The Egyptian Arab American actor discusses becoming the first Arab Muslim to lead a comic book adaptation and landing a role in Billy Porter’s Anything’s Possible.


Getting into the oversaturated world of acting is always a challenge. And it gets even trickier when you don’t fit into the ‘straight white cis male’ mould established by society. That’s exactly why actors like Abubakr Ali face an endless line of shut doors right from the get-go. But with honesty, passion and his extremely attractive charisma, the Egyptian-born Arab American actor has managed to get those doors open, pushing this arduous industry forward with his artistry.

Ali has never doubted himself. Through smart work and fiercely believing in his precious talent, he has become the first Arab Muslim to lead a comic book adaptation thanks to the upcoming Netflix series, Grendel. But that’s not where it ends. He is also playing the lead role in Prime Video’s latest film Anything’s Possible, directed by renowned Broadway and Pose actor Billy Porter. A Gen Z-oriented high school rom-com that gives the LGTBQ+ community much-needed visibility in mainstream media while also showing the joy, tenderness and pain of teenage love. Sitting down with Wonderland, Ali talks horoscopes and whale-watching, the challenges of playing Khal, and what love means to him.

You define yourself as a “chaotic Gemini tryna help dismantle yt supremacy”. What makes you all of that?
AA I’ve always been very kind of ‘go with the flow.’ As a person I’m very adaptable, my family moved around a lot when I was a kid and we immigrated here when I was nine. So, I’ve always gone through a lot of adjustment periods – aka chaos! Regarding my horoscope, my initial theory had always been it lists different universal human traits, and it appeals to the part of us that wants to feel “special” and different from the rest of the world. But I swear to God, I’m a full believer now. Geminis do well with Aries and Libras, and I realised that basically every single person who I have vibes with have always been someone that the horoscope has predicted that I’d do well with. I used to be a constant doubter and I’ve fully been converted. It’s so weird. There’s no explanation for it. It’s nice to know there’s a little magic in the world.

I’ve read that you love whale-watching. What makes them such an appealing animal to you?
AA It’s so funny that I’ve become the poster boy for fucking whales! It’s hysterical. But it’s nice to just appreciate a little beauty in the world.

How did you get yourself into the world of acting?
AA I stumbled upon it, to be honest. It took me a while to figure out what drew me to it. And, you know, a lot of therapy. My family moved to this country literally a year before September 11th, and I think something happened after that day to Muslim communities, Arab communities, and honestly, most marginalised communities in this country – you had to lead with your nice self. In every space you walked into you had to subconsciously let every single person in the room know that you were not a threat. These communities were denied the other two-thirds of their experiences, like the ability to express anger, to express sadness, to walk into a room and be in a bad mood. As a kid, you were denied the opportunity to be mischievous, to mess around a little bit. And, subconsciously, what drew me to this wild profession is that it’s a space where your full humanity can exist, and it can exist unapologetically. That was something I craved, the ability to just be a mischievous little kid. Then I went to undergrad at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Finally, I ended up at Yale School of Drama. And it was after that that things kind of took off. But the years before Yale taught me a lot, they taught me that nothing is for granted in this industry, and nothing is guaranteed. And that I had to work five times as hard as I’m expected to. Because the reality as an actor, and especially the reality as an actor who is not a white cis man, is that you have to be four times as good to end up in the same rooms.

What’s your biggest inspiration?
AA My dad deeply inspires me. He passed away five years ago. He worked harder than anyone I know, and selflessly. Everything he did was for other people, always putting others before him. That’s why in a job that is so self-focused and inward-pointing, it’s nice to remind me that what I do is a service, and I should always think of it as something for other people. I’m always thinking about the artists that came before me too. For two reasons – the first one is that they opened the doors and paved the way for me to have the privilege of having this conversation with you right now and to be here, and also, the fact that they were shut out in this industry and not allowed access. These actors were going in for one-dimensional jobs – they wanted them as taxi drivers, terrorists, waiters or whatever – and they came in with the full breadth of their artistry. They came in willing to work their ass off and bring humanity to two-line characters. What inspires me and pushes me every single day is hoping to be in a place where I can pay that debt back because I would not be here if it wasn’t for the work of all the artists that came before me.

