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Off Duty is a series of lively conversations with influential people, from CEOs to celebrities, on life, work and the art of taking time off.

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Mena Massoud.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source: Arthur Galvao

Since his beloved portrayal of Aladdin in the 2019 Disney live-action film, Cairo-born Toronto native Mena Massoud has had a lot up his sleeve in the past five years.

For his second season as host of Evolving Vegan (on Crave and CTV Life Channel April 16), he’s been travelling everywhere from New Orleans to Tokyo, going behind the scenes with some of the world’s best chefs making plant-based food not only delicious but attainable. Also currently on Massoud’s to-do list is his podcast Growth Untold, his non-profit Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation, acting in the coming romantic drama Wish You Were Here, and a role of a lifetime in boxing drama Giant, based on real-life British-Yemeni pugilist Prince Naseem (Naz) Hamed. That’s all while he runs his own company, Press Play Productions, which aims to put more Middle Eastern and North African content into the world.

Needless to say, Massoud has his hands full. Fortunately, he found a little time to share what keeps him motivated, what he absolutely needs as a frequent flyer and how he decompresses at the end of a long day.

In the past few years, you’ve taken the reins in your career. What has that felt like?

I think it’s saved me. Not just financially, but mentally, and in being able to live the life that I want. Developing projects, going out and trying to sell them is better than waiting around for the phone to ring, which is tough as an actor and I did that for a long time.

Unfortunately, the media ran with that one interview I gave back in 2019 [in which the actor said he couldn’t get an audition after Aladdin]; I think it hurt my career. If I had said nothing, no damage would have been done. At the same time, it was important to say something, because it’s important for young, aspiring actors to know the reality. For any artist to do one big project and expect to never have to take any steps back is unrealistic. That happens for very, very, very few people. In this competitive industry, you have to prove yourself continuously.

I eventually started beating myself up, like, “Hey, man, you should be further ahead by now. Why hasn’t this done more for your career?” Now I’ve accepted the fact that, at the end of the day, I’m doing this for the journey and not the results.

Your show has taken you far beyond Agrabah. Has there been a particular place that has especially connected with you?

Japan has a special place in my heart. It was the first trip I ever took by myself, right after college. Then I worked at a restaurant and saved up money for three years so that I could move to Los Angeles, so I never really had a chance to travel. Japan was the first place I travelled right after I wrapped Aladdin. I could see myself living there. It’s very clean, organized and everybody takes their job seriously. My favourite dish there is ramen. The ramen in Japan can be made so many different ways with so many different flavour profiles that you can have it almost every day.

What project are you most motivated to tackle next?

From a production standpoint, I want to make the next Squid Game or Narcos, but of the Middle East. In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt was the third-largest film industry in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood, but that hasn’t translated internationally the way that I know it will. My company wants to be at the forefront of that. I’m trying to do Omar Sharif in reverse. ... I want to go back to Egypt and do content there because the Middle East is coming.

Speaking of which, there’s got to be a vegan Egyptian recipe that you really love cooking up in the kitchen.

Most of them are my mom’s, which you can see in my cookbook. You’ve got to try Egypt’s national dish, which is called koshari. A lot of the Middle East and North Africa tend to share foods, but nobody else makes koshari. You sauté garlic and onion, then add rice and lentils that you can make in your slow cooker, and you let it cook. Then it’s topped with pasta, this amazing, garlicky Egyptian tomato sauce, fried onions and chickpeas that are marinated in a lemon cumin marinade. It’s carb-heavy, but it’s absolutely delicious. It fills you up, but it’s also a very cheap dish in Egypt.

Since you’re often quickly detouring for your show or a movie, what essentials do you always have ready to pack?

I have this Tumi backpack that my fiancée bought for me when we first started dating, about five years ago, and I can’t go anywhere without it. I can’t live without it; it’s got my protein bars, my eye drops, my lip balm, all my toiletries. It’s also got my laptop, my paperwork, my wireless headphones. My everything.

Do you have any self-care rituals to help you relax?

For me, working out is like meditation. I light some candles, meditate every morning, and imagine where I want to be and the things I want to be working on. It’s meditation-slash-manifestation. Horseback riding, too, is spiritual in a way that I can’t even describe. When I really need to reset, I go horseback riding. My idea of ultimate success is buying a small plot of land in Italy, whether it’s an olive orchard or vineyard, and having a few horses. Once I’ve got that, I won’t need anything more.

Final question: You’re known for your thick, luxurious mop of hair, so a lot of us simply have to know – what is your hair-care secret?

I had to shave all my hair for Wish You Were Here! So, right now, my hair-care routine is very different than what it usually is to get it growing nice and healthy. I use a mix of oils: a base oil, like castor oil, and then I add rosemary oil to it. You can put other oils in too, but they have to be 100-per-cent organic.

People have gotten into the habit of washing their hair every day with shampoo, which is not good for you. Just have a really good wash when you shampoo – maybe twice a week – and condition. I always tell my hair and makeup artists – don’t put too much product in it because I’m not going to wash it tonight. That always helps.

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