MM: I’ve been watching his films since I was a kid, so I was quite nervous. I get really quiet when I’m nervous. I don’t freak out. But when we met, I was so nervous that I forgot to tell him who I was. I went over to him and [director] Guy Ritchie was there, and I thought, OK, Guy will break the ice. He’ll introduce me to Will. Well, he did not. He just stood there smiling. I think he wanted to see how I would handle it. And of course, I forgot to introduce myself. [I’m pretty sure] Will thought I was one of the dancers. I had to regroup. Once I came back, I said, “Oh, by the way, I’m Mena. I’m playing Aladdin.” [Laughs.] He gave me a big hug and started talking.
You love cooking and are vegan. Let’s say Will Smith is coming over for dinner. What do you make him?
MM: Oooh, that’s tough. Will likes his Philly cheese steaks, so I think I would do a stir-fry with Gardein beef. It’s meatless beef, so I would do a stir-fry on a bed of brown rice with that, red peppers, onions, jalapeño peppers, shallots, garlic, and I would stir that up.
What time am I coming over? This sounds amazing.
MM: Yeah, I love to cook! One of the reasons I started [the online vegan community] Evolving Vegan is that it’s a form of meditation for me.
Speaking of going vegan, what was your mom’s reaction?
MM: I shocked my parents with a lot of things, whether it was becoming an actor or when I was dating someone outside the Egyptian community or when I moved away from home before getting married. So I already shocked them a lot. When I told my mom I was going vegan, she didn’t exactly want to let go of that one thing. I remember it was Easter dinner, when she cooks duck and lamb and turkey, and she was like, “So what are you going to have for Easter dinner?” And I was like, “If you just make your lasagna without the beef….” And she was like, “No, I’m not going to do that.” So I said, “OK, I’ll just have rice then.” When we got home from church, I just started having rice. She offered me all these different things, and [when I wouldn’t eat it] she just started crying. [Laughs.] She thought I was going to crack and [give in] to her delicious home-cooked meal. But ever since, she’s been making me whatever I request. Classic Egyptian or Italian or Greek or Mediterranean mom—that’s how they show their love.
Speaking of shocking your mom, you were originally studying neuroscience in Toronto before you decided to study acting. How did that switch in careers happen?
MM: Before you get to university or college, you have to study the appropriate subject in high school. I was in AP chemistry in high school, and I really liked it. But when I got to the University of Toronto, I was already kind of missing out. One of my best friends got into theater school, but I went off to do neuroscience. So I was always kind of [like], Oh man, I regret not doing it. I was sitting in calculus class one day, and calculus is like math for astrophysicists. Why you have to do it to become a doctor, I have no idea. The professor was talking about infinity times infinity and this and that, and I was like, There’s no way I’m doing this for the rest of my life. So I went back to my high school, told my high school teacher that I wanted to audition for theater school, and we put together my audition. I didn’t tell my parents I was auditioning in case I didn’t get in. There was no point in upsetting them for no reason. But then I got in, told my parents, and the rest is history.
I’d say it paid off. And now that you’re playing Aladdin, we have to talk about your trusty sidekick, Abu. If you could recruit him to do anything for you, what would it be and why?