Universal Monsters Universe talks to Prison Break star Amin El Gamal!
The Fox series Prison Break was a tremendous hit when it aired from 2005-2009. The original series starred current DC’s Legends of Tomorrow actors Dominic Purcell as Lincoln Burrows and Wentworth Miller as Michael Scofield. This year, the series is being revived for a 9-episode run starting April 4th. One of the new stars of the show is The Librarians actor Amin El Gamal, who I had a chance to interview via conference call.
Amin was born during an earthquake on March 31, 1986 in Palo Alto, CA to Egyptian immigrants. He has a Drama degree from Stanford University and Masters from USC. He is set to play the main villain “Cyclops” on Prison Break and we asked him what it was like to play such a roll on a show that has had great success in the past.
“It was incredibly exciting to join the Prison Break family. The show hasn’t even aired yet, and already the fan community has been unbelievably supportive and welcoming. Every location we shot, from Vancouver to Morocco, we had the fans cheering us on. I feel so fortunate to be a part of that.”
Being born to Egyptian parents, Amin was thrilled to be in a part of the world that is part of his heritage. “I had never been to Morocco before but being in North Africa was pretty cool. I definitely felt a connection to the culture there. It’s different from Egypt but there are a lot of similarities; the language, some of the food, the landscape felt very familiar. It felt really comforting especially when we were shooting long days and physically strenuous stuff.”
I asked Amin if he had any trepidation about shooting the revival of Prison Break.
“There was a feeling throughout the whole team that we really wanted to get it right, that we wanted to honor the roots of the show. As a new cast members, I did feel a bit of pressure to live up to those expectations, but the fans embraced us very quickly and so did the original cast and crew. I never felt like I was guest or the show wasn’t mine. It was a very welcoming set.”
During the interview, Amin gave us insight to one of the inspirations for the show.
“Paul Scheuring, the creator of the show, found inspiration for this season in The Odyssey, so that’s sort of where my character Cyclops comes in. I don’t fulfill the exact role of the Cyclops monster per se, but there’s definitely elements that echo the Greek mythology and it’s actually something I drew from to help me build the character. I went back and read The Odyssey and tried to learn as much as I could about the various Cyclops myths. Actually, my first introduction to Cyclops was watching the movie The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad as a kid. It has this crazy claymation version of Cyclops, which is surprisingly frightening, but also sad this odd way. Even in claymation you sort of feel sorry for this lug of a creature. When you play a monster or villain, your task as an actor is find out what made this person this way. Like what is the wound that motivates them to behave badly? That interests me much more then just being ‘evil.’”
Amin El Gamal likened his character Cyclops and the mythical creature of the same name to a misunderstood being. Here are these deformed, wicked-looking violent creatures who have suffered through life but are seen only for what they look like or act like on the surface. We know a classic creature whose story plays out the same way: Frankenstein’s monster. “He wants something beautiful that we all want, but doesn’t know how to get it. That’s what makes characters like that beautiful and tragic. In the show, I am pretty unattractive physically. I have a gouged eye – which took about an hour to apply. So I look hideous, but I strove to contrast that with the character’s longing and need.”
When he is not acting, Amin is an advocate for social change, especially when it comes to combating hate and racism. He supports such causes as LGBTQ rights and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“My parents are from Egypt, so I’m of North African and Arab ancestry. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of positive depictions of people like me in TV and film. So, if I’m playing a villainous character, I definitely feel a responsibility to represent people of my background in a humane and just way. I mean, we’re talking about monsters and in many ways that’s what the image of an Arab person is to many Americans. So, if I choose to play a villainous character, I say okay there are certain things I have to fulfill in order for the story to move forward, but also what nuance can I bring from my own life? What story can I create so that a character who does terrible things still resembles a human being that anyone can relate to?
I believe strongly that representation and diversity are important. When I was younger, as a little, weird brown kid, I didn’t see any positive images of people that looked like me. And there was a certain amount of self-hatred that came out of that, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The stories they tell through mass media are really powerful. If you look at something like racial bias, when someone acts out of fear or does something violent towards someone who is different from them, it’s often because they’ve been told stories that they should be afraid of that kind of person. So, changing that narrative becomes something that is really important.
I’ve participated in a lot of different types of activism, but I think the most important one is to begin to change people’s perceptions through my acting work… But I also volunteer a good deal and helped start a support group for LGBTQ people of Muslim background a few years ago. There really was no mosques that would mentor LGBTQ people without any kind of judgment, so it felt very necessary and I learned a lot from that experience.”
It is so great to interact with someone like Amin El Gamal who believes so strongly in not only changing the world, but bringing it together whether it be through social activism or acting. Speaking of acting, I went to ask him what fans can expect from the Prison Break revival in relation to the original series.
“The playing field is much larger than in previous seasons and the story unfolds on an international scale. You can expect a lot of action, a lot of fighting. I actually went through boxing and arms training for the role and I had to learn stick shift for some chases. So there will be a lot of that, but the themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and sacrifice that were hallmarks of the original series will also be strong in this season, as well. Also, I think the production value is going to be higher. This season is definitely a product of how TV is being made today – it’s very sweeping and cinematic. So, you can expect to be visually delighted.”
Aside from Prison Break, Amin El Gamal is also a regular on TNT’s The Librarians which has just been renewed for a fourth season. Here is what he had to say about the show and his character.
“In The Librarians, I play Apep, the Egyptian god of chaos. Apep’s spirit has been unleashed and he possesses various characters throughout the season with the ultimate goal of destroying the world. The last person he possesses is played by none other than Vanessa Williams, so I had the amazing privilege of working with her. That was a real treat.
As you know, I am actually of Egyptian ancestry, and I’ve always wanted to play an ancient Egyptian. Apep is a real god, he’s like the super villain against Ra, the sun god. So, yet another villainous character based on mythology! I really love the researching phase when I’m working on a character and I got to do a lot of that for this role too. In the show, Apep recites some chants, which were actually pulled from a real ancient Egyptian text, which I thought was creepy and cool. I had a blast building such a larger-than-life character and, with the aid of some killer CGI, I think we really pulled it off.”
I concluded the interview by asking Amin if he had ever seen the classic the Universal Monsters movies.
“Yes, Boris Karloff. I saw The Bride of Frankenstein again recently on TV. What an amazing performance. Again, an actor who was very naturally empathetic playing a monster. People always ask actors why they say it’s so much fun to play villains and I think part of it is the challenge. Actors love challenges and it’s a real challenge to bring complexity and humanity to someone who’s been branded a villain or a monster or evil. Also, you just get to do so many absolutely crazy things that you’d never get to do as a reasonable person, so that’s always really fun too.”
Be sure to look for Amin El Gamal on The Librarians which airs Sundays at 8pm on TNT and on Prison Break which premieres April 4th on Fox (check your local listings)
*Universal Monsters Universe would like to thank Amin El Gamal for taking the time to speak with us and for Kasey Kitchen of East 2 West Collective for setting up the conference call.*
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)