For several minutes on Oscar night, all eyes were on Kirk Douglas. And for a few choice seconds in the spotlight, all eyes were on the handsome man in a tux wrestling the Oscar winner for control of his cane.
That man was Omar Sharif Jr., the grandson of former nominee Omar Sharif and one of two trophy presenters for the 83rd Academy Awards. After sleeping off his Oscar high and waking up to screen grabs labeling him “the hot guy who grabbed Kirk’s cane,” the 20-something actor talked to The Advocate about going toe to toe with Douglas and Melissa Leo, James Franco in tights, and gay rights in Egypt.
The Advocate: Your grandfather is a screen legend, but even so, sharing the stage with Kirk Douglas and getting to do a bit with him is huge. What was going through your head?
Omar Sharif Jr.: Well, that’s right, my grandfather is fairly well known, so I grew up around celebrities a lot. So I never get nervous. I’m always OK around celebrities, but when you’re standing next to Kirk Douglas, your knees begin to shake. Luckily I didn’t have any speaking lines or I’m pretty sure nothing would have come out.
Did you rehearse that bit in advance?
No, we didn’t. He came in two days before to rehearsals and as I was standing next to him, he said, “If I play a little something, feel free to play along and we’ll improv it as we go.” So we tried out a few things and then he left, and the day of the Oscars, he said, “we’ll see where it goes. We’ll see what we do.”
When they brought you in to do the Oscars, what specifically were they looking for you to do, and how much time was spent in rehearsals?
I was rehearsing Wednesday through Sunday, full days. My role as trophy presenter was specifically just to carry the trophies from backstage to the people presenting the trophies to the eventual winners. But then, thanks to Kirk and his kindness and generosity, he shared the stage with me. He got me more involved and gave me a little bit to do with him. I’m very grateful. My grandfather made his debut in Hollywood in a prolonged entrance on a camel in Lawrence of Arabia and I got to do mine in a prolonged acceptance speech in front of the entire Academy at the Academy Awards. I’m not sure who wins the category of Best Debut in Hollywood, but I might have upstaged my grandfather on that one.
You’re living in Los Angeles pursuing a career as an actor. What sort of professional advice has your grandfather given you?
You know what? He doesn’t have much. And I think it’s better that way. I didn’t tell him I was moving to L.A. I was in Montreal at the time and I got in my car and just drove across the country — because I knew they wouldn’t be too supportive. They know the difficulties that come with the job, and I think they’d rather I do anything but, but sometimes you just have to do what’s in your blood and what makes you happy. So I called him from Tennessee and told him, “I’m on my way to Hollywood. Take my new phone number down. It’s 310…” He said to me, “I gave you my looks and I gave you my name, that’s all I can give you in this profession. After that, you’re entirely on your own.” I admire him for that. He realizes there are so many young actors out there that won’t get the opportunities that I’ll even get just having his name.
When did you first learn English?
I learned it in Montreal. My mother’s first language is English, actually. When I moved to Egypt, for a short time, the only English language television show we got was The Bold and the Beautiful. I learned English along with the Forrester family and the Spectra family through their fashion feuds.
They shoot in LA. — maybe you can go full circle.
That would be great. I certainly like fashion. I’m so grateful to Calvin Klein collection for giving me the tuxedo and having me wear it on stage. And actually now, they’re letting me keep it. They said I represented them well. Two days before the show, I didn’t have a tuxedo. The one wardrobe gave me for the show was a complete disaster. A contact called the people at Calvin Klein and they Fed-Exed one over night. Otherwise I would have been on the stage in my underwear, which may have interested some but I don’t think the Academy would have appreciated it.
What was the most nerve-racking part of the evening?
It was a commercial break when I was standing next to Kirk, just looking at him, knowing that, you don’t know where he’s going to go with this. You saw, a couple time I went to give him the envelope because there was nothing left on the prompter and I had to pull back…
Now were you standing out there during all of Melissa Leo’s acceptance speech?
I was there the whole time. She turned around at one point and just yelled, “Omar,” and smiled at me. Downstairs, we had a little moment in the changing room, actually. She came in and she was just sitting there and I was like, “Oh, sorry, do you want me to leave you alone?” And she said, “No, whatever, if you don’t mind sharing, I don’t mind.” She’s like, “Are we both here waiting for Omar Sharif?” I said, “No, you’re actually looking at him.” So we got to talking a little bit and she was going to take her shoes off. And I said, “don’t put on ballet slippers, you keep your shoes on. If I was the entire Academy, the decision would be unanimous and you’d win. So you keep your heels on and you be ready just in case.” So when she got onstage, she turned to me, looked at her shoes and yelled my name.
What was your favorite moment of the night?
I think Anne Hathaway is multi-talented and I had no idea she can do everything. And she really can. She can sing, she can dance. In rehearsals, they kept adding and taking out, and they kept improvising, and she, no matter what, always impressed. Also, people who are inspiring standing right in front of you. Certainly Oprah. I got to walk with Oprah and chat with her a little bit. I don’t know, you just realize all these big names are really just real people. Everyone’s super cool and friendly. High-fiving you. Sharing your water. It was pretty awesome.
James Franco, obviously, wearing tights then a dress last night. Could you put it all out there like him?
Absolutely. The point of hosting a show is to entertain. You do whatever you can. It’s not about you. Ego aside, it’s about entertaining. It’s Hollywood’s biggest night.
Switching gears for a second to Egypt — you grew up there, at least part of the time, and now, we’re hearing a lot about human rights issues and, among them, of course, are gay rights issues. What would you want people to know about your experiences there and the situation for people there now?
Well, it was bittersweet being on stage yesterday, just because… I’m having such a great time, it’s such a wonderful experience, and known that so many of my friends and my family are living through such a tumultuous time. That being said, after 30 years… or lets say centuries or millenniums — people are finally standing up and voicing their legitimate claims to self determination. Human rights and equal rights — it isn’t based on religion, based on politics, based on gender. It’s across the board. Actually, the first time I met Bruce Cohen, the producer of the Oscar, was at a benefit for the American Foundation for Equal Rights where Elton John was singing. They raised a substantial sum to fight Prop. 8. Coming from the Middle East especially, I’m mindful of these issues, and it’s not something you get to pick and choose.
Much of your family, including your grandfather, is there, right?
Yes, they live in Cairo. I was just there over Christmas and New Years. My dad comes back to visit often. The situation fortunately is stabilizing. Egyptians really are the friendliest people, the most fun-loving people. Our historical sites are second to none, our beaches are beautiful. Just the splendor of landscape. I hope at the end of the day moderation and rationality win and that stability and civility ensue, and it looks like that’s the direction we’re heading in.
Back to you for a final question — where do you hope your career goes from here?
It’s such a strange question. In the Middle East I was in a couple television shows and films. Now, coming to the West, it’s tough to say. Like I said, I learned English watching The Bold and the Beautiful… my life could go pretty full circle if I ended up on something like that, but all my roles previously were comedic, and hopefully it keeps going in that direction.