Interviews with Young Iranians: Omid Abtahi, Actor

We’re pleased to present our first post in the Interviews with Young Iranians Series on In this series, we’ll be talking to young Iranians to watch – they’re doing cool things in their respective fields, and getting noticed for them. One of these is up-and-coming actor Omid Abtahi, who has been a cast member on two network TV shows, has appeared on three others, and has a film career that’s taking off. He took some time out from the set of his latest film, The Last Lullaby, in which he plays an assassin, to answer some of our questions about growing up Iranian, how he picks his roles, and where he’s going next.

Pars Arts: Your first big acting role was as Tariq on the FX show, “Over There.” Was it difficult for you to pick up Arabic? What did you draw from your own Iranian background in shaping the character? That is, how much of Tariq is you?

Omid Abtahi: First off, it was very difficult pick up the Arabic. I spent many hours with an Arabic translator going over my pronunciation, and got to a point where he could actually understand what I was saying. Farsi draws a lot of its vocabulary from the Arabic language, making it easier for me to understand [Arabic]. However, undestanding what I was saying didn’t make the pronunciation part of it any easier. As for Tariq, he was very much like me. I have a brother in the military, and since his time overseas he has grown distant from our family. Doing this show allowed me to relate to his experience a bit, and I hope I made him proud. I love him more than he knows.

PA: I want to talk about “Sleeper Cell.” In stark contrast to your “Over There” work, you play a bad guy – a gay, ex-pat Iraqi terrorist – on the Showtime show, and you’ve had some sex scenes and nudity. First things first: a lot of Iranian actors have spoken out about their refusal or reluctance to play terrorists. What’s your take on this and are there roles you won’t accept? Are you sick of hearing this question, or do you still think it’s relevant ?

OA: Well, I think everyone has a right to pick and choose their roles. For me, the only thing I won’t do are poorly written characters. Other than that, everything is fair game. I enjoy playing dark characters, terrorists or not. It satiates a dark side of me that I don’t allow in my everyday life. And the role of Salim in Sleeper Cell gave me so much to work with as an actor – so much complexity, so much depth, and an opportunity to grow both as an actor and as a human being. I think any actor who can turn down a role like that should hold back on calling themselves an artist.

PA: Homosexuality is still a big taboo for many Iranians (and Americans, and Iranian-Americans), so what were some of the challenges you face(d) with that role? What is the feedback you are getting from the community about this aspect of your work?

OA: Well, playing a homosexual certainly wasn’t easy for me. I had to overcome what little homophobia I had left in order to truly commit to the character. It’s something I am proud of and would share with anyone who cares to watch. Obviously, my parents were not too fond of that aspect of the character, but they still remained very supportive of me through the process. It’s funny, since the airing of Sleeper Cell, I have received my fair share of both hate mail and “love mail,” if you know what i mean. Some from the Persian community. [Editor’s note: The controversial, definitely 18+ and not-safe-for-work clip is on YouTube.]

PA: Let’s talk about, well, your butt: was there much psyching yourself out to get naked on camera? And what sort of feedback are you getting on that, seeing as sex is still a fairly taboo point in Iranian culture, as well?

OA: The nudity part was really not a challenge for me. It’s something I have been free with my whole life. That said, I have been receiving a great deal of compliments from people about how much they liked my backside. Makes all those hours at the gym worth it.

PA: What can you tell us about your roles in the upcoming movies “Space Chimps,” “Ocean of Pearls,” and “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”?

“Space Chimps” was my first attempt at being a voiceover actor. It is an animated feature by the same company that produced “Valiant” and “Happily N’Ever After.” I play a crazy Indian scientist who is in charge are of caring for the chimps. It was a lot of fun to do and I hope to do more of it in the future.

“Ocean of Pearls” was an independent film I shot in Detroit, Michigan. I was the lead in this film, and was in every scene. I played a Sikh-Canadian surgeon who comes to the United States to practice medicine and is exposed to the flaws in the American health care system. It was a very grueling filming process that took a little over a month but was well worth it.

“The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh” was another independent film, produced by Michael London (producer of “Sideways” and “The Illusionist,” among other films). It had a star-studded cast, with the likes of Jon Foster, Sienna Miller, Peter Sarsgaard, Nick Nolte, and Mena Suvari. That film marked the first time I played a Persian character, albeit a gay Persian character. This role gave me an opportunity to test out my comedic talents. My character, Mohammed, was a flamboyant, out-of-the-closet, fun FOB. With a thick Persian accent and over-the-top costumes, I had a lot of fun bringing this character to life from the script and the novel the film is based on.

PA: You grew up in the OC and now you live in LA, both places which are home to big Iranian communities. I’d venture to say you have quite a bit of experience, as an actor, negotiating the multiple identities you take on when you play different characters, which is, in a way, a parallel to what happens for many immigrant kids. as they learn to assimilate and make choices about how to do that. How has your experience growing up an Iranian-American shaped your acting, if at all?

OA: Growing up Iranian in America quickly taught me that I was different from most of my peers. And it was those differences that I embraced that allowed me to be both a unique person and a unique actor. I love being Iranian. I am very proud of our culture and our people and am not shy about sharing it with others.

PA: Finally, just from your experience growing up in Southern California, what do you see as some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Iranian community there?

OA: I think the strengths of our community far outweigh our weaknesses. We are a very caring, loving, and nurturing culture. However, I feel we have a tendency to be too materialistic and too concerned about our appearances. But that’s a stereotype that’s already out there. It’s just sad that it’s true. I usually find all Iranians I run into very loving, and that is a quality I most enjoy about our people.

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did he really use the word “satiates” ? Great interview, although his answer to the Salim question is condescending, the reason other Iranian actors have turned down the role of a terrorist is because they didn’t want to perpetuate a stereotype not that they were unable to perform it as he implies.

Maybe that’s something that doesn’t affect him since he grew up in OC, or maybe that’s too much to ask from an actor. Or maybe that’s what he really believes.

25 Jan 2007, 2:27am
by Sepideh

Yes, he used “satiates.” :)

I think that what he means when he’s referring to people turning down “a role like that” in the question about terrorist roles has more to do with what he saw he could gain (“an opportunity to grow both as an actor and as a human being”) by playing that specific character which he saw as complex. I don’t think the answer is referencing terrorist roles in general and I don’t think he necessarily means other actors can’t perform. Though I’m not him and obviously can’t speak for him, this was my interpretation of his answer.

I agree with you about the perpetuation of stereotypes. I can’t think of one Iranian actor (off the top of my head) that hasn’t played a terrorist role – even Shohreh Aghdashloo played a terrorist housewife in 24. I’m not sure if this is more a reflection of the actors themselves or just reflective of the roles available to them – probably a bit of both in varying degrees, depending on the actor.

14 Mar 2007, 1:10am
by Christine

Yes, Omid you are a unique actor. No one is as beautiful and sexy as you. I fell in Love with you when you played Tariq. Your Eyes are more beautiful than the stars and your Lips are pure sensuality.I my dreams you are mine and I like to kiss you all over.Too bad it is not reality.
How to you feel about the controversy between the Bush Ad. and Iran? Does that affect you?
Love you always!

3 May 2008, 12:21pm
by Rebecca

Thank you very much for this interesting interview ;)


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