Helena Sawires: Taking Australia's first Muslim rom-com to the mainstream
Ali's Wedding lead actress Helena Sawires, who plays Ali’s love interest Dianne, in what has been billed as Australia’s first ‘Muslim rom-com’, has been receiving rave reviews for her performance. We spoke with Helena about the film and what she wants to do next.
Can you tell us how came to play the role of Dianne?
I didn’t put much thought into how I was going to play her. There were such strong clues for me in the brilliantly-written script, kudos to Osamah Sami and Andrew Knight that showed me her nature. Dianne is what you see and feel when you look at her. I rely on instinct and connection.
When did you first hear about the role and can you tell us about reading the script for the first time?
Allison Meadows - casting director of the gods - contacted me through my agent at the time to come in for an audition. The day before I went in to read the full script. I tend to get bored fast, if I’m not pulled in straight away. I finished the script for Ali’s Wedding and wanted more. Apart from relating to, and understanding the Arabic humour and world of the story, the characters came to life in my head and I saw it as I was reading. The first script-read with the cast was one of the most exciting moments, because everyone gave their character a voice, and brought them to life.
And how did you succeed in winning the role during casting?
After my audition in Sydney with Allison, I was asked to do a chemistry test in Melbourne. That was the first time I met the film’s writer and actor Osamah Sami, its director Jeffery Walker and producer and Sheila Jayadev. I liked the vibe in the room.
I always felt very comfortable around Osamah and just allowed the few scenes we went through to happen. Although it was brief, we had a laugh. I preferred going into that room to play a bunch of emotions with a stranger I connected with, rather than going for an audition. Just a few days before the shoot I got offered the role and moved to Melbourne for two months.
The idea for the film is based on Osamah Sam Samis’ life, and as you mentioned he writes and stars alongside you in the film. What was it like working with him and did you have different ideas for your character?
Even though this film and these scenes are based on real experiences he’s had – I always found him very humble and open to what me and everyone else brought to the table. I don’t remember talking much with him about how it all happened, and how Dianne’s character was, at that time in his life. The foundation was in the script, so we had more fun playing it out, rather than controlling it or Dianne.
Naturally, the story being his, Osamah was in it with all heart and soul the entire way. He welcomed me to my first feature with so much encouragement and passion, I caught on straight away. We laughed a lot. The Arabic sense of humour is so specific. It was so nice and exciting to share that with him. I absolutely loved working with him and was blessed to do so. Osamah Sami has a rich and colourful energy on and off screen – he brought Dianne to life.
Osamah has said that the film is “Australia's first Muslim rom-com”, do you think there is a demand for films like this?
Yes, but it can’t be forced or it becomes meaningless and irresponsible. It must be authentic, genuine and created with good intention.
Ali’s Wedding has already screened at a few major film festivals, including Sydney Film Festival, Arab Film Festival Australia and the Lebanese Film Festival. How does it feel to be screened at such significant events?
It’s exciting! Of course, because its relevant, powerful and universal. People that go to these events have an appetite for not only good films, but emotion. I promise literally anyone, that Ali’s Wedding will enlighten and uplift the soul. I don’t break promises.
Do you ever worry about being pigeon-holed into playing a character type?
Well, I guess that’s any actor’s worst nightmare. Alas, it’s not something I worry about. I want opportunities to explore where my mind can go and who I can become, in all kinds of roles, ones that I can and cannot relate to in myself. The power of the mind fascinates me, and thus, the role of the actor. If I did find myself playing the same ‘vibe’ over and over, I’ll eventually lose interest and hope in the industry.
What sort of acting roles do you hope to do in the future and do you want to get involved with any other aspects of the screen industry?
I love to dress up and treat clothes on the body like paint on a canvas, so I’m interested in costume design. I wouldn’t mind composing music for screen, either. I find the potential for sound and visuals working simultaneously very powerful. Also, painting and creating props.
Ali’s Wedding is out in Australia: http://www.madmanfilms.com.au/alis-wedding/