Spoilers follow for the Disney+ series Moon Knight.
Welcome a new superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Scarlet Scarab. Over the course of six episodes, Disney+’s Moon Knight debuted an array of firsts for the MCU, from Oscar Isaac’s adorably twee British accent as museum employee Steven Grant to the series’s focus on Egyptian mythology. Finale episode “Gods and Monsters” added another in the form of Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy)’s alter ego. As the avatar of the Egyptian goddess Taweret, Scarlet Scarab fights alongside Marc Spector’s Moon Knight and Grant’s Mr. Knight (both Isaac) against baddie Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), and her new identity empowers adventurer and archeologist Layla to defend her fellow Egyptians in an extraordinary way.
For Calamawy, whose ancestry is Egyptian and Palestinian and whose childhood was spent in Bahrain with brief stays in the United States, her work in Ramy and now Moon Knight is a repudiation of the agent who once told her, “If you can’t neutralize your accent, you are never going to work in America.” Calamawy recently wrapped the third season of Ramy, and is excited for viewers to see her character Dena be “more messy.” And although she hasn’t heard anything about a renewal for Moon Knight, which was originally advertised as a “limited series” but then was referred to as a “season” in a Marvel Studios tweet, Calamawy thinks Layla is “a whole mystery” who could be explored in future episodes.
In a chat with Vulture, she spoke about the “revolutionary” feeling of working with fellow Egyptians like director Mohamed Diab on the series, brainstorming costume ideas for Scarlet Scarab, and marshmallows as Layla’s safe space.
How does it feel to be a superhero?
That’s a crazy question, because there is no answer. I remember when I got the audition, which was a really vague one line about who this character would be, I was telling a friend, “She’s Egyptian; I’d love to portray that. I always wanted to be a superhero, but I guess it’s not going to happen for me. It’s cool, though.” And then a month after I got it, I got a call from the costume designer Meghan Kasperlik, and she was like, “We need to do a body scan of you.” And I was like, “Why?” And she’s like, “Oh, you don’t know?” And I was like, “No, I don’t.” And she was like, “I guess I’m not supposed to tell you, but you’re a superhero.” And I was like, “What?! Oh my gosh!”
It’s thrilling. When we were filming it, we didn’t have a costume ahead of time because this is not really a character in the MCU. And so we were building it as we were filming, and once we were finished, you’re just thrown into scenes with it, and I guess I didn’t really have enough time to actually let that digest, what it really means. Then today when it came out, I was really excited. I got really emotional seeing all the Instagram responses and the reactions and how people feel about it, and honestly, mostly the women and how they feel. That has been what has fueled my excitement most about it. I hope that every woman out there, and I’ve said it before, can feel like they can be a superhero now.
As a Middle Eastern person, I remember with Wonder Woman 1984, there was this sense that the movie went to this version of Egypt that wasn’t realistic and didn’t engage with anything about it, which Moon Knight director Mohamed Diab has also criticized. I really loved the exchange you have with a young Egyptian girl in the finale as pushback against all those incorrect representations of the past.
Yeah, I feel like it’s been really rare. Historically, there will be references to the Middle East and Middle Eastern characters, but you won’t often find people from there in the process of it. Now there’s more of this attention about what gets us closer to that feeling, and how can we most intimately get that portrayal, and it’s only gonna be through the eyes of people who are from there, or have lived there and experience it in that sense. And that’s what made this show what it was: working with Mohamed Diab and his wife, Sarah Goher; our editor, Ahmed Hafez, was Egyptian; the music involved, the composer Hesham Nazih. It’s a testament to Kevin Feige and our producer Grant Curtis for giving that space and fully hearing us if something didn’t feel authentic. So many times you just feel like the space we get as people who aren’t white or raised in the West is that we need to be seen as some dramatic trope of where we’re from. To just be granted that space where we’re not living in this trope of the culture we’re from, and to have so many involved from the region — for me, it’s revolutionary in this field.
You mentioned that the atmosphere on set was very collaborative. Was there anything about Layla that changed throughout?
