TORONTO — Leading up to the opening of Disney's live-action "Aladdin" remake in 2019, Mena Massoud was at a pivotal moment in his career he felt would catapult him forward — he was the lead in the much-anticipated reboot alongside Will Smith and Naomi Scott.
Disney magic wouldn’t help Massoud in the long run however. Despite the film going on to gross over $1 billion worldwide, he would later publicly express his struggle with landing auditions.
More than three years later, the now 31-year-old Egyptian-Canadian actor said he's come to grips with the situation post-"Aladdin" and the difficult realities of Hollywood.
He's starting to carve out his own space and work on passion projects including his new gig as host and executive producer of CTV’s vegan travelogue show, “Evolving Vegan," based on his 2020 book of the same name.
“I think when you do a billion-dollar movie, you expect things to come a little bit easier,” said Massoud.
“That wasn’t my experience so I’ve shifted gears a bit. The acting road has been hard, no doubt, but I think I’ve stopped relying on other people to just hand me stuff, and this new series is a great example of that.”
In "Evolving Vegan," which debuted this week on CTV Life Channel and Crave, Massoud guides viewers through a six-part series that explores the flourishing vegan food scenes in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Austin, Vancouver, Portland, and Toronto.
Massoud said he was keen to inform audiences about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle without shaming competing dietary choices.
“I’m not trying to convert people to go full vegan or stop eating what they love,” said Massoud. “What I’m trying to show people is that you should be aware of what you’re putting into your body.”
The Los Angeles-based actor began a plant-based diet in 2015 after he and his two best friends and roommates in Toronto learned about the effects of animal products on health and the environment. They encouraged each other, and Massoud began by cutting out eggs, red meat, chicken and other animal-derived foods.
“This isn’t a preachy series and we’re not trying to convert people to go full vegan tomorrow as much as we're trying to teach people about this lifestyle that’s growing rapidly," said Massoud.
In the case of Massoud’s family, they’re Coptic Orthodox Christians and go meat-free a few times a year for religious reasons — going full vegan was a move that his family initially hated, he said.
“My family thought I was going to dwindle away and die, they couldn’t see how it would be sustainable,” he said with a laugh. “But hey, they had a hard time accepting acting too and by the time I got into it, they accepted that I was going to be different.”
For the viewer, a big part of the “Evolving Vegan” experience — aside from the sights and sounds of each destination, from the valleys and forests of L.A. to the scenic vistas of Vancouver — is watching Massoud present a dietary world he’s known for years, including his favourite lunch spots.
Stemming from his "Evolving Vegan" company he founded in 2018, the show features chefs from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
“In the vegan space, I consider it colourless. If you look at almost every culture in the world, they have a vegan culture,” he said.
“In Egypt, it’s the falafel, which is vegan, but they don’t think of it that way and neither did we. They were vegan, and it’s in every culture and every race, we just didn’t call them that.”
Massoud adds that it’s always been his intention to add a multicultural lens on everything he touches, in part due to his production company, Press Play Productions, which helped bring the series to life in partnership with Bell Media Studios.
“There’s that intention in everything we do from a cultural standpoint and it’s in our mission statement, to give a voice to those who are voiceless,” said Massoud.
“It’s in every project we do, I mean we just produced a Stephen King short story that was all in the Farsi language, and that’s what sets us apart from many in Hollywood," he said, referring to the film "The Last King."
Massoud's acting career has also recently picked up, landing a leading role in the 2022 Netflix rom-com "The Royal Treatment" and the boxing drama “Giant,” as Prince Naseem “Naz” Hamed, the British-Yemeni pugilist whose rise to a world championship was renowned by the sport. Producers Sylvester Stallone and Braden Aftergood will be at the helm.
Much like the title of his series suggests, Massoud has every intention of evolving.
“It’s definitely a fight and hustle every day to act and this industry is like that,” he said. “But life is like that and you got to continue to fight, grow, and take a step forward every day.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press