This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I want to try everything.” Rosaline Elbay tells me about the types of roles she wants to explore over Zoom from her New York apartment where she currently resides, adding that the job’s eclectic nature still excites her most after all these years. “I like the idea that maybe my favorite role is one I can’t even conceive of now. Like it’s something that someone will write in a few years and maybe give me a chance to do.”
Over the past couple of years, the Egyptian actress has explored vastly different acting roles, from Amani, Ramy’s cousin (and lover), on Hulu’s eponymous Ramy, to the lovelorn Hollywood star Samira, on Kareem Fahmy’s off-Broadway play Dodi and Diana.
Elbay adds, “That’s why I love doing stage so much, especially because I come from a UK stage background. There never really felt like much of a barrier in terms of what I could play or the types of roles I could be cast in.”
This time, she’s tackling a different kind of character on Netflix’s newest heist series. Kaleidoscope is Netflix’s second try at interactive work after Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’, with its nonlinear storytelling allowing audiences to watch the series’ eight episodes in any order they please. The series revolves around Leo Pap (Giancarlo Esposito) and the team he leads to carry out the heist of the century worth 7 billion dollars. Elbay plays Judy Strauss, the genius explosive specialist of the crew, and wife of Bob Goodwin (Jai Courtney), the safecracker who’s less of a genius.
She speaks about her last year, “It was a lot. We started filming Kaleidoscope in June 2021 and finished in April 2022. It was such a nice environment to spend ten months in, and I think I took it for granted that I saw my friends daily. A few months after that, I did Dodi and Diana with Peter Mark Kendall, who plays Stan on Kaleidoscope and is also one of my best friends, so it was nice to go back to the theater with someone that I trust so much – which I was very scared of because it had been five years.”
Elbay was actually the first cast member to be confirmed for the show. “I went back and forth to the office and the sets while waiting for all the other casting confirmations. I knew, unofficially, who was being negotiated with, but I wasn’t supposed to know. So I was sitting on my hands, being like, ‘Oh my God, please, please, please.’ Then with each confirmation, I would be like, ‘Oh my god.'”
We bond over our love for the Kaleidoscope cast, and I mention Tati Gabrielle’s performance as Hannah, Leo’s daughter, “You just can’t not be in love with Tati!”
In the summer of 2021, she was asked to do a Zoom audition with the show’s creator, Eric Garcia, and casting director, Julie Schubert. “One of the scenes they made me do was the scene at the top of the ‘Yellow’ episode where I’m getting Bob out of jail, and on the page, she wasn’t written as Southern, but something in my head was like, no one from New York is gonna say pardon my French.” She laughs, “No New Yorker is going around apologizing for swearing. So, something exploded in my brain, and I was like, she’s from Louisiana. Then I did the audition in that accent. The problem is you can’t see people’s reactions on Zoom, or whatever they’re laughing at, so I was doing it in the void, and I was like, they’re either going to love this, or I’m never going to work again.” Eric Garcia loved her hilarious impression in the audition too much that he started laughing as soon as they turned the cameras back on.
While discussing our favorite parts of the show, Elbay brought up the ‘Green’ episode, which included one of my favorite moments. In one scene in particular, Judy sneaks a bunch of SIM cards disguised as fake nails into jail for her boyfriend, Stan. “Isn’t it wild? Our head of makeup, Todd Kleitsch, who’s a genius, designed them and also figured out exactly how much glue to put on them so that they would do the thing but not look wonky beforehand. The thing is, Judy has to do so much hand acting, hacting, if you will, with her chemicals and whatnot, and I’ve never been so self-conscious about what my hands look like and how precisely I’m going to move with the cameras at different angles.”
It’s difficult to talk about heists without mentioning the Oceans movies, so I ask her about her dream Oceans cast, to which she justifiably says she would want to cast all her friends but then boldly sets a self-imposed rule that she won’t do that for the sake of the game, so she can really dive into her dream team.
“Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, because they did very well the first time they were together in The Mummy. You know what? Let’s bring John Hannah too, and we’re going to have a great time. Michelle Yeoh, obviously. She can do everything. She can beat people up and emotionally manipulate them into doing everything we want. Pedro Pascal, Lupita Nyongo, and Dolly Parton.” So, if any production companies are listening, this is our official pitch.
Elbay exudes a deep and genuine love for cinema. She sees herself as a spectator before an artist. We get to talking about the film industry. If she wants to explore the medium soon, she shares, “I think it’s a very exciting time and also a terrifying time to be in film and streaming because who knows what the future holds. There’s a new space being carved out for the sort of like, middle-budget films again. At some point, it felt like you could only do Marvel, or you could do independent, and there is nothing in between, and I feel like we’re starting to find a different way of doing that, and it’s been fun to see. I think it’s nice to move past the conversation of it being either or; one medium doesn’t have to kill the other. They can work in tandem.”
Having this conversation with someone who comes from a similar background to mine was fascinating. It prompts the question of accessibility. “I always come to this conversation, maybe with a slightly different background to a lot of my friends here who see the conversation purely through an American lens, which is valid. However, I grew up somewhere where not all movies would make it to the theater; the only chance you had to see something before streaming was torrenting stuff, and you better believe that I was torrenting everything, and I have no guilt about that.” Elbay says (and insists that it stays on the record.)