You have landed a lead role in Prime Video’s new film Anything’s Possible, a quite motivating title. Is there anything you thought you would never achieve but ended up doing it?
AA I talked about this the other day with someone. Regarding my own talent, my own artistry, I never thought anything was impossible. I genuinely think that as an artist I can do anything that I put my mind to. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant sense. But in terms of the industry, and in terms of the forces that I can’t control, I did not think anything was possible. I thought that those doors were going to stay shut and I did not think I would be given an opportunity. The truth is that not much changed within me as an artist in the last seven years, the only thing that changed is that the industry started allowing and opening doors to people who look like me, and who come from my background. It was just the external forces that have begun to allow my artistry to have a platform. I also believe that if you’re determined and you work hard – and it sounds very cheesy – you’re always able to do anything that you want in one way or another.

How was the auditioning process for you? And what caught your attention about this project?
AA I’m going to be very honest. When I first started, I had like seven different auditions with 30 pages of material to record and I had a flight at 7 am the next day, so I did not read the script the first day. And having been in this industry, I thought it was going to be a random guy in the script who’s just kind of there. But I did the tape and it wasn’t until I got the call back that I realised it was the male lead on the script. Then we did a Zoom call and, after two nerve-wracking days between the video call and me getting the call that I got the job, I was in. What caught my attention is that it was the first film script I had ever seen where someone who looked like me, from my background was a lead. I’d never seen that. Aladdin was the only other thing that ever existed.

The film is directed by Billy Porter. How was working for him?
AA It was a gift. Billy’s a light. I’m very grateful because he trusted me a lot with this character. And he trusted me a lot with the work I’ve done in terms of prepping for the shoot and gave me a lot of freedom on set to explore and try new things. To make that truly stupid choice in your brain that you’re unsure if it’ll work, but then you try it and it reads beautifully on screen. He created a space for actors to take whatever risks they needed to take. Every single artist there had freedom and felt safe enough to take risks and practice the full breadth of their artistry. Every single person felt seen, welcomed and safe.

What was the most challenging part of playing Khal? How much of yourself is in that character?
AA We live in a very jaded, dark and heavy world right now. There are so many external forces that are pushing against us. And I think for this character, I had to get myself in a frame of mind where my heart was open, where I felt this innocence and softness. I spent around a month and a half just listening to Disney music. I was listening to things that would soften me up on the inside because this character is such an open, sweet and kind person. And I’m not saying that’s not me, but I think to really tap into that I had to do a lot of work. In a physical sense, I had to change my full physical routine and stopped lifting weights. I took dance classes and jogged a lot to get myself into that zone of not looking strong, but leading from soft inwardness. To do the work, I always have to tap into this spirit of playfulness, and a little bit of mischief and curiosity. These are things that live beautifully within Khal. And he has this bright-eyed openness that he leads from. Those are probably the two things I mainly have in common with Khal. And also people fucking up his name, that’s probably the biggest thing.

Was your high school experience anything like Khal’s?
AA No, I think the most beautiful thing about Khal is that he has this soft initial impulse of love that comes out. He chooses to honour it and give it space, follow it and act on it. In high school, I was the biggest simp on Earth. Every single crush I had any feelings for, I never voiced. I don’t think there was a single person that I had feelings for who I told – which is horribly tragic. So, I would say we’re very different in that sense. The only thing we probably have in common is that we were shy. I was much less outspoken, less vociferous. I kind of kept it pretty, you know, low-key.

The storyline revolves around teenage love. What does ‘love’ mean to you? Does the idea of it change as your get older?
AA This is probably the most difficult question, but a really good one. I think it’s simple – choosing someone else before yourself while simultaneously honouring and respecting yourself. It’s that delicate balance, and that’s where love exists. As you grow older, you also find out that there are different forms of love. There’s so much as you go through the journey of life, and you’re dealing with the different things that are coming your way. You learn that other kinds of love have the same level of importance as romantic love. You learn that familial love is very important, and so is friendship love. And you need all of them to exist outside, to exist in support of each other.

You’ve also been named the lead in a comic book adaptation thanks to Netflix’s upcoming new series, Grendel. How do you feel about that?
AA At first, it didn’t really hit. But now that I’ve been sitting with it, it’s taken a little bit more of real estate in my brain. I remind myself that I am lucky. I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity. But it also comes with the responsibility to keep the conversations going and to engage in the conversations that may arise out of it. And to see how, from where I’m standing, I can open more doors for more people and more stories. In a macro sense, I always remind myself that Muslims are not a monolith. There are so many intersections within and it’s my job to speak honestly about my experience but also to be receptive and open to hearing everyone else’s experience. I’m hoping that Grendel is just the start, and we get to hear all the different intersectionalities within the community.

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