Actress May Calamawy has jumped, ducked, kicked, and generally fought her way through nearly every episode of Marvel’s latest television outing, “Moon Knight.” As Layla El-Faouly, the wife/fellow operative of Oscar Isaac’s Marc Spector, Calamawy has held her own and given audiences a woman of action on par with Indiana Jones. But to be the lone woman on a show leads to hurdles all its own. “It was challenging for me as an actor,” Calamawy told IndieWire via Zoom. “I could feel myself almost going into a pattern, where I was making myself smaller…because I was so intimidated.”
And while that sense of intimidation never dissipated completely Calamawy said both Isaac and co-star Ethan Hawke were thoroughly invested in making sure she felt comfortable and heard. “So many times Ethan would just laser focus on Layla, and be like, ‘This is what I want to see for her.’ I was just amazed and really touched that he’d spend 30 minutes just wanting to do that; he wouldn’t even talk about his character. So I got lucky with them,” she said.
Calamawy also discussed the intense stuntwork of the series that left her with a broken finger and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: What initially attracted you to this project?
May Calamawy: I didn’t read the script before I auditioned. Marvel kept very tight lipped about that. I knew she was an Egyptian woman, there might have been a little more on the breakdown but nothing that was telling. So my audition was just a guessing game, in terms of where I should go with relation to who would be Marc or Steven. Then around a month or two later I started to get the scripts. It was really confusing, at first, to try to understand, but the writing ends up really becoming your eyes into the character.
So many times, even when we started filming, my instincts would start to come out and I [would] sort of confront myself and feel like I would say this differently. Layla is so reserved and really observing what’s going on, which is very much how I would work and that’s what started to give me a foundational idea of Layla and how she moves. It’s almost like a tiger, how they watch their prey for 20 minutes or longer before they pounce. It was fun to start to understand her in that way because there wasn’t a reference point about who this character would be in the MCU. I haven’t done that many roles, but I really wanted something a little more nuanced and different from me as an Arab woman.
What was the audition process?
Sarah Goher, who is our consulting producer and [series director] Mohammed Diab’s wife reached out to me on Instagram, and I’m already not so active on Instagram; I don’t respond to messages. She’s like, “my husband’s interested in you for a role on a Marvel project.” I reached out to my manager and she was like, “Instagram? Damn.” I was like this is just what Arabs do, we go straight to it. My manager ended up finding out that it is something that’s really happening and I got the audition. I auditioned around mid-November 2022. Weeks later I had a chemistry read with Oscar, which I’ve never done a chemistry read before, but it’s uncomfortable on Zoom. When I came on I was like, “hey,” like Oscar and I were gonna get to chat for a second and he’s like, “Let’s just go.” So we went right into it.
When we were doing the final scene of that callback, we tried it a few ways. Then Mohamed came in and said something in Arabic, gave me a really direct note in Arabic, and I had a clear idea of where he wanted me to go with the scene. That’s the moment that almost sealed the deal for everyone but something about that felt really special because my English is much better than my Arabic. It’s such a poetic language and it’s so deep. I knew in that moment how lucky I was to be able to have that sort of communication on a set where it is this huge Western production, but I have almost this deeper intel [of] where I can go with the character.
What were the challenges of being the lone woman in a predominately male-heavy series?
I sometimes think how would I be if it wasn’t Oscar and Ethan, and we were maybe more on a similar level in terms of our career? I was really intimidated and didn’t want to do anything wrong. I noticed the ease with which they worked and threw in ideas, and it’s not that I had ideas and was too shy, I wasn’t getting ideas which, as we went along and I developed more confidence, those ideas started to come. I was just so anxious in the beginning that it was a block and I felt guilty. I even spoke to Ethan about it once and he’s like, “Well, hey, it’s not a competition.” And for me, I’m like, “Whoa, I’m never going to try to compete with the two of you, but I just want to feel like it’s an equal energy exchange.”
