London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Laila Rouass shot to fame in Britain when she joined the cast and crew of the popular British drama, Footballers’ Wives. Before taking on roles in British soaps such as Family Affairs and Hollyoaks, Laila became well known internationally as a model and a presenter for the Indian music channel, Channel V. Laila, born and raised in East London and of Moroccan origin talks to Asharq Al Awsat about her roots, the obstacles she faces as a British Arab actress and her current projects.
“I went to drama school for a few months in London but I’ve never been one for studying,” Laila admits as she tells me about how she got into acting. “I was modeling and was sent out to do a film in India for two months and whilst I was there, I began presenting for Channel V. After that, I was offered some parts in films and that’s when I began acting professionally.”
Laila is popular amongst the British Asian community and frequently features on the front of Asian lifestyle magazines. Asked whether she would like to match this level of popularity within the Arab community, Laila said, “I’m not interested in fame whatsoever. If a work opportunity came up, for example, an Arabic film that is right for me then I would definitely take it up, however, I’m not interested in being famous for no reason and I don’t feel that I need to increase my popularity in any part of the world. I just want to work and do things that I want to do.”
Since leaving Footballers’ Wives, Laila has participated in a film called The Hunt Feast, a production by the popular Syrian director Nabil al Maleh. “I play a character called Samia who is married to a controversial journalist and is raped by an Iraqi soldier in front of her six-year-old son. When the Americans invade Iraq, Samia seeks revenge on the soldier.” “We filmed in Syria and the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Syria is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen and the Syrians are wonderful people.” She adds, “It’s a small film and you don’t have these big production houses and distributors behind the project so you have to sell the film yourself, but that’s what is great about doing small movies. Those who are taking part are not earning a huge amount of money but rather, they are working on the production because they really believe in it. It’s a great vibe to be working in.”
Though Laila’s ethnic background has presented her with a range of opportunities, I asked her whether she feels that she has been typecast during her professional career as an actress. “I think I have been more lucky than clever about it. In Britain, there are many talented actors from ethnic minorities but there are not many parts for Asian let alone Arab actors on British television and in movies. It is hard enough trying to find an Asian face on British television and when you do find one, there is a reason behind it. Generally, people are typecast, and perhaps you do get a few Asian actors in soaps because you need to reflect wider society through the program, however, in movies or bigger dramas, there are hardly any Asian or Arab actors.”
She continues, “I think that we need more people from ethnic minorities [in Britain] writing, casting and directing because unless we have them behind the scene, we’re not going to have them in front of the camera.” She adds, “Parents and families from ethnic minorities also have a responsibility to recognize a talent in their children and to nurture that talent.”
I questioned Laila on whether she feels that her ethnic background and coming from such a strong culture has limited the roles that she takes on as an actress. “I don’t think it’s really to do with the cultural aspect but rather the morals and principles that you have. I have been offered many roles such as playing a terrorists wife but I refuse to take them. If you can see that it is a well written and a well thought out script and is not going to fuel stereotypes then that would be fine, but that in itself is hard to come by these days.”
Laila is best known for her role as Amber Gates in Footballers’ Wives, a melodramatic British series that follows the private lives of a group of footballers. The program, which has become a huge success in the United States, has often been labeled as trash television; Laila however argues that the production “is in fact very clever and witty.” “Footballers’ Wives ridicules stardom and how one can be famous simply by association. In Britain it took a while for the public to grasp the concept behind the program but in America they understood it straight away.”
Laila told Asharq Al Awsat that she does not have a long-term plan for her career and that she simply wants to take on acting roles of which she can be proud. “The most exciting thing about acting is the range of characters that you play and entering different worlds and taking on different looks. Whatever I do, I want it to be good, if its comedy I want it to be funny, if its drama I want it to be good drama and if its horror, I want it to be scary.” I asked Laila, who speaks Arabic, whether she would consider a role in an Arabic soap opera, “They are so over-the-top, even more so than Bollywood! I think I’ll give that a miss!”
At the beginning of her acting career, Laila Rouass spent six years in India where she established a “strong a spiritual connection” to the country. Laila has traveled extensively during her career and has also lived in her country of origin, Morocco. Asked about her favorite destination, Laila said, “It is difficult to name one country because I love different places for different reasons. Barbados is a great place to relax with its white-sand beaches and clear blue waters, but for culture, I love Morocco, Syria, India and Mauritius to name but a few.”
In 2005, it was rumored that an Arab sheikh offered Laila one million pounds for a date. I asked Laila about the truth behind the rumor, “Yes it is true and everybody asks me to go into detail about it but I didn’t entertain the conversation! I said no straight away and didn’t ask what he looked like, what he was like and whether the date was just for dinner!”
Laila is currently producing a film called ‘Bootleggers’, which she describes as “a gangster film” about the selling of illegal alcohol. The experience, she says, “is great but is more stressful as you have to think about other things as well as your performance and you have to stop yourself from getting involved in everything. It is exciting though because it’s your production.”
Away from the cameras, Laila enjoys the quiet life spending time with her family and relaxing in her central London home. As well as acting, Laila is passionate about property and enjoys buying and selling residences. “At the moment, I’m trying to build up a property portfolio. I love going to view houses and I love that feeling that I get when I know that I should buy a property.”
Asked about the attention she receives from the British public, Laila explained, “when I do get recognized on the street, people are really supportive and I’ve never got any negative attention. My on-screen character was so glamorous and over-the-top though that I am hardly ever recognized because I dress down and never wear any make-up, I always look like the new bag-lady in town!”
Laila Rouass’s rising career has stretched over continents from its beginning in the East end of London to Bombay and more recently to the Middle East. Fans can look forward to the release of ‘The Hunt Feast’ at the end of the year.