Generally, Mohamed and I saw eye to eye on situations. I really pushed for Layla to be this modern woman. It’s okay if she kisses the guy onscreen, you know? I think things are changing, and people are progressive with it all, but I did sort of hear from some people, “Is that going to upset people, that she’s kissing a guy?” And I said, “But who? Are you upset at the character, or are you upset at me, May? Because I’m serving a story right now.” I’m always going to fight to tell a true story and a true woman, and what comes with it. I’m never going to be someone who tries to abide by the society that I grew up in, in any way, because I’ve done enough work to not need to do that.
I think that speaks to the fact that the Middle East and North Africa are not all one place, with one set of standards or one identity. There will be pockets of people who watch this character and think, This is empowering and inspirational, I love this, and there are going to be pockets of people who don’t say that. But that’s anywhere in the world, right?
People are like, “You represent the Middle East,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t.” I’m from there, I grew up there my whole life, and then I moved to the States. People are going to watch me and feel like they see themselves, but not everyone will, and that’s okay. I have to say, things are changing and now I feel like I’m part of the tapestry — and even you, all of us are part of this new tapestry of storytelling where we have that opportunity to take space and show ourselves so that more and more people can feel that representation. Because what happens when they don’t feel it is they tend to put what they’re seeing down, in a way: That’s not me, that’s this, that’s that. And no one has to judge anyone. We all can take space.
So you learn you’re going to be Scarlet Scarab. You get the full-body scan for the costume. Did you have any input about what the costume would look like?
We were all throwing ideas out there. Something that Mohamed was stressing and wanted was, “I don’t want it to just fall into this sexy costume,” and I totally respected that. For me, I was like, “I want it to look good and represent a touch of Egypt’s artistry and style, but I also want to be able to move in it and fight and all of that,” and Meghan, our incredible costume designer, was like, “They’re generally not comfortable.” [Laughs.]
I remember trying it on when it was still kind of a cloth, and then moving from there. I would tell her, “I feel like this kind of bordeaux is her color,” and I’d sprinkle things in, and they took everything into consideration. Once it was done, Megan flew over this artist, Wilberth Gonzalez, from New York, and he hand-painted everything except the boots, and there were eight of them. The detail is crazy, on the leggings and on the neckpiece. It turned out better than what I could have imagined, and I actually think I was throwing stereotypical ideas at them. Now when I’m looking back at the pictures, I’m so happy they didn’t pick any of those because it’s so much cooler than what I would have come up with.
Did the costume’s golden metal wings have a physical component, or are they VFX?
They’re VFX. I have to hold the swords, and it took a while. They were like, “One arm is higher than the other,” and I’m like, “Guys, this is not easy. I’m on a rock, and I’m trying to do this for you!” It’s all part of the fun, and when you see it with the VFX, it’s awesome. And I wanted to fly — that was a thing I was fighting for. I was like, “Don’t give her wings and not allow her to fly!”
In fourth episode “The Tomb,” Layla says, “I don’t need protection. What I need is honesty.” That feels like such a defining moment for her character. What did you want to bring into that moment?
Any time there was vulnerability or any intimacy with Steven, it was difficult because you’re not just playing, Oh, I’m into this guy. There is a lot of pain under that. That was something I spoke a lot about with Oscar. We had a Layla and Steven scene, and I was like, “Something’s blocking me right now,” and he spoke me through it. It happened before, and it happened in that scene, where we really spoke through what was going on and the layers — because as Steven, he’s in a new situation. Layla is coming with the history: This is a different person in front of me, and I’m having these feelings for this person, but I also love my husband. And what we came to, and Oscar said it so well, is that whenever there’s that deep love, there’s pain as well. When you can sit in that, it almost just takes you.
For me as an actor, and I think it happens to many, there’s one moment that kind of settles in, and then it informs the rest. And I think for someone like Layla, who is an adrenaline junkie, and takes after her father, and is for the people and justice, and wants to do what’s right, and is also a little morally ambiguous at times, I don’t know how much honesty always was at the forefront. She could figure out what was going on, and I feel like it just got to a point where she couldn’t ignore what was happening with her partner anymore. Honesty would be the only superpower in that moment because when our feelings are thrown around that way, they’ll literally stop us from doing anything and overwhelm us. That was a big realization for her in terms of what she needs, to be more honest with herself.
