In Depth: Navid Negahban
The full transcript of our conversation with ‘Homeland’ star Navid Negahban
RS sat down with Iranian actor Navid Negahban to talk about his career to date, his role as the villainous Abu Nazir in Homeland, and his relationship with his home country. Read the complete transcript of the interview below. The article, as it appeared in Rolling Stone Middle East in September 2012, appears here
Where were you born?
I was born in Mashhad, Iran
What did your parents do?
My dad was a banker and my mum was a schoolteacher.
And you lived in Iran until the revolution?
Yes, I was there until I was 20. It was right in the middle of the war between Iran and Iraq when I left in ’85.
Was it only you that left the country? Did your family stay behind?
Yes. I was the black sheep of the family. I left, I went to Turkey, I lived in Turkey for a while, and then I [eventually moved] to Germany. I lived in Germany for eight-and-a-half years – I got some of my training there. I worked for a theater company there. And from there I moved to the U.S.
Did you stay in touch with your family in Iran?
As much as I could. They would come and visit me. My parents would come and visit me, and every chance that I got, every job that I got that was close to Iran, I went and paid them a visit.
Where did your interest in acting come from?
The first time I was on stage was when I was eight years old in a school play. I was playing this older man, who was marrying a younger couple. I don’t know, I was up there, and I could see how I was able to change the mood of the audience – how I was able to make them laugh. It was like I was in control, and I kind of fell in love with it.
Was acting a popular career choice in Iran?
No, it’s not. When I went to high school my parents wanted me to be a doctor so I studied… high schools in Iran are different. After eighth grade, you’re kind of choosing the direction that you are going. So you study subjects that have to do with medicine, or if you want to be a dentist, or if you want to be a doctor, there’s like a biology course and all those things. For me it was always… I was talking to a friend of mine who is very successful here, and when we were talking, it was when I took him to a set with me, and he said to me, “Navid, I’m very successful in my career, but what I’m doing is not what I wanted to do, and I see that you’ve followed your dream and you’re doing what you love to do.” There were lots of ups and downs, but I’m happy, I’m very happy.
What were your plans when you decided to leave Iran?
I always wanted to act, even when I left that was my dream – I was leaving to become an actor. My journey, I kind of let it happened. I just followed it – I just went with it. Turkey was the first stop because I was trying to get a visa for the U.S., and I couldn’t get a visa for the U.S., so while I was there… You know? My journey was my schooling, because every country that I went to, I tried to find a small hole in the wall – like a black box. Seeing different styles and different techniques: how they were revealing their emotions and how they were portraying it. And it was great. I think that’s what gave me the ability to play all these diverse characters, who are from all these different parts of the world. It’s been good.
When you were in Germany, were you studying in German?
It was in German, and actually it was a little bit difficult because, in the whole theater company, I was the only Iranian – I was the only guy who wasn’t speaking English and German. I remember the first play that I did, I had to write everything down in Farsi. I had to make sure to get the pronunciation right and to be able to deliver my lines. It was a different time, but it was very good. They don’t care where you’re coming from, as long as you could create that illusion; as long as you were able to portray that character, they didn’t care where you were coming from.
What kind of roles were you getting?
Some of the plays were children’s plays. My gosh, the first gig that I got was Sunday In The Park With George, which is a musical, and the only reason that I got the part was because I’m a trained mime. If you’re familiar with the story, George travels through a park and he tells his life story, his journey, and the director was looking for somebody that looked exactly like the main character, able to mimic all his movements, and become him. That was my first gig, and after that I started doing different plays. I did Puss in Boots, I even did Rocky Horror Picture Show [laughs]. Coming from a very traditional family and then running around on a stage almost naked… [laughs]
What did your parents make of that particular role?
I took my dad to see the play, and I put him right in the front row, and I gave him an umbrella, and I said to him, “Dad, I need you to understand something. When you see the person next to you open his umbrella, I need you to open your umbrella.” [laughs]
Were you sad to leave Germany?
Kind of. In Germany, I kind of got lost in the system. It got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m not myself.’ That’s why I left Germany, I was just trying to find my feet again. I felt like I needed the journey, I felt like I needed to move. To move somewhere else and try it. So that brought me to the U.S.
Where in the U.S. did you live when you first arrived?
When I got here I went to San Diego. I went back to college, and I was in San Diego until 2000. It was an interesting journey. I was thrown out of a theater program at college.
A professor pulled me aside and he said to me, “I’d like you to leave my theater company and never come back. And if you ever become famous, I don’t want to know about it.” See, what happened was that I was already somewhat trained after my time in Germany. So I went to college, and I went back to a theater program [in the U.S.] because I wanted to learn the American style; I wanted to get a feel for it. And when I was there, two of the students were doing their finals, and they were having a problem creating the moment. The professor was telling them, “What’s important is your super objective. The super objective is important, you have to have the super objective in your mind, and then go and get there.” And these two, they couldn’t get there, and when they were asking me, I said, “Guys, you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s not important where you’re going to end up. What’s important is where you were before you got here. So why don’t you improvise a few minutes before you get to the scene? And then, wherever you are, just start the scene, and it doesn’t matter where you end up. Because you’re gonna end up where you’re meant to be.” So they were finished and the professor started applauding, and he stood up and said, “Fantastic! Fantastic! See, I told you guys. So how did you get there?” And one of them turned around and said, “Well we couldn’t find our super objective and we asked Navid and he told us that this was the path that we needed to go.”
