If it weren’t a true story, it would be too outrageous to be believed. In her best seller Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, Waris Dirie chronicles a life that took her from the Somalian desert to the glamorous runways of Paris and covers of international magazines while enduring homelessness, abuse, and coming to terms with the horror and shame of female genital mutilation, a ritual that persists in many cultures today.
Dirie’s inspiring story comes to the screen in the excellent Desert Flower, from National Geographic Entertainment, starring Ethiopian model and actress Liya Kebede. A striking 5’10” beauty and the first woman of color to represent Estée Lauder, she’s known for small roles in Lord of War and The Good Shepherd, but steps into the spotlight with a career-making performance as the woman who fled an arranged marriage in Africa only to suffer indentured servitude and poverty in London before a photographer (Timothy Spall) discovered her sweeping floors in a cafeteria. She told BET.com why she had to play the role, and what the experience meant to her.
This is your first major role—how much of a challenge was it?
It was scary and wonderful. Just being on set every day was amazing, having an incredible story to tell was amazing. Every time I see Waris I’m in awe because I don’t know how many of us would have done what she did. I want to think I would have, but I don’t know.
Had you known her from the modeling business?
I did not. I did not even meet her before the film. It was on purpose. Sherri [Hormann, director] wanted it that way. I met Waris at a party once, way before, and just briefly. I didn’t know who she was but I remember that she left an impression on me. Then I found out about this casting going on for this incredible story based on her book and I read the book. When I read it I said, “Oh my God, I have to do this.” I did an audition for the casting director and they sent out the tapes. Then Sherri and Peter [Herrmann, producer] invited me to Munich so they could meet me. We did a very long screen test and at the vey end of that Sherri told me I had the role.
Why did you want to do it so badly?
It’s a fantastic story and she’s a fantastic woman. It’s a wonderful journey about first times for everything. She’s experiencing everything for the first time, whether good or bad. I loved her determination to keep moving forward. I loved how she never becomes a victim of anything. She just knows to keep going.
As a model and an African, did you identify with Waris’ journey?
Our upbringings were very different. I grew up in the city. But being African, I identify obviously, also leaving your home to come somewhere new, tackling the fashion world.
Other than reading Desert Flower, how did you prepare?
I did some research on the subject matter. We shot first in Africa, which was wonderful. I go back a lot, I have family there, but it was nice to be in her environment, not the one I know, but hers, being a nomad in the desert and being with the women there. They were so wonderful. I think that was helpful
Did you feel extra pressure in playing a real person, to honor Waris?
At the beginning, yes, I think you feel the responsibility when you play someone who’s real and alive that can come back and haunt you. But then I put it aside and tried to delve into the story.
There were many emotional scenes. Which were hardest for you?
The nude scene was really difficult, but it was kind of amazing because I could imagine how much worse it was for her. They cleared the set but I was still glad when it was over. To Timothy Spall’s credit, he was wonderful and he actually made me feel comfortable. And the scenes with Craig [Parkinson, as the man who marries her to save her from being deported, and later becomes abusive] that got kind of dark were very difficult and disturbing. It stayed with me and really got under my skin. I was prepared for all the other scenes but that one just sort of hit me. You can imagine how many women are in a situation like that, that they can’t get out of.
Has Waris seen the film?
Yes. She’s happy.
Have you become friends?
Yes, we’re close. But she lives in Europe and I live in the U.S., in New York.
You have two children, and like Waris, you’re an advocate for women, and founded the Liya Kebede Foundation for Mothers and Children.
Yes. Maternal health is what I’m focusing on, giving mothers access to basic medical care. It’s worldwide but it’s mostly focused in Africa because that’s where it’s the worst.
Are you still modeling? Or do you want to focus on acting?
I still do some campaigns, but yes. I finished something called Black Gold. It’s going to come out towards the end of the year. It’s based on two books about the discovery of oil in the 1930s in Arabia. I play a Bedouin warrior girl.
Ah, back to the desert!
The desert loves me. I love the desert. It’s nice to be in the heat in Africa. I love it.
Is there a kind of role you’d like to try next?
I want to do action, romantic comedy, and I love drama.
Anyone you’d like to work with?
There’s too many. I’m just starting so there’s a long list!
You also have a clothing line called Lemlem.
It’s hand woven and handmade in Ethiopia by local weavers. Beautiful things; it’s very colorful, very light. We have great scarves and cover-ups, tops. It’s a very unique piece that you’ll have that’s handmade so it’s very special. We do regular seasons but at the same time it’s not seasonal because you can wear it year round. We’re in Barney’s in New York and a lot of other stores and at lemlem.com. We’ll be expanding into more stores. We did some shoes for fall but mostly it’s clothing, scarves, bags.
What did you take away from the Desert Flower experience and what do you hope audiences will?
I learned a lot. I feel like there was an emotional growth for me throughout this filming. I fell in love with Waris. I loved being her, playing her. It was very fulfilling in many ways. I feel when people see this film they will be pleasantly surprised. I think they’ll be laughing a lot, which they may not expect. There’s a lot [of lighter scenes], with Juliet Stevenson, Sally Hawkins. It’s an enjoyable movie where you come out having learned something new, having been moved, having been touched and inspired. It’s a special movie and I think both young and old will appreciate it.
Desert Flower is in theaters March 18th.
(Photo: Fernando Leon/Elevation/PictureGroup)