In the finale, you have a scene where you get to play two characters. You’re playing Layla, and you’re playing Layla as possessed by the hippopotamus goddess Tawaret. How did you approach that?
For that scene, Antonia Salib, who plays Tawaret, was coming in that day, and I was in hair and makeup, and Mohamed walks in — this is 30 minutes before we film — and he’s like, “Because in the chamber, Marc gets taken by Khonshu in that moment, I just realized” — because we were going to have Antonia in the chamber with me — “it should come through Layla.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” That wasn’t anything I had prepared for. It was one of those moments that broke me in a good way. I didn’t have enough time to really work with myself, and wonder how would this come out, and try it in five different ways. I didn’t have any of that. I was like, “Okay!”
Antonia came to my trailer and we stood in front of a mirror and I said, “Do you. Keep doing what you would do,” and I just started to mimic her movements. They superimposed her voice over mine, but I was trying to do a British accent, just for me, to get into it. I knew that the process was painful at first, like when a god speaks through you, so I just took everything Layla had gone through that day and in that moment, let it beat her up when she comes to. And it turned out to be one of the most freeing moments ever, and I love Mohamed for it. He’s like a mad scientist. He’s not like, “Yeah, this storyboard, and we’re following it.” Maybe he is in other productions, but not here. He’s like, “Yeah, this is a great idea. Do this!” And after, I was like, Oh my God. That was incredible, and I surprised myself. I haven’t even watched the episode and I don’t know how it looks, so I’m not saying, “Oh, it’s good, what I did was good.” But I felt really free in that moment, and that is a gift as an actor.
The candy you’re eating in the scene with the forger in the episode “The Friendly Type” — is that Turkish delight?
It’s a marshmallow. When I was doing the asylum scene, which was probably one of the most fun scenes for me to film, I came in, and if I have the opportunity to explore the space before, I will. And I was scouring and looking around, and Layla doesn’t really have a lot in that scene, so I thought, How can I have fun? I saw this bowl of marshmallows. I don’t know why I felt called to it, and I just took one. I myself was eating them, and then I thought for some reason, This is making me feel a bit safe in here. I just kept it, and when we filmed the forger scene, I was like, “Can we bring the marshmallows back?” I thought this was a thing for Layla, and anyone who knows her will know it’s a safe space for her. But no, it’s just a marshmallow.
As a brown person, I was like, Where else can I find representation in this series? Is this Turkish delight? Is this the Persian candy gaz?
That would have been so cool, if I had thought of that on the day and I was like, “No, no, no. Get me Turkish delight!”
In the finale, we don’t really get an ending for Layla. She’s there in the binding ceremony for Ammit and Harrow and when Khonshu lies and says he’ll release Marc and Steven, and then we don’t see her again. What do you imagine Layla is doing after? Does she stay an avatar? Is she back to stealing back stolen artifacts and returning them to Egypt?
It’s obviously a difficult choice for her to agree to be an avatar. However, with that said, I feel like she must enjoy it to some degree, right? [Laughs.] She’s like, I can do what I love to do, even better. That’s more of what I’d like to see. I made it a big point in the beginning that I didn’t want to just play a woman who was in service to the man, and everyone was in agreement with that. She is serving Moon Knight’s story, but there’s also her own inner journey. I think so much of her was wrapped up in her relationship with her father, and then Marc, and by helping him maybe redeem herself for what happened to her father, and then by the end, I saw it as her reaching this moment where she realized, I don’t need a man to help me. Marc always held, metaphorically, the strength between them, if they were on any missions together, and now she has that.
I’m not saying I want to see a solo journey, but there is that strength when a woman finally sets into herself and is like, Oh, wow, I love being a woman, and I love women. I can see the strength, even if it’s not as vocal or as physical or as loud as men, and I feel like that’s something I want to explore. That’s what I would. No one has come to me and said, “Hey, we’re exploring.” I wouldn’t say no. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.