So what happened after you were kicked out?
Actually, I think that was the best thing that happened to me. Sometimes in life, there are things that are happening to you, and you don’t know the reason behind them. That year, I did a short film called Boundaries. Greg Durbin was the director. He was a professor, a film professor. And I did the film, and it went to Slamdance and won the Grand Jury there. It won numerous awards around the world, and at the Method Film Festival I was nominated for Best Actor. That sort of opened doors for me, brought me to L.A., and introduced me to the film industry here. And that’s how my career got started. And if you look at it, the entire time until 2003, I’ve done three or four projects, and right after 2003, my career started taking off.
What sort of roles were you being offered in L.A.?
Most of the roles that I was getting were actually Arab roles. Playing Arabs, playing Afghanis. Here and there were a few small bit parts where I was playing Italian or Russian. Then when the industry got to know me better, I start getting roles that were just characters. They didn’t care. For example, I did Powder Blue, with Forrest Whitaker and Jessica Biel. On that one, the name of the character is Dr. Brooks. Ronnie Yeskel, who was the casting director, brought me in and I met with the director, Tim Bui. And after I walked out of the room they called my agent and said, “That’s good, we want him.” And they were talking about the name of the character, and they said, “No, it’s Dr. Brooks, it doesn’t matter. We don’t want to change the name of the character. This is our doctor.”
Did you ever get frustrated with repeatedly being offered Arab roles?
I was getting frustrated, but at the same time I was enjoying them. I have friends who are not playing, for example, so-called ‘terrorist characters.’ For me, what’s important is to tell the truth. To portray the character as truthfully as possible. So I work on the projects where I have to sit down and, not argue, but talk with the director and the writers about the characters. This character is not just a villain, this character is a father. This character is a husband. This character might have been a teacher. So I always try to find a hero inside my character. I always try to find the love inside the character and portray that. If you look at my work, even if I’m playing a villain, I hope I’m able to portray layers so that you see the journey. Where the character was, and how the character got there. And I think that’s important. I’m familiar with the culture, I’m familiar with the mentality, I know how these people think, a little bit. But its better for me to take the part and be responsible for portraying the character as truthfully, than letting the part go to someone who doesn’t care about the character and just wants to play the role and make the money, and they don’t care if they’re yelling and killing – that’s good enough for them.
Like the role of Abu Nazir in Homeland, for example?
The first meeting that we had, Alex Gansa and Hal Gordon and the team of writers, they are very… what I like about this thing is that they are very responsible. With everything they write, they are trying to be as honest and as truthful as possible. When I went for the first meeting, and I spoke with Howard and Alex, this character was just one or two lines on the script. Even my agent was telling me, “Why do you even want to do this?” And I said, “You don’t see the potential.” I read the script and I see the depth of this character. And when I had my meeting with Alex and Howard, when we sat down and talked about it, we all were seeing the same thing. We were seeing a man who is struggling to make his point. I just fell in love with this character; he was so fascinating. And the writers are the ones who are giving more depth to this character. I just love it. That’s all I can say. I just love the character.
Is there more in store for Abu Nazir in the second season?
Yes. You will be seeing more… how shall I say it? I also need to be careful [laughs]. Let’s just say that you will see the extent of the web. How spread his web is. And how connected he is, and how all the connections, and all these characters and all these relationships… You will go deeper into the relationships with these characters. You will just see more of his influence.
One of your biggest roles in recent years was Ali in The Stoning of Soraya M. Do you ever have a sense of how big a role might be before you accept it?
It’s a bit of a gamble. With The Stoning of Soraya, it was a huge gamble. Even to this day when I’m going to a restaurant, or somewhere… I had a waitress who walked up to me, and she wanted to get my order, and the moment that I looked up and she saw me, she had tears in her eyes. And I’m sitting there and I have my guests, everybody sitting with me and then she said, “I saw the movie. I just saw the movie.” And I stood up and I hugged her and she said, “I just want to say that I can’t forget that movie.” To me, playing roles like that is important, because it just brings some kind of awareness. We hear about stoning, but we don’t know what stoning is. Most people, they don’t know what’s happening there. To me, it was very crucial as an Iranian. What’s happening in Iran… I couldn’t accept it. To me, there are people who are taking advantage of Islam, and taking advantage of Islamic laws for their own benefit. And I cannot stand it. That happens all over the world – people using religion to control faithful people, and to control other people. That role, I think, was the toughest role that I ever played. I’m thinking about it and I’m just… For six weeks, I lived my life as Ali, as that character. And getting out of that was the toughest part, and I’ll never forget the moment that Cyrus [Nowrasteh, director] called wrap. He said, “Cut, finish, you’re done.” I ran into the makeup trailer and I asked them, “Could you just please shave me? Shave my face, cut my hair, I just don’t want to see this guy anymore.” And that was it.
