Andrea Riseborough & Karim Saleh On Sundance Romance ‘Luxor’, And How Life Imitated Art

Totem Films

Andrea Riseborough came to Park City with two films this year, and they couldn’t have been more different.

In Brandon Cronenberg’s blood-drenched cyber-thriller Possessor she plays a cool, calculating hit-woman who takes over other people’s bodies to carry out increasingly brutal assassinations to order. In Zeina Durra’s sophomore film Luxor, however, which premiered at the Library earlier today, the actress shows a softer side as Hana, a medical doctor recovering from her time spent working at a clinic on the Jordanian-Syrian border, where she treated victims of the war in Syria. Taking a much-needed hotel break, Hana finds herself accidentally-on-purpose in the city of Luxor, Egypt, where she lived in her 20s and dated an archeologist named Sultan (Karim Saleh). By chance, Hana bumps into Sultan on a ferry, and the two find themselves irresistibly drawn back together on a journey of self-discovery.

While shooting, in case of life imitating art, Riseborough quickly found herself dating her co-star Saleh. Born in France and raised in Beirut, Saleh broke through with the lead in Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell in 2004, following it up with roles in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Steven Spielberg’s Munich. His recent credits include Adam McKay’s Vice and the TV shows Transparent and Counterpart.

Together, Riseborough and Saleh sat down with Deadline to discuss the film that changed both their lives.

DEADLINE: How did Luxor come about?

ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: I’d just finished shooting ZeroZeroZero. I was in Senegal, and I was sent the script. It was such a beautiful script. A truly, truly brilliant script—it had so much levity, but it was whimsical, it was conversational. So, iust from a script perspective, just from what was on paper, I loved it.

Zeina writes a script the way you would learn to write a script in film school in the ’60s, with very, very little stage direction—you’re not having to filter through reams and reams of instruction, emotional instruction or physical instruction or anything like that. And I watched Zeina’s previous film The Imperialists Are Still Alive and loved that too. It’s really great. Karim’s in that too.

DEADLINE: What was the attraction?

RISEBOROUGH: There was just something about this project. I felt utterly compelled to do it. It was something much bigger than me. So then I met Zeina, we talked about it, and I said yes immediately.

DEADLINE: Karim, how did you come into the picture?

KARIM SALEH: As Andrea said, I’d worked with Zeina before, on The Imperialists Are Still Alive, and I spent some time with Zeina in her world, as a friend, but I always felt that, on some level, she was possibly grooming me for an idea of sorts.

When I read the script, I was in pain about being an immigrant, something I carry with me a lot. I was in pain about the death toll in Syria, I was in pain about the geopolitics of it, and I was exhausted. Now, a lot of people who are not from that background like to try and tell [those] stories, but they’re not from that place, they have no experience of those places. So I’m very defensive and protective. For me, there’s a sanctity in the stories.

So I looked at this project, and instead of slogans and themes I saw this extremely layered script, which took the geopolitics of that place and took them outside of time. It’s not necessarily my work as an actor to work out the themes [of a story I’m telling], but it’s my work as a politician within my profession. And seeing that the central theme was love was pivotal.

Zeina had written a beautiful character [in Hana]. My grandmother was Middle Eastern, and she was a politician. My mom is Middle Eastern, and she works with an NGO, she looks after kids. I grew up in a war. All these things existed in Hana’s character but were never developed in ways that would have been obscene or exploitative. So this feeling that Andrea describes kicked in for me as well, where it became irrevocably attractive.

DEADLINE: How long did you have to get to know each other before you were shooting?

SALEH: One day.

RISEBOROUGH: A matter of hours. Literally. We met at the baggage claim in Luxor airport.

SALEH: Then we had some kind of table read the next morning.

RISEBOROUGH: Which was just really us talking to each other and Zeina. And then we started shooting, I think, the day after that.

DEADLINE: How do you prepare for a project like this?

SALEH: I think we worked on this individually. So, I’ll listen to your story first, Andrea.

RISEBOROUGH: Well, my connection to Sultan, initially, was simply my connection to what I knew about being in love. That was where it began. And then Karim and I actually did fall in love.

Before that, all I’d known was that I was getting on a plane during my four weeks off to spend three weeks of that free time making a film that I felt so compelled to do. But the place, this person, and the magic of what was about to happen, I think, played us in a way. As a professional, it feels counterintuitive, but in other ways it was incredible, because, if you surrendered to it, there was a real possibility of a life-changing experience in this thing that we were making together.

We haven’t told anybody that before you. But that’s part of how it became real for me.

DEADLINE: Karim, how about you?

SALEH: I was reading a lot of Jung, trying to sort a few things out within myself. So I was already in that process [of self-reflection]. It didn’t necessarily intensify when I read the script, but I made more connections by reading it.

