You’ve heard all about Oscar Isaac’s hero in Moon Knight, the latest small-screen installment of the MCU – now get to know May Calamawy, who plays Layla. She’s a strong-willed archeologist with a real sense of justice, and she marks the first major Arab character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A figure from Marc Spector’s past, she becomes an ally to him and his alter ego, Steven Grant, after the pair meet in the second episode. But, don’t be fooled, at no point does she play second fiddle – Layla stands her ground and asserts herself as a force to be reckoned with in the MCU.
GamesRadar+ sat down with an enthusiastic Calamawy in London to talk about joining the MCU, Middle Eastern representation on screen, and working alongside co-stars Isaac and Ethan Hawke. Here’s the full Q&A, edited for length and clarity.
Were you into Marvel before you were cast in Moon Knight?
May Calamawy: Coincidentally, in 2020, I decided to watch all the Marvels and my boyfriend was like, ‘Let’s watch them in order of chronological story.’ We did that, and then, right when I was done, I got this audition. While we were watching it, I was like, ‘I wish I could be in something like this.’ It’s really crazy that we’re here.
What appealed to you the most about Layla as a character?
MC: I’m still at this initial stage of my career, where being Arab is a bit of a responsibility. For a project like the MCU, which I respect so much what’s already been done, and to be able to enter it as a family, but to introduce diversity, which is really what makes up a universe, meant a lot to me to be able to represent that. I feel so empowered watching all the women, and I was always like, ‘I don’t know if I’m this strong, outwardly assertive kind of person.’ I wanted that challenge to be able to portray that.
How do you interpret Layla’s relationships with Marc and Steven, and how do you think that being introduced to Steven affects her?
MC: I’m going to try not to give any spoilers, but she has a more complicated relationship with Marc. They’ve known each other for a while, and he’s more guarded as a person. She in turn becomes a bit guarded around him. But they complement each other in a way. And then Steven, he’s sweet and she’s more curious when she meets him. There’s a lot of that curiosity and not like, ‘Who the hell are you? What are you doing?’ But more, ‘What is going on? Is this person okay?’
What was it like working with Oscar Isaac?
MC: Wonderful. In the beginning, I was really intimidated by both of them [Isaac and co-star Ethan Hawke] and I was trying to act really cool, like I knew everything. And then there are so many moments where I did something silly, and he’d make fun of me, and then I started making fun of myself too, and then I got more comfortable. And I’m such a goofy person, I realized that’s how I need to be in between takes to keep my energy up, and he’d meet me right there, even though he had such an intense role. And then, when the three of us were together, we would just play, and that’s a really really cool situation. Both of them empowered me. They noticed I was intimidated in the beginning and they pushed me to take space, which is also not always the case with actors.
Other than working with Oscar and Ethan, what was filming like? Did you have to do a lot of training for the stunts?
MC: I trained for two months for three hours a day, because I worked with a stunt team for two hours, and then my personal trainer got flown over and he trained me for an hour, and then he trained me throughout the project and stayed with me before scenes to warm me up. The stunt training really helped me discover Layla, with how much they pushed me and they wouldn’t give me any outs. I developed that personality where I just knew I had to do it, whatever sort of obstacle they gave me, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is Layla. Layla just goes for it.’
Is there any particular scene that really encompasses that for you?
MC: Yes, I don’t want to give anything away, but a few of the more physical scenes.
Something that’s quite prevalent throughout the show are the ideas of justice and retribution, and how they mean different things to different characters. What do you think they make for Layla?
MC: Layla’s someone who is for the people. She’s an archaeologist, and she has a strong view on what it means to be colonized when it comes to artifacts, and what belongs to people, what should be given back to a country and you know, history is also really for people from the country to enjoy and how she views it, right. But she’s also ethically ambiguous. These are so many things that we spoke about, I don’t know how much of it we will be able to see because it’s not really her story. But I appreciate that she has strong views, and generally wants to do the right thing. She’s not going to work with the system.
What can you say about the way the series ends? And is there anything you can hint at for what we can expect from Layla as the season wraps up?
MC: I don’t know how episode 6 is. I heard there are a lot of changes, like they’ve shuffled things around. I don’t actually know how it ends. I would say her arc starts off confused and a bit wary. And then we just keep seeing her entering, like standing in herself more.
What would you like to see next for Layla? Whether that’s season 2 or a crossover with other Marvel characters – do you have an ideal crossover that you’d love to see?
MC: I’d love to see her with all the women. I love that. I also love Doctor Strange. I love the mysticism in that. And I love Korg. Anything Taika Waititi.
What was your favorite part of working on the show?
MC: My favorite part was the collaboration with everyone. We spent six hours on every episode developing and going over and rewriting parts, and that felt like a dream. It was like we were developing a play in a way. Before every episode, we’d sit and go through the lines, because if you change a little somewhere else, you need to look at that, and that attention to detail was like a study for me, which I hope I can continue to take on. And generally just the relations that I made on set with the stunt team, with Oscar and Ethan, Mohamed [Diab, head director], Aaron [Moorhead, co-director] and Justin [Benson, co-director] and Grant [Curtis, executive producer], like I want to take that with me moving forward.
Was there quite a close collaboration between you and the director, the screenwriters, in terms of developing the character?
MC: Yeah, we had Peter Cameron and Sabir Pirzada, they were with us all the time. I’d be like, ‘Okay, we need to change this line. What do I put in?’ And they’d think really quick and help, and it was so helpful to have them around. And Mohamed, as an Egyptian, was always there and fought for Layla. He really wanted her to represent the Middle East and wanted her to be a strong woman. We did not want her to just be in service to the man even though it’s Moon Knight’s story. To have her own journey was really important for us, and not telling the story of a woman just being saved. Any time I had a feeling or something didn’t feel right, I would go talk to all of them and we’d figure it out. Nothing was like, ‘Well, this is just how it is.’ And that’s really cool.
Do you think that this show could only have been made with an Egyptian director?
MC: 100%. We haven’t represented the Middle East enough to, in my opinion, allow just anyone to write about it. Because when they do, as Arabs we’ll get annoyed, we’ll be like ‘That’s not real.’ But it’s not their fault, they’re not from there. The onus is on us to really share.