Interviewed by Eliza Marks
Photos by
Zaid Al Lozi
Styling by
Jad Toghuj
Makeup by
Dala Alhindi

Transcribed and translated by: Hiba Moustafa
Cover design by 
Morcos Key
Cover design assembled by 
Alaa Saadi
This article is part of the “My Hair My Hair” issue

The role of an actor in the contemporary moment extends beyond the stage or set. Self-expression and self-performance play out on screen, in social media feeds, in the news, and in everyday life. At times, it seems like the lines between the professional and personal, the role and person, what is real and what is for show blur together.

Emerging Palestinian-Jordanian actress, Salma Malhas, elegantly maintains her sense of self and professionalism without fear of experimentation or exploration. Born and raised in Amman, Salma first captivated audiences in her debut role as Mira in the Netflix show, Jinn (2019) – the first Arabic-language Netflix original series and the first shot in Jordan. Following its sensational release, Salma found herself in the limelight and her name spread through regional media and laptop screens. This sudden rise left us wondering: What comes next? 

Now living between Amman and New York, Salma continues to develop her style and interests as an actor. We met with Salma on a late summer day to hear more about where she is now. She shared her thoughts on the complexities of self-expression and the importance of self-reflection, the power of theater and navigating social media, and what hair experimentation might allow us to learn about ourselves and others.

Duvet cover matched with vintage silver costume jewelry necklaces. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

To start, can you tell us a bit more about your background? Where did you grow up? What was the general environment? 

I grew up in Amman, Jordan, and had a pretty regular upbringing with two siblings. I was the youngest by a lot, so, for most of my primary, middle, and high school, I was kind of like an only child with my siblings in university.

I went to an international school in Amman. I was a good student but I wasn’t the most amazing or the worse, I was pretty average. The school had a lot of people from the same economic background, with many cultural similarities.

You started acting at a young age! What brought you to the field?

I started, pretty much, because it was fun: being on stage, being in a space where I could express myself and different parts of myself. It was a place to be goofy and play around. It felt like there was a lot of control I could get from being on stage.

I don’t remember how old I was when I started … I started dancing when I was around 6 years old but stopped in 9th grade because of more work in school, and started getting more involved in the theater probably in kindergarten.  

being Palestinian and growing up in Amman, there’s a lot that I want to express. I think that one thing that theater allows for is giving a safe space.

Salma Malhas

Kaftan Designer; Jad Toghuj, dusty pink bralette with “styling with stockings”, pant heels in matching pink. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

We know you are currently studying acting at university in New York. How does the environment around acting and performance art compare, intersect, or overlap with the environment in Amman?

The environment between New York and Amman is very different. There are some things that carry over, like my interests. University has given me a space to broaden my interests and express myself in the theater, and how other people express themselves and their identities. 

Coming to New York has been the first time that I have been around so many people from so many different backgrounds. It’s fun to see how theater gives people that space, because it’s different for everyone. 

My interests are starting to become more evolved and clearer to me.  I’m seeing how interests from high school (when I was super interested in one piece or topic or creating my own piece) are coming back now when I’m thinking about what I want to be doing. I am letting it evolve with what I am learning here and gaining here, and exploring more on those topics.

Also, being Palestinian and growing up in Amman, there’s a lot that I want to express. I think that one thing that theater allows for is giving a safe space. 

Kaftan Designer; Jad Toghuj, dusty pink bralette with “styling with stockings”, pant heels in matching pink. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

How did you find the opportunity to play Mira on the Netflix show, Jinn (2019)? What was that experience like? 

I was in high school and my drama teacher pushed me to audition. I was obviously very hesitant at the start, but I became more inspired and prepared. It was a very long audition process – it took a few months and I waited a lot. But it was worth it.

The experience wasn’t black or white but it had its ups and downs. When people see this experience, some see it as romantic and amazing and others see it as negative. For me, having experienced it, it was positive and negative in different ways. By negative, I mean, it caused me a great deal of pain and suffering. It’s stuff that I continue to carry and manage through every day of my life but it makes me a stronger person every day, which is what’s so positive about it. Like, there are moments when I feel amazed at how much I am able to carry and I go to therapy for that, so I can work through it and continue on my path. 

Can you say more about the character of Mira and how you related to her? 

Mira is very similar to me. The producers and director wanted someone who was similar to the character they were looking to create. She was 17, a teenager growing up in Amman and attending a private school, and she was dealing with issues that a lot of teenage women have to deal with… minus the whole supernatural part. 

Specific to the character, she was struggling to connect to her feminine side because she had lost her mother, and she was trying to connect with her father, too. She was figuring out how to find adult support as she went through a very out-of-the-ordinary experience.  

Second hand 3d-textured top in ivory. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

This show and experience also pushed you into the limelight suddenly and at a very young age. What was this experience like for you, and did you anticipate such a shift? How did this shape your intent to work in arts and culture industries?

When I first started, I had a very one-way idea of where my career would go: I wanted the experience of working in the industry and acting and performing in films and plays. But, as I experienced more, I realized that there is another side to performance that I am also interested in. For example, the ways that theater can amplify marginalized voices – that’s the kind of work that I’m really interested in now. 

