Home #Hwoodtimes Syrian actor Ryan Ali joins queer icon Alexandra Billings for “Queen Tut,”...

Syrian actor Ryan Ali joins queer icon Alexandra Billings for “Queen Tut,” a coming-of-age film shot in Toronto’s Gay Village

By: Valerie Milano

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 5/31/2024 – Cultivating a career in acting is something like growing a garden. You prepare for it with some lessons or raw experience, like tilling the soil. Then you plant some seeds, like going on auditions.

Alexandra Billings and Ryan Ali star in Queen Tut

And if you’re fortunate, your garden springs forth with beautiful flowers or robust fruits and veggies. You hope for the same, that pivotal roles come your way, and a wonderful fulfilling career blossoms.

Nabil (Ryan Ali) steps out in drag in Toronto’s Gay Village in Queen Tut

Actor Ryan Ali certainly can identify with this scenario. Ali, the young Syrian actor who currently is starring alongside queer icon Alexandra Billings in the LGBTQ+ feature film Queen Tut (2023), knows all about planting the right seeds and waiting to harvest the garden. Seven years ago, Ali was recruited for a rough table read of a script that called for someone with his particular set of skills.

“I had just moved to Toronto, and they were looking for someone who spoke Arabic for the very first table read for this movie,” Ali said during an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Times. “That was before they had any money … they were workshopping it in 2018.”

Click below to see our exclusive interview:

With the table read completed, Ali said he and the others involved in that exercise went their separate ways to work on their individual careers. Fast-forward four years and Ali started getting messages about a role for which he would be perfect.

Dani Jazzar plays Iskander, Nabil’s father

“Everyone in town was sending me this casting call,’” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘Here’s a beautiful story, it’s queer, the character is Egyptian, you should go for it.’”

Armed with his previous experience from that table read, Ali threw his hat into the ring. “I actually emailed the producer and I said, ‘you should see me for this,’” he said with a laugh. “I think we all felt that maybe I had outgrown the part, because he’s meant to be very young, and it’s a coming-of-age story. And they hadn’t seen me play such a part.”

Malibu (Alexandra Billings) and Nabal (Ryan Ali) lead a protest against the developers

Undaunted, Ali sent a clip from a film he had just completed in which he played a younger Middle Eastern man. It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Queen Tut tells the story of Egyptian teenager Nabal (Ali), who, after the loss of his mother, leaves Cairo to live with his father in Toronto. Dropped into the underground queer nightlife, he confronts his mother’s death by taking up the ways of drag and becoming the drag character “Queen Tut” under the guidance of trans drag Mother Malibu (Billings).

Ryan Ali and Mostafa Shaker, who plays Morkos, share a moment in Queen Tut

The film, premiered at Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, and went on to screen at OUTshine LGBTQ+ Film Festival Miami and Out on Film Atlanta.

It was nominated for multiple awards at the prestigious Canadian Screen Awards including, Billings for her Performance in a Leading Role in a Comedy, as well as Suad Bushnaq, Kamel Bushnaq and Ashley Jane for Achievement in Music for the Original Song, “I Won’t Break!” Suad Bushnaq was also nominated for Original Score and for another original song in the movie with Omar El-Deeb.

Quite an impressive pedigree for a film that deals with a very touchy subject among the Arab worlds. Much of the movie deals with Ali’s conflict with his father, a land developer who is heading up a building project that will result in the destruction of an iconic drag bar in Toronto’s Gay Village, as well as the father’s strict adherence to his Coptic faith.

Drag mother Malibu (Billings) and drag baby NAbal (Ali) talk things over

Ali said getting the project off the ground posed some problems because of the Coptic element to the story.

“Part of the trouble with casting this movie was not only finding an Arab actor, because there are so few of us that are going into this artistic field, but also because of the subject matter,” he said. “A lot of people, even though in their private lives they are either queer or allies to the community, they might not want to be openly so, for fear of retribution or any sort of backlash from communities that are as little bit more conservative in the Middle East or in the Arab world.”

That element persisted throughout filming, he said.

“We were trying to film in several churches, actually one of which we were thrown out of during filming,” he said. But the production persisted, and even took a lesson from the resistance posed by the religious community.

“It was such a lesson in coming together and understanding that these kinds of obstacles are part of why we are making this movie in the first place,” he said.

Queer icon Alexandra Billings plays Malibu in Queen TGut

And then there was Billings, the queer veteran whose long resume of acting roles includes Amazon Prime’s Transparent, as well as parts on television which include ER, Eli Stone, How to Get Away with Murder, Never Have I Ever, Grey’s Anatomy and The Conners.

In this film, Billings is a tour de force in the part of Malibu, the drag mother and owner of the iconic drag bar that is targeted by developers for destruction. Ali said he and the whole ensemble were blessed to have Billings leading the cast.

“What a gift it was. It was such a gift,” he said. “It was such a wonderful experience working with her. I am always very story driven and I try not to get lost in the attention of a project, and I am really dedicated to the story, so it was really interesting and rewarding to have someone like Alexandra come onto the project and be just as invested and passionate about the story itself.”

Beyond that, Ali said Billings was more than ready and willing to share her experience with the cast.

“She was such a teacher to us all behind the scenes,” he said. “It was quite a unique experience.”

Alongside Billings and Ali, Queen Tut features an ensemble cast of colorful characters including Kiriana Stanton, Selena Vyle, and Thom Allison. Directed by Reem Morsi, Queen Tut was written by Abdul Malik, Bryan Mark, and Kaveh Mohebbi.

Queen Tut will have its West Coast Premiere on June 5th at 7:00 p.m. at the Laemmle NoHo Theatre. A Q&A session will immediately follow with Billings and Ali.