only the two leads have been announced, as well as Will Smith, who will be filling some seriously big blue shoes as the Genie.

Because of the delay, the film is now tentatively slated to start filming in August. One thing, however, remains crystal clear: It’s been 25 years since the original animated feature came out, and while Hollywood may think it’s “a whole new world,” it may be battling the same old problems.

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