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Liya Kebede's Starring Role

Liya Kebede on her new film, “Desert Flower,” which opened this week in France.

Liya Kebede in a scene from “Desert Flower”
Liya Kebede and Waris Dirie

Liya Kebede and Waris Dirie

Photo By Desert Flower Filmproductions

Liya Kebede has become an expert in Somalian regional dialects.

During filming on her new movie, “Desert Flower,” which opened Wednesday in France, the Ethiopian actress and model spent hours working with coaches on her lines, but quickly discovered each area had a different take on the language.

“Depending on which city we were in, we had different people coaching me and every time there was a different person, they were telling me different things,” she recounts. “In the end, I was so confused!”

No matter: to foreign ears, Kebede comes across as utterly credible in the role of Waris Dirie, the goatherd from Somalia who rose to fame as an international model and activist in the fight against female genital mutilation.

The movie, an adaptation of Dirie’s autobiography, is directed by Sherry Hormann and co-stars British actors Timothy Spall and Juliet Stevenson. It is Kebede’s first leading role, following small parts in “Lord of War” and “The Good Shepherd.”

“When I found out that I had the role, I felt excitement mixed with ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’” Kebede recounts between nibbles on a macaroon in a Paris hotel suite. But she rapidly settled into the part. “It was intimate and we all really connected, especially around a story like this, that was so precious to all of us.”

Kebede only met Dirie on the last day of shooting. “Even though there is this huge responsibility when you’re playing someone who’s alive, it was nice of her to give us the freedom to interpret the story,” she says.

From neighboring countries, the two women share similar cultures, although female circumcision was something Kebede had only heard about. “I grew up in the city, so it’s something that I knew happened, but I guess it never really touched me that much,” she confesses.

Female genital mutilation is only one of the issues that she tackles as World Health Organization (WHO) goodwill ambassador for maternal, newborn and child health. “Maternal mortality is really second only to HIV as a killer of women in Third World countries, which I don’t think anybody knows,” she says. “Women who are circumcised actually also have a higher risk of death in childbirth.”

Kebede campaigns for health care through her own foundation, while the film is being supported by PPR’s Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights, which hosted a screening of the movie during Paris Fashion Week to raise money for charity projects in Mali. Kebede is working on a number of new film projects, and says she was even ready to learn another foreign language, if required.

“I would love to spend six months learning martial arts, flying through the sky — in Chinese!” she says with a laugh.