On the first day we filmed, which was in [Steven’s] apartment, there is a moment that I went to Oscar and I was like, “What if we do this?” and he’s like, “I love that” and he ran and told the directors. I look forward to the day when I will be more vocal, but I found comfort in speaking to Oscar directly or Ethan directly. It could have gone a different way. They could have gotten so annoyed at me. It’s how we’re [women] raised. We see the inequality everywhere. I was hard on myself many times because I was like, “why can’t I just throw myself out there the same way?” But we’re almost conditioned that way.
There was backlash when the series was announced considering Oscar Isaac is not Egyptian. As an Egyptian woman is there an added responsibility to make Layla authentic?
The responsibility showed up for me in ways where I fought for certain things if something didn’t feel right, or I felt like I was falling into a stereotype. I’d go speak to them [the directors] and just say, “This doesn’t feel comfortable,” whether it was a reaction or a line, or an expectation. I didn’t win all those battles, but I would get very passionate about them. I can only fight to be true to an experience that I have known or that I’m cultivating for this character. Outside of that, as May, I always say I’m one Arab woman. I cannot be responsible for all Arab women. I would love if all Arab women watch the show and go, “Layla’s great and I can see myself,” but that’s not realistic to expect. So some people are going to look at me and go, “I relate,” and some are gonna go, “I didn’t feel that way. That hasn’t manifested in my upbringing. I wouldn’t do that.” And that’s fine.
You said you found the character through the stunts. Can you talk more about that?
I knew I needed to be fit, that was a general expectation on a Marvel show. But they had me training for two months, two hours a day with the stunt team, and then an additional hour and a half, five days a week, with my trainer where he would observe. He also came every time I was filming to [sometimes] pump me up, because sometimes you’re filming at 3am and you need someone to help you warm up. With the stunts it was different every day. The main fight choreographer, Patrick Vo, we had such an instant connection. I was just so excited and he’d feed off my excitement. He would have different drills every day with my two stunt doubles, and we would all learn similar moves. He’d line up an obstacle for me and all I wanted to do was sit and understand every part of it and he’d be like, “You saw them do it, go do it. Don’t think about it.” That became a big part of who Layla is: don’t think. Just go and find the solution in that moment.
I broke my finger, my pinky in one of the scenes, and I didn’t know I had broken it. Everyone was like, “stop filming” and I was like, “No, I’m going to finish the scene.” They just assumed maybe it wasn’t as bad as what it was. I just wrapped a tissue around it and I finished the scene. Then, when I went to the hospital later, they’re like, “You broke the tip of your pinky.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s Layla.” I cut myself and I’m like, “maybe I need to sit down.” Maybe not to that extent but I like to take care of myself. It’s so funny how she’s just an adrenaline junkie and I realized that about her. I never would have expected the stunt work would have taken me there.
Is there a stunt that you’re still shocked you pulled off?
The most unexpected stunt was — I don’t even know if you’ll call it a stunt — but it was in episode four when I have to run down that sand dune. It was so high in comparison to what it looks like [on-screen]. I had to keep running up and running down and I feel like I wasn’t running that fast when I watch it but I was sprinting in these chunky boots in the sand. Every time I was running and praying, “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. There are all these people wanting you to get this done.” I had to do it 15 times, all the way down, and it was a one-shot sequence where I run all the way down, run around the truck, go inside and see the flares, and then we would cut. I was so impressed because I’m not the best runner. It’s interesting how the seemingly simple things end up being the more challenging ones.
Do you want to see Layla do more in the MCU?
Never say no to a spin-off. I have fallen in love with her and her fight. Layla has so many mysteries about her that I feel like she deserves to have them expanded upon. I believe she has a good strong message and that it could continue to inspire and open doors for others. I find this work has been my service that I can do and Layla feels like she’s part of that. So I’d love to continue to be of service in that way.
“Moon Knight” is streaming now on Disney+.