Saudi actress Joud Alsufyani on her new show ‘Tahir’s House’ and her love of Korean culture
DUBAI: The best comedy often mirrors real life. When the creators behind “Tahir’s House,” Saudi Arabia’s first Netflix original comedy series, sat down to cast Azizah — the young daughter of the show’s Jeddah-based family — they imagined a girl who in their estimation perfectly represented the next generation of Saudi women. She would be whip-smart and quick-witted, a born leader with a keen eye on the rest of the world. In casting Saudi actress and TikTok star Joud Alsufyani, they got closer than they could have dreamed.
“It honestly felt like Joud was born to play this part,” the show’s director Sultan Al-Abdulmohsen tells Arab News. “We really couldn’t believe it.”
The biggest shock came during the audition. In one scene, Alsufyani’s Azizah was scripted to expound upon her love of Korean culture — its famed export K-pop in particular. Alsufyani was asked if she was familiar with the genre. In response, she began to speak Korean.
“They were shocked, but it’s second nature for me now,” Alsufyani laughs. “At home, half of what I say is Korean at this point. Even my mom will see me wandering to my room holding chopsticks and Korean noodles and ask, ‘What happened to you, Joud?’ I’ll simply say to her, ‘Sorry, Mom, but I’m going to bed’!” Alsufyani says in Korean (translating for us after).
Alsufyani is an encapsulation of the Jeddah Gen-Z set in more ways than just her predilection for Korean culture. While “Tahir’s House,” which debuted on Sept. 6 on the world’s largest streaming platform, may be the moment that the 22-year-old becomes a breakout global star, she, like many of her talented peers, had already found a home for her creative talents on TikTok, where she’s earned over 700,000 followers under the pseudonym Jay Starlit.
As her profile began to rise online, her developing skills as an actor helped her manage the added attention her bedroom-created content was getting.
“On social media, you have to be strong, you have to be confident, and you have to portray a character that everyone is going to love and accept. Of course, there’s always haters on social media, but acting taught me to avoid going crazy from it all,” says Alsufyani.
“Being an actor taught me to talk differently, to react differently. Because of this, I can smile and power through without letting them know what I’m actually feeling,” she continues.
Those emotions don’t bubble up underneath the surface when people criticize her personally, she explains. It’s only when trolls come for those close to her.
“I don’t care if people comment about me. I care only about my family. They’re my safe space, and I’m so protective of them. If my mother is in a video with me, and someone speaks about her, that’s not something I can let go of easily,” says Alsufyani.
That dedication goes both ways. It was her mother who supported her when she landed her first major role in “The Inheritance,” a Saudi soap opera. For two and a half years, Alsufyani traveled back and forth between Jeddah and Abu Dhabi to film, even having to live in the UAE for a long stretch due to the pandemic.
“My mother was always behind me as I pursued this dream. I have a very strict father, so in the beginning he didn’t want me to do it. But after three months he saw how quickly I was succeeding and was OK with it,” says Alsufyani.
As it is for nearly all young Saudis pursuing acting and filmmaking, the industry is uncharted territory for Alsufyani. As families grapple with the changes that rapid stardom can bring, young women like her are finding that their ability to express themselves in a public forum is empowering them in ways they couldn’t have ever imagined before.
“I feel like I’m becoming so powerful,” she says. “Before, nobody could hear my voice. It’s huge for me to be able to put ‘actress’ before my name, especially in my generation. I’m the first actor in my whole family.”
Unlike actors from previous generations, who were mainly influenced by Hollywood, Alsufyani was driven to pursue her passion more due to her fascination with Korean shows that fall under the globally popular K-drama tag, and have a rhythm and a style all their own.
“I was 13 or 14 when I first started watching K-drama, and I was immediately obsessed. Initially, I learned the language just from watching these shows. I had to know everything that they were saying and I started looking things up and figuring it all out,” says Alsufyani.
“The acting style is totally different. In K-drama, they love to make everything extra — extra feeling, extra expression. They have a unique way of showing emotions on their face or with their hands, and I took all of that from them, both consciously and unconsciously. Even how they put their makeup has influenced me,” she continues.
Korean culture, too, has started to have a strong affect on Jeddah on the whole.
“There’s now so many Korean tourists coming here, and a Korean restaurant started by a family who settled here from Seoul. It’s great to see this exchange. It seems like there’s a mutual affinity, and I love to see it,” says Alsufyani.
“I hope that one day I can go there, and act in a Korean drama. That would be my dream — I would love to be able to contribute to the shows I love so much,” she adds.
The set of “Tahir’s House” was a wonderfully supportive environment, where Alsufyani was not only encouraged to share her love of the culture both on camera and off, but also allowed to grow as a performer.
“Everyone there really cared about how everyone else was feeling. I really feel like they took me in and kept raising me. I grew as an actor, and I loved every minute of it,” she says.
She also discovered a new interest while she was on set: directing.
“I always was sitting with the director to figure out every decision he makes, learning about lighting, watching every take on the monitor. I was fascinated by all of it, and I realized I really want to try this myself,” says Alsufyani.
As much as she loves Korean culture, as an aspiring filmmaker herself, she yearns to capture the beauty her first love: the city of Jeddah. She quotes a proverb that says that through thick and thin, Jeddah is always there. She wants to be there for the city — and its emerging talent — too.
“There are so many actors here in Jeddah who haven’t had their break yet, so I hope I can help create that, to show the world that a new generation of actors are coming,” says Alsufyani.
“I have so many things I want to do, and there’s no one template I want to follow,” she continues. “I always say, ‘Never have a role model.’ In this life, you have to become your own role model.”