How do you recover from roles like that?
It’s a good thing that I have good friends around me [laughs]. I don’t know how to explain it, but when I see these characters, I go through a journey, and when I go through the journey, it’s discovering layers inside me, myself. And then, oh geez… I don’t know how to explain it. When I’m coming out of it, I’m sitting looking at it, and some of the characters scare me. I spent time… I try to just kind of put them in a closet and lock the door – “OK that’s it, I’m done with you.” I don’t know, maybe I’m a bit crazy.
And then you take on roles like your voice part in Dead Space
I’m telling you, I did that one right after Stoning. You see, Ali is a very powerful character. When I went to do the videogame, I don’t know, but my head was like a battlefield between all these characters. And I’m standing there, and I’m doing all the movement, and they have all these gears on me. It was motion capture, and it was terrifying. It was terrifying. There are people out there like that. There are people like Ali. It was a little scary.
Do you try to retain a connection with the Middle East?
I try to stay in touch with [my family] as much as I can. I’ve been back a couple of times to Iran, but sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country. I notice so many changes: changes in mentality, changes in the culture, and the way that people are treating each other. Sometimes I feel like a visitor, like I’m passing through. To me, what’s important is that, just because I’ve had to leave a lot of things behind me, just to pursue what I’m doing, I try to create a home in my head, wherever the sky is blue. I’m always in touch with them on Skype, on email. Now you’ve made me homesick.
Do you feel torn between the West and Iran?
Yes. And all I can say is just yes. You know that we shot the first two episodes of Homeland, the second season, in Israel. And when I was there, I was lucky enough to meet some people who were able to take me for a tour around the country. So I went and I saw both sides. I went also to the West Bank and I met with some of the Palestinians, and we sat down and we talked. It was in an area that my guide, who was from the Peace Now organization, said that he wasn’t able to cross the line. He cannot go there. And I said, “OK, fine. Hold onto my backpack.” I took my passport and I took my camera and I went over. When I was there and when I was talking to these people, I took some pictures and I brought the pictures back. And I showed them to my guide and the other members of the Peace now Organization, and I said, “This is what’s happening over there.” They told me, “Navid, we don’t know, because we’ve never seen this. We’re not allowed to go there.” I also had a meeting, I was invited to go and meet President Peres, and when we were sitting down, when we were talking. I said, “All these conflicts, all these problems, as an outsider, when I look at it, I see that there are two brothers who are fighting together about nothing. Because everybody says the same thing. I don’t know, maybe based on a misunderstanding. It’s like a small problem that has never been solved, and it’s become bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and now even they don’t know why they are fighting.” And that’s the same thing with Iran and America. If you look at some of the videos that are coming from Iran, you see how the Iranian people are feeling about America, and how connected they feel, and how similar they are. When you look at the youth of both countries, they like the same things. They style their hair, and they put the make up – if you compare the videos on the street, you see that, if it wasn’t for the hijab, or the attire sometimes, you wouldn’t know where the video is coming from. If the people come together, I think sometimes the government… there are people who are taking advantage of people. What’s that expression? ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Well that’s what’s happening around the world right now. I think its time for people to take control and say “No. We’re done with war, we don’t want it. We’re all the same. Let’s get together.” Maybe that’s wishful thinking, maybe I’m just a dreamer. To me, wherever I’ve been, instead of forcing my own culture on those people, I try to be a respectful guest, embrace their culture, respect their culture and respect the people. And I’ve never had a bad experience.
And that’s something you try to do through your roles?
Definitely. Artists, songwriters, painters, writers – the art community. In the art world, there is no border. It’s like we have our own countries, we have our own world. And in this world there is no difference – all of us are trying to create. We just need to be a little bit responsible about the jobs that we do, and what we are saying. Our fans, the people that are sitting there and watching the TV show, the people who are going to galleries, the people who are going to the concerts, all of them are being influenced by what we are telling them. So for us, we just need to act very responsibly. I’ll never forget, there’s a song that’s always been in my head, and it’s a song that has been with me throughout my journey – it’s “The Wall,” by Pink Floyd. And to me, even when I was in Iran, I was sitting listening to all these words and it was giving me power to be free. We just need to be responsible. This show, Homeland, what I love about it is that that whole creative team, what they’re doing is trying to be very responsible. And they’re raising a question. If you watch Homeland, there is no answer. We don’t give you any answers. What we’re doing is we’re raising a question. What we’re trying to do is to make the audience look inside themselves, and for them to question. Who am I? What am I doing? Am I a good guy? Am I a bad guy? This is the way that I’m thinking. Is this the way that I should be thinking? And we try to tickle that part of the brain, so that you’re watching and you’ll think, ‘Oh my god, I never thought that.’ Why are we not taking responsibility for our actions?
It must be tough to keep some of the details of the show to yourself.
Yeah, but I think that if I reveal anything it’s going to be the end of my career [laughs].
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