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Love on the Nile: Cairo Time

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig circle around each other sensually in Ruba Nadda's picture postcard of a movie.


Cairo Time: Patricia Clarkson & Alexander Siddig


In Canadian writer/director Ruba Nadda’s feature debut, Cairo Time (TFF 2010), grown-ups Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) and Tareq (Alexander Siddig) do not “meet cute,” bicker with underlying flirty tension, or finally consummate their courtship in a montage of roses, sex, and fireworks. Instead, they are two adults who meet, find themselves attracted to each other after developing a friendship based on mutual interests—including the city of Cairo, whose Nile River and stunning pyramids provide an idyllic and languid backdrop—and then figure out what to do (or not to do) about that attraction. It’s a romance of the highest order, and a chaste one at that. Still, the two manage to smolder on their walks around the city, and the chemistry between them is erotically electric: you want them to act on it, even though by all accounts Juliette’s husband Mark is a wonderful man, one whom Tareq deeply respects as a friend and colleague.
But let’s not worry about Mark just yet. First, let’s watch as Juliette visits Cairo for the first time, finding herself in a sumptuous hotel room that straddles the magnificent river. Tareq is enlisted as her tour guide as her husband is delayed on business across the border in Gaza, and he shows her the ins and outs of the old city: hookahs and coffee bars, handmade rugs and a traditional Middle Eastern wedding.


Cairo Time: Patricia Clarkson & Alexander Siddig


Clarkson is what they now call “a woman of a certain age,” and she has built up an impressive resume of supporting roles in movies big (The Green Mile, Shutter Island) and small (The Station Agent, Whatever Works, Lars and the Real Girl). She was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2003 for the charming Pieces of April. So at 50, it’s nice to finally see her in a lead role that accentuates her beauty and her talent, and it was refreshing to discover her counterpart Siddig (a British actor mostly unfamiliar to me, though fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will recognize him as Dr. Bashir) as a Middle Eastern character free from the criminal stereotypes to which we’ve become sadly accustomed. (Fun fact: Siddig’s maternal uncle is, marvelously, the iconic actor Malcolm McDowell.)
At a recent roundtable interview, Clarkson talked about taking the film to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival last fall, being both smart and lucky in selecting roles to play, and falling in love with the city on the Nile.


Cairo Time: Patricia Clarkson

What did you like most about Cairo?


Patricia Clarkson: What I always like about a place: the people. Other than the Nile at night, I liked them. I was the only American on the set—everyone else was either Canadian or Egyptian—and I didn’t know how they would react to me. It was a beautiful experience, getting to know the city and the people who live there.


I was there for seven weeks, and I feel like I lived a whole life there, like I had a secret existence. It was this whole set piece in my life. Sometimes when you’re shooting, you don’t get to take in a city. But because Cairo is the 3rd lead of this film—it is a major character in this film—I really SAW. And I would sit in places all day, for long periods of time, and I would get to take it all in, and get to know the people. It was a remarkable moment in my life.


Anything specific?

PC: One extraordinary night, we were out on the Nile, the sun was setting, the Pyramids were in the background, these gorgeous party boats that they are kind of famous for—these beautiful 2-level boats that have colorful lights that reminded me of Mardi Gras floats—so it was like I was in the Nile with Mardi Gras, and it was very moving to me. I was in this very foreign country, and yet New Orleans was present—it was an odd and extraordinarily beautiful moment for me.
Cairo Time: Patricia Clarkson & Alexander Siddig


What did you find most challenging?


PC: It is a very dense city, a city of 20 million people. No streetlights—everybody walks out into moving traffic. I’ve never seen anything like it: with children, babies, they walk right out. They have such trust in their fellow man—it’s remarkable! [laughs] I’m not that trusting of my fellow man. It was challenging—there is “Cairo time.” Everything is a negotiation, everything takes time. Like, “Can I have a cup of coffee?” People disappear for 10 minutes… I’m thinking, “Wow, this is going to be a great cup of coffee! Okay!” And then the come back, and they say, “Oh! Your coffee!” and then they disappear again. [laughs] Arrgggghhhh! We’re New Yorkers! Everything is slow, liquid, languid, and yet it’s this dichotomy of this fast-paced, dense, loud city, but yet, there’s an internal calm in many of the citizens. It’s just… it’s Cairo Time.
Can you talk a bit about your time in Doha? Taking the film to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival?


