Lebanon is a subject close to Youssef el Khal’s heart. This year, the renowned actor founded the NGO “Awal Marra” and walked the country’s shoreline in a symbolic gesture to boost blood donations for the Lebanese Red Cross. In an exclusive interview, he tells more.
YOUR CAREER PATH HAS BEEN AN INTERESTING ONE. TELL US ABOUT IT.
When I was only 15, I took part in a series called “Mada el 3omor” (For a Lifetime), which was directed by Marwan Najjar and starred Elsy Fernayni. We were youngsters (Bassem el Riyyeh, Viviane Antonios and others), who went on to become the current generation of actors. Acting happened by chance. I graduated as a graphic designer and I wanted to work in that field, but I was taken to the world of modeling. I did ads for products like Pepsi, Nouba, Crunch, Perlex and Kodak. I got used to the set and the shootings. And then came my first real TV opportunity “Tlet Banet” on MTV. I did three or four seasons and got hooked. I realized then that I loved the field, more so because the audience loved it too.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE PROJECT TO DATE?
There is no best project. There are some projects I regret having done, but I was young and it was only the beginning. I was born into a family where culture and arts are key words; with my father Youssef el Khal, a famous poet and writer, and my mother Maha Bayrakdar a painter, our house was always full of artists and writers. That’s why I always knew what to read, who to work with, whom to choose as a director. And guess what? I made my own project template with the “two out of three rule,” which means that I have to find two good things out of three in order to accept a project.
WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT PROJECTS?
I have a new series called “Hawa Assfar” (Yellow Wind) with Sulafa. It is a Syrian production and the shooting is taking place in both Syria and Lebanon.
DO YOU FEEL MORE LEBANESE OR SYRIAN?
I’m 100% Lebanese. I belong to Lebanon – I love Lebanon, I’m passionate about it. I live here and will die here, but the Syrian part I took from my mom does exist. When I go to Damascus I also feel at home. I have a magnetic relationship with the place and the Syrians always welcome me with enthusiasm as “Maha’s son.” But ultimately, I remain Lebanese.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT THAT YOUR SISTER PAVED THE WAY FOR YOU?
Ward, my sister, was already a star before I started, and she supported me a lot with her contacts, PR and such. I love her so much, but she couldn’t hold my hand all the time and I had to work hard. Having such an artistic heritage helps, although it’s also challenging. My dad wasn’t just any poet or writer; the translation of both the Bible and “The Prophet” as well as the publication of a poetry magazine are among his many lifetime accomplishments. Hence, I always want to meet the bar he set so high.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT LEBANON THAT YOU FIND SPECIAL?
Everything about Lebanon is special. It is so important to me that I’ve launched an NGO called “Awwal Marra” (First Time) and for its first event I walked along the entire shoreline of Lebanon, from Arida to Nakoura, to call for blood donations for the Red Cross. Can you imagine how symbolic this is, to gather blood from different Lebanese citizens across all the entire country, regardless of their religion or confession? Moreover, I’m someone who hates walking so challenging myself to walk the 247km in just five days was my way of offering something to my country and to my roots.
YOU ARE MARRIED TO SINGER AND ACTRESS NICOLE SABA. DOES THE FACT THAT YOU BOTH WORK IN SHOW BUSINESS MAKE LIFE EASIER?
A journalist once wrote that Youssef el Khal and Nicole Saba is a difficult equation. Experiences like ours are rare in the Arab world, but Nicole and I are not workaholics. Together we always analyze every project before taking it; she gives me advice and I do the same. We are complementary, and sentimental balance is very important in one’s life. Family is an even a better balance, a springboard.
YOU RECENTLY TURNED 40. DO YOU CONSIDER IT A MILESTONE?
I feel I stepped from the stage of building to that of enjoying. I am in the future; it is a new step of accomplishing the things that I started. If I want to leave a footprint, it’s now that I should do it! Educating my daughter is such a valuable thing for me, and maybe having a second child too. Turning 40 is definitely a time to start doing something valuable.