Mila Al Zahrani – Tenacity and Talent

Saudi actress Mila Al Zahrani is challenging conventions and changing the narrative one role at a time.

Mila Al Zahrani – Tenacity and Talent
Louis Parks

In contemporary Middle Eastern cinema, few figures have emerged as vividly as Mila Al Zahrani (Instagram) in recent years. A trailblazer for Saudi women on the silver screen, Al Zahrani has navigated her career with a blend of tenacity, savvy, and a deep commitment to female empowerment. 

Curious about the application of technology and how it could solve the world’s problems, in her early years, Mila Al Zahrani was initially drawn to a career in computer science, something far, far from the glitz of the red carpet. Fascinated by the wide-ranging solutions technology could offer, Al Zahrani envisioned herself at the forefront of teams solving real-world problems through programming and innovation at institutions like KAUST in Saudi Arabia. However, her path took a dramatic turn towards the arts, after a director saw her on social media, “I participated in a casting just for fun, actually, nothing serious. And it was through this that they discovered this talent and skill I had. And this was how I discovered the love I have for acting,” she says.

jewellery, BOUCHERON. dress, BALENCIAGA

Al Zahrani sees technology as a “facilitator”, or a tool that enhances our understanding and development of at acting, drawing, and music. This belief is crucial when attempting to understand Al Zahrani’s story so far—not only does she use technology to educate herself, more importantly, she sees it as a great leveller, opening up areas of  study that might not previously have been accessible to all. And, in a way, that’s what Al Zahrani does with her acting – she champions the cause of women from Saudi and across the region through her choice of films, opening up representation and vision for those who have been under represented,

“Innovations today, like ChatGPT, enable people like me, and even younger, to not just learn more about art online, but to train on their own, independently, and to pursue the passion we have for art,” she says. “I use technology to educate myself on everything around my passions… videography, art… whether it’s using various applications, or using ChatGPT. I’m fascinated by the way that technology can help me develop these skills and teach me new things as well, things that I don’t necessarily have on hand,” she says.

jewellery, BOUCHERON

Therein lies the power of technology, and it aligns with Al Zahrani’s own take on power: The relentless pursuit of goals, irrespective of the challenges that lie ahead. Power, to Al Zahrani, is about making bold choices and using every available tool to forge ahead, a philosophy she has applied from her earliest roles to her latest projects, “Take the risky decisions, you know, regardless of your fear, to overcome, continue on the path, take these decisions, take these challenges with the aim of reaching the goal that you want to reach,” she says.

Following her initial casting, Al Zahrani’s acting career quickly blossomed as she found herself drawn to roles that resonate with strength and resilience, characteristics she naturally embodies. Her first significant break came with the TV show “Boxing Girls”, where she played a young woman defying the traditional boundaries set for female athletes in the Middle East, “Even before I got it, I had spent months and months preparing for the role and the character,” she says. She shot “Boxing Girls” in 2018 and it aired the following year. From there, things began to fall into place.

Mila Al Zahrani X YUNG
jewellery, BOUCHERON. shirt, blazer, pants, DOLCE & GABBANA

“While I was filming “Boxing Girls”, Haifaa Al-Mansour, a famous Middle Eastern director, who’s strong on female empowerment, got in touch. She’s known for breaking the stereotypes around females in the Middle East, and their acting careers. She recognized me as a new fresh face in the acting scene, in cinema, and was very interested,” she says. The project? 2019’s “The Perfect Candidate”, in which she’d play another strong character. The film landed her at the Venice Film Festival and marked her as a rising figure in international cinema. In it, she plays a doctor who stands for a local election in Saudi, having grown tired of the corruption she sees all around her. Another role, another strong female lead, albeit one very different from “Boxing Girls”. 

Venice was an incredible experience for Al Zahrani. The film was selected to compete for the Golden Lion, and while it didn’t win, it was still high praise, especially given the leading actor’s lack of experience. “It was such a shock initially, it was shock to the point of disbelief,” she says, laughing. “I had only been in the industry for a year. You could tell that I was in disbelief while I was on the red carpet… on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival!” She might not have chosen acting as a career, but she’s certainly turning heads with her portrayals of remarkable women.

Mila Al Zahrani X YUNG
Mila Al Zahrani X YUNG
jewellery, BOUCHERON

Her next project, when it comes to film at least, is something that she can’t really talk about in that much detail. “I just finished, I just wrapped up shooting a huge film, a film that I’ve been working on for the past two years. And if it airs in the next year, people will get to see why I think it’s the most exciting thing I’ve done so far,” she says. The excitement in her voice is clear to hear, filling the air with an infectious enthusiasm. 

She’s sketchy on the details. Without going into the plot, “It’s a film that is so vast, so wide, it speaks about different elements of society, from small to large. So it tackles a bunch of different topics and different societal struggles and elements that exist within the Middle East. I’m proud of it, I want to shed light on some things and help the rest of the world understand,” she says. 

Mila Al Zahrani X YUNG
jewellery, BOUCHERON. dress, SAINT LAURENT. heels, STYLIST’S OWN

Beyond the screen, Al Zahrani has taken on the mantle of a cultural ambassador for Parisian jewellery house Boucheron and she sees the role as a platform to challenge and change the stereotypical views of Arab women. Through her roles and public appearances, she aims to convey the richness of Saudi culture and the evolving status of women in her society, to “break any kind of boundaries or limitations or misinterpretations that existed between the two [the Middle East and the West], and further introduce Saudi to the world,” she says. “It’s a major step in my career, and an absolute honour to be considered amongst one of the first Middle Eastern ambassadors for such a global brand,” she says.

Looking forward, Al Zahrani has no intention of resting on her laurels and her dedication to supporting others extends beyond her work in front of the camera. She is just starting to develop a community platform for artists in the Middle East through which they can collaborate, share, and grow together. Still in its infancy, it’s intended to nurture a supportive environment for young talents in the arts, ensuring they have the tools and mentorship necessary to succeed. Watch this space.

Mila Al Zahrani X YUNG
jewellery, BOUCHERON. blazer, pants, DEL CORE

Al Zahrani’s commitment to female empowerment is clear to see, as is her inspiration. A mother since the age of 19, when she’s not on set, she pours her energy into her daughter. “I’m a super proud mum and I’m proud of my journey and the fact that I became a mum at a very young age, everything happened for a reason, because having my daughter so early also matured me at a very young age, and taught me things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” she says. “If it wasn’t for my daughter, I wouldn’t have been as determined as I am to continue in my career path, despite the difficulties, because she gave me a reason to continue doing it, and a responsibility to fight for it, knowing that I had something to come back to and someone to take care. I don’t know if I would have had the strength and bravery and boldness to continue in this career path, if I hadn’t have had my daughter,” she says.

Her advice to young women looking to break into the media is reflective of her own journey: Be bold, embrace technology and the access and opportunities it brings, and don’t shy away from seeking support. “Be very brave and bold in the decisions that you take. Even if they involve risk, even if they involve fear, make these decisions boldly,” she says. “Lean towards technology and social media and production companies and websites, these will encourage you to connect with the right people and will educate you on what it is that you need to learn.” Education, perseverance, tech, the journey and story of Mila Al Zahrani (so far) is one of empowerment and what you can achieve if you’re willing to fight. 

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