Saudi actor Mohamed El-Shehri discusses his hits ‘Million Dollar Land,’ ‘Valley Road’
DUBAI: A lot can happen when you refuse to give up on yourself. Not long ago, Saudi actor Mohamed El-Shehri struggled to get even his closest friends to believe in him. A year on from his breakout turn in MBC’s Ramadan smash hit “Sikat Safar” (Road Trip), the rising star has now become the man the region’s biggest producer calls to save the day. And after garnering acclaim in some of 2023’s most heralded Saudi projects, there’s no telling where his faith in himself will take him next.
“My aim has never been just to rise to the top of Saudi Arabia. The moment I knew I needed to change my life was the day I visited the set of ‘La Casa de Papel’ (Netflix’s ‘Money Heist’) — a local hit that took over the globe. That’s the path I envision for myself. Every move I’ve made is an attempt to get closer to the world stage,” El-Shehri tells Arab News.
Some things, of course, only seem fated in retrospect. El-Shehri, for example, only found out about “Million Dollar Land,” the hit MBC adaptation of the globally popular reality TV show, the night before filming began. He was finishing up at the gym in Riyadh, not sure where his next opportunity would come from, when his agent messaged saying an urgent meeting had popped up. El-Shehri initially refused, agreeing to do it in his car after they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“They pitched me this idea, a series about 100 people locked into a 40-day survival challenge in the deserts of NEOM, and my mood completely switched. I loved the idea. The producer Hussein Jaber said, ‘You’re the one we want for this. And if you’re in, we need you today. The opening helicopter scene is set to film at 6 am in NEOM tomorrow,’” El-Shehri explains.
He dropped everything and rushed across the country, hopping on a plane and managing to grab two hours of sleep before he was in the helicopter on the way to set. There, it was unlike anything he’d experienced before, a crew of 180 people from across the world. He was the host and lead star, every person on set greeted him by name as he walked past, but he barely knew where he was.
“They called ‘Action,’ and I delivered the lines I had been given, not knowing yet what I was even talking about. I had to ignore every insecurity I was feeling, telling myself that the audience was looking to me for confidence. The second we cut, I looked behind me and saw the 100 contestants from 15 countries for the first time, and just myself asked, ‘How is this real?’”
Soon his every question was answered, and the experience became life-changing for El-Shehri, not only because he was able to learn so much about human nature by watching each of the contestants band together to overcome the grueling experience, but because he learned so much about himself. For the first time, he was at the center of a world-class production, and he flourished.
“But also, it’s important to remember that the effort from everyone who worked on the show was truly amazing. And the quality at every level was clear once it premiered. It was number one on all of MBC for the whole month, and for the first time I was getting flooded with messages not just from Saudis, but from people in every country in the region,” said El-Shehri.
El-Shehri is always keen to see exactly how people respond to each of his projects, poring over online comments and looking for ways to get better. Ultimately, the person he models himself after is Tom Cruise, he tells us. And to be Tom Cruise, you can’t just worry about what wins awards, you have to learn how to dedicate your career to the people.
El-Shehri is currently starring in the groundbreaking Saudi film “Valley Road,” now in cinemas across the Kingdom, and he has been reveling in the opportunity to watch how people react to his work in real time. He recently bought a ticket to a screening, put on a hat and a mask, and sat near a group of teenagers to see how people watched his work after years of only being able to gauge his success from internet comments.
“I was one seat away from a group of teenaged kids, and I expected them to be scrolling through Snapchat, but they were so engaged. To my surprise, when I popped up on the screen, one yelled, ‘That’s Mohammed El-Shehri from “Sikat Safar,”’ and they cheered. At the end, he took a picture of the screen and wrote his review to post to his friends, but I couldn’t quite make out what he was writing,” says El-Shehri.
“When the film ended, I walked out normally, but soon enough people started to recognize me. I was immediately swarmed, and the kid who had been sitting next to me came up asking for a picture. I said, ‘Sure, but I want to see what you wrote in that post!’ He showed me, and it was honestly so nice, a really warm recommendation. I just wanted to see his honest feedback,” El-Shehri continues.
On the way home, he thought back to the first day that he heard about “Valley Road” from his friend, director Khalid Fahad. It was before he’d filmed “Sikat Safar” — before he’d found his voice as an actor, and things were very different.
“I’ll never forget when he first told me about his role, he told me that he didn’t have faith in me. But that never deterred me. I could have told him off, but instead I auditioned, and I earned that role, and if this film ends up on a major global streaming platform next, it could be the role that introduces me to the world,” said El-Shehri.
That isn’t to say that, even now, there aren’t bumps in the road. While “Sikat Safar” for instance was the number one show on MBC during its Ramadan debut in 2022, the 2023 sequel season was removed from the prime slot just two days before Ramadan was set to begin. El-Shehri and the rest of the cast and crew were crushed, not sure if the audience would still watch when it finally premiered 20 days into the month.
“We were so proud of that season. When we had first gotten the new scripts, they were terrible, so we threw them out and wrote 25 episodes together in eight days. When the delay came, I thought it was the end, but the fans waited, they campaigned, and when it was released, it was a huge hit, just as before.”
That wasn’t even the moment that touched him most. Only a few weeks ago, he saw that someone on TikTok had posted a video about him, and when he clicked the hashtag of his name, he discovered hundreds of videos all dedicated to him, totaling more than 630 million views. After years of dreaming, he thought, Saudi was now really behind him. Next, he promised himself, the world.