The sudden exposure definitely formed me as a person, as did Corona [COVID]. I’m now more connected to myself, and want to be involved but not with the pressure of being front-and-center. 

There was controversy following Jinn’s release, particularly around Mira’s relationship with the lead male character and specifically a kiss, with some calling for the show’s censorship on account of its “immorality” and  “distorting” Jordanian values. More of this outcry seemed directed at you, the actor behind the character than your male colleagues, perhaps revealing a double standard that female actors encounter. Can you tell us a bit about this controversy, the subsequent debate, and/or what you learned from it?

Having this experience at such a young age exposed me to a lot. People were introduced to me as an actor, but I was also exposed to different ways of thinking and backgrounds. At the time, I felt a sense of powerlessness. There wasn’t much that I could do to change how people would see it or see me as a female actress.  It taught me that people can say anything and that I needed to keep doing my own work and continue regardless. 

Duvet cover matched with with vintage silver costume jewelry necklaces. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

This was surely stressful and overwhelming. How did you manage this or find solace amidst everything?

I found a lot of comfort and safety in my family, and within my group of friends. I also found comfort in things that make me happy, like working out, doing yoga,  journaling… All these practices we are told are supposed to be good for you. It was difficult to start, but then I was like “oh yeah, this is good for me!”

A lot has happened since your Netflix debut! On your IG grid, you featured lots of hair experimentation, from leaving it to flow more naturally to shaving your head. It was once said that women should shave their heads once in a lifetime to feel the experience, and most recently Egyptian artist Sherine Abdel Wahab appeared in front of her audience with a shaved head. How did you come to this decision and how did you feel after?  

I decided to shave my head a little more than a year ago. I had this idea after seeing someone on Tik Tok, a female influencer. She had her head shaved, with this amazing makeup and extravagant outfits, and in different videos, she would color her hair pink and blue and green, etc.  Seeing her videos, I thought it was so cool and wanted to do that.

I called my friends and my family and asked if I should do it. Some said no, but many said yes. I decided I would go with it. [Later on, I realized that some of the people who had said yes did not expect me to do it… they maybe thought I was being sarcastic]. I was feeling so fearless, and am so glad that I did.

Vintage plaid micro skirt with 3d textured second hand top in ivory. Styled with 2000s style silver platform heels. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

How did social media open up possibilities or influence your hair decisions? What role has it played as your relationship with your hair continues to evolve?

It’s nice when you post something and you get responses from people, some supporting the decision or just sharing that inspiration. There is also anxiety that comes with it because I’m also exposing myself to many different perspectives. But I’m glad I shared it on social media because I got so many positive responses, and it makes me happy to think about contributing to creating that kind of atmosphere.

In acting and other performance arts, hair and the body are two resources in creating a character and developing a persona. Norms and expectations around image are certainly changing, but what are some of the pressures around hair and body that you or other actors navigate, both in New York and in Jordan? How do these compare with other “real-life” settings?

Being active in the industry, or being someone who is actively auditioning or trying to be more involved, there is pressure to look a certain way or at least sustain a certain look to get certain roles.

I’ve had experiences where I and some friends and people in school have been type-casted by teachers or someone else in the industry. This creates pressure because I feel like I’ve changed and the way I look has changed.  Since coming to New York, I’ve changed a lot physically and also in terms of my interests. That pressure is real.

If people look a certain way, that can come with negative comments when playing a certain role. I haven’t had that experience, but I can imagine how horrible it would be, especially because it’s in a professional setting. 

Vintage plaid micro skirt with 3d textured second hand top in ivory. Styled with 2000s style silver platform heels. Photo by Zaid Al Lozi; Styling by Jad Toghuj; Makeup by Dala Alhindi.

What advice would you give to emerging actors about these pressures?

Always keep your manager or your agent in the loop if you notice something changing. I made that mistake, of not letting people know that I’m doing this thing like shaving my eyebrows… kidding, I didn’t shave my eyebrows. But cutting your hair or coloring it.

That also applies to shifts in interest or types of roles. For me, my interests kept changing, especially because I started young. When I first started out, I had a pretty narrow view of where I was heading, but with time and more experience, I began to see potential paths to success that are even more fulfilling to me. I started out with a lot of excitement and eagerness to enter this world of film and performance, and later I started to see all the ways that this field of work can be toxic to a person. I am trying to find what works for me, by that I mean, what keeps me happy and healthy without abandoning my love and passion for what I do. 

I’m still figuring out what I truly love to do, and, being young, people understand. So telling them that I don’t feel comfortable doing this thing or I just found out that I really love this script and want more like this isn’t a surprise. It’s like finding an apartment!

And last but not least, where are you now? What’s next for you? 

Now, I want to continue my studies and focus on graduating. I’m working on building my portfolio, and on writing and expressing my voice how I want to express myself. And working with people on different projects through school and friends, learning from what they are doing, seeing how I can help, and staying open to being helped. And also my well-being!