Canadian actor Mena Massoud cast as Aladdin in Disney live-action remake

The star of Disney's new live-action remake of Aladdin is a young Egyptian-Canadian actor from the Toronto area who is a "natural leading man," says his former university professor.

'He isn't just a two-dimensional pretty boy,' says Massoud's former professor

Mena Massoud was born in Egypt but grew up in Markham, Ont., before studying acting at Ryerson University. He was announced as the new Aladdin in the live-action remake over the weekend. (menamassey/Instagram)

The star of Disney's new live-action remake of Aladdin is a young Egyptian-Canadian actor from the Toronto area who is a "natural leading man," says his former university professor.

Mena Massoud was born in Egypt but grew up in Markham, Ont., and graduated from Ryerson University's performance acting program in 2014, after transferring from the University of Toronto.

Cynthia Ashperger is the director of the Ryerson program and taught Massoud in his third year at university. She told CBC Toronto that Massoud has "a gentle quality but also a lot of fire."

"It couldn't have happened to a better guy," she said. "He's got a great work ethic, great humility. He isn't just a two-dimensional pretty boy. He really has the depth and substance as well as the good looks."

Massoud's previous roles include starring in the TV drama Open Heart and the supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. He is also set to star in the TV version of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, alongside John Krasinski.

Ashperger, who reached out to Massoud and congratulated him on getting the role, said his Egyptian background will be important for the role of Aladdin.

"I think it allows you to see things from a different cultural perspective when you're brought up in a household in a multi-cultural society."

Massoud has been in a few television series and shorts, including Open Heart and Saving Hope. (Denise Grant)

It's something Massoud brought up in a 2015 interview with a Markham newspaper.

"A lot of the Egyptian community is made up of doctors, pharmacists and engineers. All throughout high school I took sciences, but eventually I chose to pursue what I truly want to do," he said. "I love my parents and we have a terrific relationship. They have been very supportive of my career choice."

Troubled search for Aladdin

Casting for Aladdin was announced over the weekend at Disney's annual D23 fan convention in southern California. Massoud joins director Guy Ritchie, U.K. actress Naomi Scott (cast as Jasmine) and blockbuster star Will Smith, who will play the Genie.

But just last week, there were reports that Disney was struggling to cast the lead roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. The casting crew auditioned more than 2,000 people for the roles, according to the Hollywood Reporter, but had a hard time finding "a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing."

The animated version of Aladdin was released by Disney in 1992 and memorably starred the late Robin Williams as the Genie. (Disney Theatrical Productions/Associated Press)

The casting call was specifically looking for actors of Middle Eastern descent.

The revelation caused a lot of heat online, with Twitter users complaining and offering up their own casting suggestions, like actors Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) and Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani, another one of the common suggestions, weighed in on the search.

"What am I, chopped liver?" he wrote on Twitter.

And the complaints continued even after the cast was announced: Twitter users scrutinized Scott's ethnicity. The actress is of British and Indian descent. Many wanted to see Disney cast a young Arab actress for the role instead.

Shooting of the movie was supposed to start this month, but has now been pushed to August. The remake doesn't have a release date just yet.

With files from Ramna Shahzad and Haydn Watters