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Interview: Ben Youcef

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Ben Youcef is definitely starting to make a name for himself in Hollywood. The Algerian born actor broke onto the scene in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. His performance in Munich landed him roles in films such as Bruno, The Bourne Ultimatum and Body of Lies. Ben has also had memorable performances in hit television series such at NCIS: Los Angeles, CSI: NY and Law & Order.

Currently the multi-talented actor can be seen starring alongside Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson in the inspirational film From The Rough. He is also writing, producing and starring in the independent film The Algerian.

Ben was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss his current projects, being a first time producer and why having mentors is important.

Pop Culture Principle – What was it about the script for From The Rough that made you want to be a part of the project?

Ben Youcef – It’s a true and inspirational story about the first African American female golf coach. It’s about this wonderful woman who recruited these kids who had baggage and many problems in life. She was a tough coach and a mother at the same time, but was able to find a balance between the two. She helped guide us and helped us find our purpose in life. For my character in particular, she helped him find his inner peace. It’s such a beautiful story. In the past I’ve done a lot of roles that dealt with terrorism, so it was refreshing to do something much more inspirational and also a film with a great message. I’m not representing my people in a bad light, so that was a great motivator for me.

Pop Culture Principle – Can you tell us about your character Bassam?

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Ben Youcef – Bassam means smile in Arabic, so there is a wonderful story within the film that the coach will get him to eventually smile. She also made an effort to learn his name which helped him to overcome the wall that he was putting up. He’s a French Algerian and as you may know, there was a war that happened between Algeria and France. France controlled Algeria for over 172 years; we weren’t allowed to speak our language or practice our culture. They had to learn to speak French as their first language. We went through this struggle until the 60s and thankfully, we got our independence. That is the back story with my character and because of that;there is a lot of tension between Algerians in France. My character dealt with this on a daily basis and because of it, he would face his problems by fighting all the time. The coach recruited him to come to America and do what he wanted to do, which is play golf and have a future. He still somehow ended up getting in fights on campus, so it put the entire team in a bad spot. The coach had to vouch for him, because usually would just cut you loose and send you back home. She fought for him and kept him on campus and part of the team. He was able to overcome all that baggage and anger that he had carried with him from France.

Pop Culture Principle – What kind of preparation did you do for the role?

Ben Youcef – I had to learn how to play golf. The truth is I played tennis and soccer competitively, but had never played golf before. I told the casting director that if you give me this part, I will learn how to play golf by the time we start shooting the movie. When they flew us over to New Orleans, I was practicing that weekend for about 8 or 9 hours. By the time we started shooting on Monday, my hand had blisters everywhere, so I had to put white tape on my hands because it was too painful to hold the golf club without the tape!

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Pop Culture Principle – What was it like working with Taraji P. Henson?

Ben Youcef–She was wonderful! With Taraji you didn’t have to do much. Just remember your lines, listen and react; she would do the rest. She treated you as an equal and if you wanted advice or had any questions, she was there for you. Mostly, she treated you very respectfully, and she was very open and kind.

Pop Culture Principle – Did you have a mentor or someone you looked up to growing up?

Ben Youcef – I had some very influential teachers in my past, one of them being Peter Haskell who unfortunately passed away. He was a wonderful teacher who taught me to challenge myself as an actor and I will always remember that. Also, there is a special person in my life right now, Richard Sassin, a retired casting director who knows the business inside and out. He’s been coaching and guiding me to understand the ups and downs of the business. It’s definitely a roller coaster ride with many different challenges. At first, the challenge may be getting a role; then once you start getting roles, you want to grow and not get typecast. It’s a beautiful thing overall. I am working on enjoying the journey, instead of doing it for results. Just enjoying the process makes it more fun for me.

Pop Culture Principle – What do you want people to take away from the film after they see it?

Ben Youcef – That everyone deserves a second chance in life; whether it’s my character or the rest of the characters in the cast. You just have to open yourself up and be available when an opportunity or chances comes to you. I think it’s also about redemption. We make mistakes in life and we want to redeem ourselves so that you can live in peace with yourself. The bottom line is that you have to deal with you. If you are good to yourself, then you can be good to the rest of the world. It’s about finding that inner peace within yourself and then you can be a better person towards fellow human beings.

Pop Culture Principle – Can you talk to us about your latest project The Algerian?

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Ben Youcef–It’s my first experience working on a film in front of the camera and behind the camera; from pre-production to developing the story to finding these wonderful actors who dedicated their time and effort to the project. To be involved in the process from the beginning until the end was very challenging, I have to be honest with you. I didn’t know how tough it was to make a film until I did this project.

It’s a story about a fish out of water. He’s a kid who comes from another country who may not have honorable intentions. He establishes relationships with Americans which makes him question his motives. He starts to open himself up and look in the mirror and face the music. He questions his humanity and finds it within himself to open his heart and understand the concept of what is right and what is wrong.

Pop Culture Principle – How did you come up with the idea for the film?

Ben Youcef – To be honest with you, the whole concept started because of the horrible tragedy of 9/11. There were 19 hijackers that day. There were four plans and 5 people in each except for United 93 which only had four hijackers. I was always wondering was there a fifth person on United 93. What if there was a fifth person which would have been the 20th. It started from that idea. If I was in that person’s shoes and I had relationships with these people that I was supposed to harm; would I see the humanity and realize we all go through the same struggle? Young people are trying to find themselves and sometimes end up in the wrong hands like my character did. What would I do if I had all these people affecting me in my life as a human being, but I still have a mission to finish? I also worked with the co-writer\director Giovanni Zelko to develop the story and make it more current and up to date.

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Pop Culture Principle – What types of challenges did you experience wearing several hats on the project?

Ben Youcef–We had to work in four different locations; we shot in New York, LA, Las Vegas and Algiers. Some of the difficult parts were finding locations and great actors for the film. It was not as easy as I thought it would be. Many actors, including myself, were already working on other projects at the same time and we would all have to find the time to make the film. The director was very open to us and we both were open to the actors if they changed a line because we wanted to get their essence in the story.

Pop Culture Principle – Do you hope to write and produce more projects in the future?

Ben Youcef - Yea, if it’s something that really touches me personally. I’m not one of those writers who can just invent stories from nowhere; I don’t know how they do that. For me, it would have to be something that inspires me.

Pop Culture Principle – Any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

Ben Youcef–Currently I am part of a theatre group called Theatre West. Many of the actors who come to LA from New York are part of the group. We do workshops and plays that keep us sharp as we transition to our next project, it’s a great organization!

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