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Ahead of the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, FLUX was afforded the privilege to speak with one of the film’s leading actresses, the Hostess of The Naomi herself Zineb Oukach.
In her native Morocco Zineb Oukach has made a name for herself in the television series Une Famille Respectable, and in Abdelhai Laraki’s film Parfum de Mer.
In 2007 she starred in Gavin Hood’s ‘Rendition’ and now as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ arrives in UK theatres, Zineb is showing her eagerness to explore her creativity by producing and co-starring with Philip Seymour Hoffman in I Am Morocco.
Still in the early part of her career there is a mysterious aura surrounding the actress, but she very kindly opened the book of her life to discuss the transition from economics student to actress, discovering and re-discovering films, including Fellini in Paris, being inspired by and learning from her director and co-star, as well as taking us into the future to discuss I Am Morocco.
FLUX: When you first moved to France you studied economics. Why the transition into acting?
Zineb Oukach: In high school I did both until the day came when I had to make a decision and choose a career path. I was in a theatre school in Morocco, where I did do some film, television, and short films, and I just felt it was something that I was born to do. It was the only way for me to express myself; economics just wasn’t fulfilling.
FLUX: Growing up in Casablanca, how did it contrast to your experience of Paris?
Zineb Oukach: Well Morocco was a French colony and so I was in French schools. The shock was not as big as it was when I moved from France to the U.S. In a lot of ways that was more of a shock for me, or not a shock but a cultural difference.
When I moved to France I was very happy because I felt free. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do, and of course not living in my parents’ house was a big relief. This was at a time when I had finished college and I decided to go and move on, and do what I had always wanted to do and pursue my dream and my passion. Acting is my life, and being in Paris I had this great opportunity. For any student or young person who wants to learn about art it’s a wonderful city. You are exposed to so much. There are wonderful museums and exhibits, and you can see everything. You have the art movies and art in the theatre in every district in the city. I learned so much, and I’m so grateful that before coming to the U.S I first went to France.
FLUX: Were you exposed to a lot of movies growing up?
Zineb Oukach: I had an uncle who was a big cinephile, and so when I was little I watched a lot of movies. But then saying that I never understood what it was… I would just absorb every image, and so I never read the subtitles at that time. But when I was in France I watched all of the Fellini movies again, and just watching all of the European and American films was another experience. When I was a little girl and I saw Gone with the Wind, I used to play with my dolls and try to produce what I’d seen in the film. But then when I was nineteen or twenty and I saw it again I realised what an amazing film it is. I saw all the political aspects of it and the mastery. It is such an epic film and one that is very inspiring. But yes, I was exposed to a lot of movies growing up.
FLUX: In The Wolf of Wall Street you had the opportunity to work with the legendary Martin Scorsese. I’d be remiss not to ask you about your experience of working with American cinema’s most enduring filmmakers.
Zineb Oukach: When I heard that I had got the job and that I was going to be working with him I was very excited. The experience was a special one for me because as you know I come from Morocco, and right now he’s very close to the king of Morocco as well as to the country. He shot The Last Temptation of Christ there and so he’s very close to my culture, and the culture that I grew up with. We shared so many stories about Morocco. It was so special, but it was different with me because our connection ran through the country, the food and through so many things. Then of course as an actor watching him to see how he works, and how he interacts with us. He gave us the freedom to play and feel our characters which is the dream for every actor. You bring something; you feel free; you create and you listen to your instincts. More so he’s iconic, and what can I say, the experience was awesome.
FLUX: Working under the direction of Martin Scorsese and starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, how influential was this experience?
Zineb Oukach: Of course you learn from them, but everybody learns from everyone. Marty learned from other filmmakers who were there before him, but then you personalise things. The first day when I was on set, I met with Leo and my eyes were glued to him. I would watch his every action, his every expression, how he used the props, how he moved his body; everything. For me he is one of the greatest actors working today, and so I was absorbing every detail. My eyes were glued to him because I wanted to learn as much as I could, and that is what life is about. You want to learn but then the next day, the next week you get used to it, and you just focus on the work. But absolutely, being inspired and learning from your co-star and other people who have been there before you is very important. You have to be conscious of the work that has gone before you.
FLUX: How has the experience of working with Scorsese and DiCaprio impacted you?
Zineb Oukach: Well it didn’t change my perspective on how I approach work, and how I see my career and the industry. I was talking with Leo on set, and it reassured me that I’m heading in the right direction. We worked the same way. We broke down the script and we’d do a lot of work before shooting. Then once you’re on set you just forget about everything; you just focus on the filmmaker and what he wants, because it’s his film and he has his own vision. In terms of my perspective, coming from Morocco, travelling and being exposed to so many cultures, and of course now living in the U.S, I have a voice and I’m very specific with that because of my background and because of who I am. I just want to learn and work to express this voice through movies, and I can’t wait for the future to see what it is going to bring.
FLUX: One of the things I came across in my research was that you put a real emphasis on strong characters specifically “complicated and deep roles that have a sincere or comedic tonality.”
Zineb Oukach: The role of every actor is to speak the truth, and if I need to speak the truth my character has to be truthful to the emotion. The material has to be consistent and have something that will attract me regardless of whether it is a comedy or a drama. No matter what the character, they just have to be truthful and speak the truth.
FLUX: You have played a range of roles already, but are there any genres in particular that you enjoy working in?
Zineb Oukach: I would say drama for now because it is easier for me, but I do want to explore comedy and action. Comedy in particular is very challenging, and so I would love to explore that.
FLUX: Looking ahead you are producing and starring in I Am Morocco, which is written and directed by Amos Poe and will star Philip Seymour Hoffman. It seems the future or the near future is full of exciting prospects?
Zineb Oukach: Oh yeah, totally. It’s very exciting. I can’t wait, and we are getting there little by little. I believe it is going to be shot early this year. It’s a road movie and it’s the kind of project where as an actor you can express yourself, and that can be very fulfilling. When this movie’s done you will walk away from it and you will have learned something; you will take something with you. I do think this movie is going to impact my life in a lot of ways, and so I look at it as a very special project.
FLUX: Do your future aspirations include moving beyond acting and producing to explore writing and directing?
Zineb Oukach: Right now I’m just taking it step by step and remaining focused on the work. I think every actor writes because it is something that comes naturally, especially when you are working on material where you are breaking down characters. So you have that ability to write. It’s another job but maybe I have those skills. I think my life is a revelation, and I feel I’m on that journey. Right now I just know I’m heading in the right direction. I feel like it’s a bigger ride to take and that’s why on I Am Morocco, I became attached as a producer. It came very naturally actually, but sometimes I don’t want to be a producer. I don’t like the business side, and I want to preserve my talent and creativity which is very important for me because that’s who I am. I don’t want to focus on numbers and deals and such things because you have to be tough, and I don’t want to tough it out. I just want to be an actress at the moment, and so I’m trying to balance this too. For the future I don’t know. Let’s see how this project goes and I’ll let you know.
The Wolf of Wall Street is out now in UK cinemas.
Interview by Paul Risker.