PC: Well, that was a remarkable time, to be at that inaugural film festival. We are so thankful to Geoff [Gilmore, CCO of Tribeca Enterprises]—we love Geoff—for championing this film the way he has. And the Qataris really embraced the film. It was the closing night selection, with 3000 people outside on the lawn in Doha, and Sir Ben Kingsley was there. He came up and made a point of telling me how much he loved the film, and he said, “3000 people. No one left.” [silent cheer!]


It was, again, a different culture, a different space, but we were treated so well in Doha, I don’t even know where to begin. We didn’t want to leave. We were in the W Hotel, in our “Wow” suites, as they call them [laughs], and they were!
You want to know about the most beautiful part about what I got to do in Doha? The Emir [H.H. Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani] there gave an extraordinary, EXTRAORDINARY amount of money after [Hurricane] Katrina—and I’m a native New Orleanian—he made an exceptional donation to the people of my hometown, and I got to thank him in the press conference, which was a highlight for me. It was incredibly moving and powerful to be there, and I was thankful for that.


Cairo Time: Ruba Nadda  Cairo Time: Alexander Siddig


Can you tell us a little about working with Ruba? How did they two of you collaborate in connecting the story with the ambience of the city?


PC: Ruba and I are very similar people: we’re both wired for sound, we’re workhorses, we’re both incredibly passionate. When we came at this, oddly, very calm, introspective, internal, elegant, lovely woman, Juliette, I made it very clear to Ruba: “There are aspects of me, Patricia, in this character, but I am not this character. And I want to make sure that I become Juliette, that I play your character, I don’t take the easy road and make her me.” There will be parts of me in her, of course, but I have to shift. I said, “You have to help me, and you have to be my watchdog.”


So we had lengthy discussions—Ruba doesn’t like to rehearse, I don’t like to rehearse, and thank God [Siddig] didn’t like to rehearse—and we spent a lot of time together, and a lot of thought went into this character and the film before we started shooting. [Figuring out] just exactly how to chart these infinitessimal shifts that she makes are really difficult for an actor—we like bells and whistles, we like funny noses and wigs, and the high emotions and the low. It’s very hard to just sit.
Is there a difference between a male director and a female director, in light of what this film was?
PC: Talent is talent, and talent is genderless. But yes, I think Ruba and I didn’t have to even complete our sentences when we were talking about Juliette. We just knew.


Cairo Time: Patricia Clarkson & Alexander Siddig


We’ve seen you in so many and so varied character roles. How do you choose your parts? Is it partly luck?
PC: Yes, very much so. You do have to be lucky in this business, and I think I’ve had some very good luck. But I also think work begets work, and I think every director that gives me a job, it means that some other director may give me a job, because they see something in a character I do. So every opportunity creates potentially another opportunity. I have been offered—and maybe I’m just smart enough to see a part and say, yes, let me do that. There are things I’ve passed on that I think people have found shocking, and there are things I don’t get offered that I’m like, “Oh, I would have liked to do that.”
But for the most part, I get offered really beautiful things, and I’m lucky that directors that I don’t know, that I’ve never met, often come to me… or someone has written something for me. I didn’t know Ruba at all, and I didn’t know that she had me in mind for this part. I just was lucky.
Are you interested in doing comedies?
PC: Well, I’ve done Whatever Works! It doesn’t get any—I mean, that’s a delicious part. Woody is the master, and for me to get to play—comedic parts for women of a certain age are few and far between, I mean, very few and far between, unless they are some sort of eeky woman with a whip and a chain, and really not funny. I love doing comedy—I think some of my friends view me more as a comedienne, but I make a living doing drama. A very good one. [laughs] But if I had my druthers… No, dying’s easy, comedy’s hard. Comedy is brutal.
You were hilarious in that Saturday Night Live digital short.
PC: Oh. Motherlover. [smiles]


For more with Ruba Nadda and Alexander Siddig, check out Elan: The Guide to Global Muslim Culture.


Read about the film's U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.


Cairo Time opens Friday, August 6, both in theaters and on demand. Find tickets.


Watch the trailer:



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