I physically prepared by organizing my apartment and cleaning my house every day. I created an entire sort of ritual, imagining the way that [my character] lived, and the isolation in which he lived, like a tomb. I was trying to imagine that I was opening up the past and looking at it in an organized way [laughs]. I was playing at being an archeologist in my apartment, essentially, like a kid. But I was already getting these flashes of Hana. I really had this connection to Hana.

And what happened was … Well, it was a combination of not just Andrea’s talent, but the way that she inhabits the world—she really channeled what she needed to channel Hana, and I just allowed her openness to carry me. And in allowing myself to be carried by her, and respond to her, it really, profoundly opened me up. So, for me, the journey of the character became a journey of opening up.

RISEBOROUGH: I think nothing could have quelled what was naturally happening between us. That connection was undeniable.

DEADLINE: How was the shoot?

RISEBOROUGH: It was incredibly natural. We’d shoot 10 scenes a day sometimes.

'Luxor' stars Karim Saleh and Andrea Riseborough with director Zeina Durra

DEADLINE: What kind of a director is Zeina?

RISEBOROUGH: It’s very odd playing somebody who has nowhere to be, but Zeina and I both knew exactly what Hana had been through, what she was thinking, how she was feeling gratitude for the salt air on her face, how she was feeling the warmth of the sun, how she appreciated the expensive bed in the ridiculously decadent hotel that she was now in, which is such a polarized version of where she’d been. She needed to give herself that time, you know? It’s like she’s been swimming for a long time, on a long journey, and she finally reaches a rock. This film is about that rock. The rock turns out to be Sultan. It turns out to be love. 

DEADLINE: How spontaneous was it? Were any people playing themselves?

RISEBOROUGH: Lots of people were, yes. There were lots of non-actors in the film. But there were also many actors. I wouldn’t say it was a non-actor-heavy film [laughs]. My greatest disappointment, always, is when I come out having loved a film more than any other film I’ve ever seen, and then I find out that none of the people in it were actors! But there was a lot of improvisation, in the sense that there were many scenes that weren’t written. There were certainly many moments that weren’t on the page. There was a huge sense of freedom.

DEADLINE: From the beginning, Luxor seems as though it’s going to be a story about the past, but it turns out to be a story about the future…

SALEH: In Egyptian mythology, the idea of time is not linear. And I think that’s what’s so interesting: [Egypt] is a sort of zero zone. I met a lot of archeologists and authorities on archeology while I was there, and I was very curious to talk to them and see what I could take from them, even on the fly. And when they speak about the things that they uncover and study, whether it’s a Pharaoh or a cat, you get the impression that they are in relationship with them, that [these things] are absolutely living. Not ‘alive’, as such, but living. And that sort of ‘living past’ idea makes it not exactly the past—it’s only the past from our point of view. But from their point of view, these things belong to the future. They belong to our present.

RISEBOROUGH: It was fascinating being around the archeologists because it’s almost like being around a bunch of classicists, or a bunch of Harry Potter fans, in the sense that they’re so invested. [Their work] is truly alive for them, as Karim says.

DEADLINE: What would you like people to take away from the film?

RISEBOROUGH: You have the potential for a couple of hours to just be completely transported to this place—to look at it and feel it. Some people think it’s about a woman finding herself, finding who she is, but that doesn’t seem to be Hana to me at all. She’s a very highly skilled surgeon who’s operated in the most stressful situation you could possibly probably be in, and with the worst resources, in terrible circumstances. So it’s not discovering oneself, it’s connecting—or reconnecting—with the past and the future, and getting the perspective that there is so much more to come. There has been so much more before, and there will be something greater that they don’t even know about yet. I feel Hana and Sultan have a similarity: they’re both reclaiming something that is timeless.

DEADLINE: A big theme of this festival has been identity. Karim, would you agree that Luxor is, in many ways, a story about two people reclaiming theirs?

SALEH: The identity of my character deeply would be his propensity and capacity for love, which is something that he has obviously denied himself. And it’s obvious to me that he hadn’t loved [anyone] for many years, and that his entire existence was a mix between this kind of sensory experience of Egypt and archeology, essentially. So, yes, he does reclaim his identity as a human being, because he reintegrates his capacity to love and relate outside of his known worlds and his known Egyptology and his familiar exploration of what is comfortable for him to live in. So that, in and of itself, is reclaiming a part of his identity.

DEADLINE: Will you two be working together again, or is the relationship strictly off-screen from now on?

RISEBOROUGH: Yes, soon. Imminently. I’m producing something that we’ve been developing together. I can’t say any more, but it’s got a great cast.

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