“I always think of accessibility from two perspectives. I think of it from the perspective of someone living in a country, for example, where they might not have access to film, but I also think of it from a disability perspective. I have a brother who uses a wheelchair, and it is difficult for him to go and sit in a movie theater for an extended amount of time for various reasons. I’ve seen how readily accessible streaming has helped and suited him and how much agency it gives him in terms of what he watches and where.”
“So I think the answer is never to do away with the scary new medium. This is a new medium that is obviously in a teething period. Still, we’re trying to adjust to it, but there is a way to incorporate it within the existing world of screening. I think what we found is that people are still going to the movies because they love going to the movies. So if anything, this might be an opportunity to look into serving cinema spaces and making sure that those screens are great screens and that sound is great so that you are offering people something that is very different from what they get at home and then there’s more incentive to go and see the thing.”
Elbay personally loves going to the movies more than anything, and her eyes sparkle when she speaks about her current favorite movie, “ I’m never going to stop going on about Everything Everywhere All At Once. I’ve become like a Jehovah’s Witness for that film. I am just going around saying, if you haven’t seen it, we can’t relate to each other on a cellular level. I already miss leaving the theater and feeling the way I felt after watching it.”
“I also saw The Banshees of Inisherin recently. Martin McDonagh is a genius, but also, the cast is just, right here” She holds her hands to her heart. ”I love Martin McDonagh’s plays, and for the people who only know his films, it was the closest to his stage work, so it was so amazing to get to see that in the theater with the vistas because usually when you’re on stage, you have a description of like, what the Ireland he’s talking about looks like but offstage, you get to see it thaw, you realize that it was meant to be seen on that scale.”
Hearing Elbay talk about art, you’d immediately know that she’s a woman who’s passionate about many things. Acting, activism, and art don’t even begin to cut it. I ask her about the paintings that she posts on her Instagram. Her paintings, from an outsider’s view, always looked very warm and personal to me, primarily because she draws women a lot, so I ask her about her art process in acting and painting and whether she gets inspiration from the same place or if they’re both different cathartic outlets.
“It’s funny that you’re saying this because this is my living room right now.” She flips her laptop around to show me a couple of unfinished paintings.
“I think it probably comes from the same place. I’ve discovered in therapy over the past couple of years that I feel restless if I don’t feel like I’m creating or contributing something to the world, regardless of its value, but I have to be making something. When I’m acting, it’s easier because I have the thing I can focus on, but during those periods in between, it’s painting and writing that saved me. As an actor, if that’s the only thing you’re doing most of the time, you’re at the mercy of whoever’s going to call you in for a role and what the schedule is unless you’re fortunate. You don’t get to plan your life or plan when giving creative output. I paint women a lot, which probably means I’m thinking, ‘Can we give women a bit of an easier time? Please? In general? A little bit?’ Also, all of it comes from my mom. I know she wishes I painted more.”
It’s undeniable how activism and feminism are what Elbay cares about deeply, especially if you follow her on social media. This is something that prompts online discourse about artists using their platforms to speak out. I asked her if she ever thought that was something that could have an adverse effect on her career.
“Oh my God, are you in some female rage right now?” She says, and I feel immediately seen. “I don’t really think about it in terms of my career. I think that I tweeted something before, I can’t remember how I phrased it at the time, but I got furious because there was a guy who was in my DMs giving me advice and being, ‘Don’t say this and that for your career,’ and I was like, ‘I’m a woman all the time, and I’m only an actor sometimes.’”
“But I have been wary of how it can psychologically and physically affect us and what it means in terms of our life, longevity, and burnout. Because one thing I think about social media, and it’s something that I’ve been reflecting on my parents sometimes, is that it can trick you into sometimes thinking that you’re having a conversation, which is not what’s happening most of the time, depending on your reach. The human brain is not designed to have a conversation with thousands of people at once. It’s just not how stuff goes. Especially on a medium like Twitter, where you have a certain number of characters or information silos or the use of like bots, and it’s not an even playing field.”
“So, I think, and I’m still figuring this out for myself, about how we can use our platforms in a way that is meaningful, and is strategic and is actually helpful? I think that sometimes when we’re talking about activism or what I want to use my platform for, it’s not for myself a lot of the time, and in that case, getting bogged down in personal stuff, how someone is reacting to me personally, is not going to help the causes that I’m trying to advocate for. It will not change that person’s mind either because that person didn’t come to Twitter to have their mind changed most of the time.”
When I ask about her future plans, she hilariously describes herself as an “unbaked egg.”
“I’m figuring out my life. But I love theater as an actor, so I always want to be able to come back to it. If I could do theater for the rest of my life, I’d be very happy. On the other hand, I’m really enjoying exploring film and screen from the perspective of a producer and a writer and the agency that gives you, especially as a person of whatever minority background who’s trying to carve out a space in the industry. I found that to be really, really fulfilling over the past couple of years.”