The following is a transcript of the TSAML show on Faran Tahir. It was narrated, interviewed and hosted by TIM Editor-in-Chief Amina Chaudary.
FARAN TAHIR: It was a hard one, I had to go back many times, I think six times, the final time they actually built a set and I read with Robert Downey Jr, and we did the same scene, I think nine different ways because they wanted to see if there was chemistry between the two of us
So, I remember walking into that audition, the final one with Robert and we were standing outside, and he said, do you want to go over the lines, I said, let’s do that so, we went over the lines couple of times and he said, look, you know, we are going to go in there and they are going to tell us to do a lot of stuff. So, I am just telling you that if you need to throw me against the wall or if I need to throw you against the wall, let’s just do it, let’s have fun and we can apologize and hug each other when we come out.
It was a grueling you know, audition process.
NARRATOR: Faran Tahir is fast becoming a well-known actor in Hollywood. His parents were both actors in Pakistan. They both met and fell in love and just after getting married earned full scholarships to study theatre at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Faran would be born in LA but when his parents completed their studies they moved the family back to Pakistan and Faran would be raised there. He would come back to America for college at Berkeley in California, in many ways following in his family’s footsteps in pursuing theatre and the arts. He would then go to Harvard at Institute for Advanced Theatre.
What’s interesting is to learn about how his family roots in theatre and acting and the arts impacted who he is today. He comes from a long line of creative types. That is our story today.
FARAN TAHIR: So, my family has been in the arts for four generations. I will say literature and arts. They were playwrights, they were writers, they were publishers, actors, directors. My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were the first people who published the first magazine for women, which was then – this is 1898 and because they thought there was a need for it
FARAN TAHIR: My grandfather because in those days, there wasn’t television, he was, they were theater actors and they were performing on radio.
[excerpt of Faran’s Tahir on radio]
FARAN TAHIR: On my fathers side, I think there is a pioneer spirit. My grandmother, in those days early 1900’s was a full doctor and my grandfather was a mathematician, but both of them chose to go work in villages because they thought that’s where you know, people not being exposed to all of this. So, I think that spirit also translated into my father. You know, he wanted to do something, that was his own, and then contribute in his own way,
My father at that time was the principle of the newly built television institute, training institute
So, in those days in Pakistan, a lot of television was actually live, so they would go and they readily perform out the play, right. So, I am watching this play, and I see my mom die and you know, I am a little kid, right. So, I just freaked out because you know, what – how do you – and of course, you know, and my grandfather was like, no, no, it’s okay, it’s okay, she’s not dead, she’s not dead, she is just totally fine, she will be walking through that door and you know, of course she walked through the door and it was totally fine.
NARRATOR: This same grandfather, his mom’s father, would play a big role in Faran’s life. He lived across the street from Faran. and because his grandfather was a well known novelist and writer, for years he read these beautiful pieces of literature to Faran every evening before his bedtime. Faran naturally grew close to his grandfather but also fell in love with the arts and literature because of that.
FARAN TAHIR: You know, it’s – I always somewhere in me knew that I wanted to be an actor because when nobody was looking, I would play out little scenes in front of the mirror, you know, that was my little game that would keep me from being bored. I came from a family where, our dinner conversations were not about sports, they were about theater, they were about plays, they were about you know, films, that’s what we talked about that’s what I grew up, my parents would be on stage in the evening, my playroom or my playground was the makeup room or the costume department. You know, I could dress up as whatever I wanted to play and out the whole scene.
NARRATOR: While many of the people who surrounded Faran and his family were supportive of their work, and huge fans, there was the negative side as well. And sometimes Faran felt the social stigma of coming from a line of creative artists in Pakistan.
FARAN TAHIR I think there was a stigma that we still have in Pakistan, I think being artists or not looked upon as – oh I don’t know, people with substance, I think sometimes it has to do with the fact that we come from a country where poverty is prevalent. I think that’s part of a psyche, but at the same time I think our tradition and our culture is steeped in poetry and writing, so there is that, that schizophrenic sight to us. We want our kids to be stable, but at the same time, we have given this world some of the most beautiful poetry.
One of the stories is heartbreaking, is when I wanted to run and I went to my coach in school and I said, I want to run and he looked at me, up and down and he said, “eh, how can an artist son run.”
NARRATOR: Luckily, his extended family was very supportive of the actor’s artistic side. But his safe and secure childhood was shaken when something terrible happened to his grandfather.
FARAN TAHIR: I used to call my grandfather daddy and and I remember, I was seven and I was watching TV and my grandfather’s photograph came on, and I was used to seeing his photograph in other context, that I start yelling, hey, hey daddy, daddy and there was a hush in the room.
And I still remember my father coming to me in the next day and he said that you know, daddy was hurt very badly and when you are hurt really badly, sometimes the pain is so much that even God can’t take it. So, when God can’t take it, then he makes sure that you shouldn’t take it. So he calls you back.
My grandfather was murdered.
I remember going in hiding, in this little place and my mind kept asking this question of how could somebody, so brutally take a life, a life that I held in such high esteem. I mean how could this happen. A man that read to me everyday and somebody could come in and stab him seven times.
NARRATOR: His grandfather ran a publishing house, where some people he worked with were accused of extortion. As a witness to the crime, and scheduled to testify in court, he was targeted and killed. This difficult experience left a mark that has stayed with Faran all his life and he dedicates some of his acting to his grandfather.
After coming to the States and getting his graduate degree in acting, Faran appeared in more than 50 plays. And then a big break came. One night in the early 1990s, while he was doing an off-Broadway show called Arabian Nights, his agent let him know about an opening to movie as an Indian tour guide in Disney’s film The Jungle Book.
FARAN TAHIR: They sent the tape to the producers, then we didn’t hear from them for a while and then all of a sudden, I got a call and they said, well, we want you to do it, and I said, okay and they said, well, can you be on a flight tomorrow, come to South Carolina and that’s how quickly it happened.
[Faran in Jungle Book audio]
NARRATOR: He would play Nathoo, the father of a young boy named Mowgli. Mowgli was lost in the jungle and raised by the animals. Faran,as Moglee’s father. would spend his life searching for his lost son.
FARAN TAHIR: I had to fight a tiger, so what they do is, they kind of get you, they give you this time to familiarize with yourself, with the animals.
And, I would carry this little wolf pup in my arms and the wolf pup would get so scared because of all the other animals that he was started to like shiver, you know, so I would give him my thumb to suck on, and he would calm down. When we were training with the tiger one day, I was having my coffee standing about two hundred yards away and I could see the tiger in the distance and the tiger knew that I was there, right and he is just showing off, stretching you know, and showing his majesty, he knows what he is got. and then all of a sudden, this guy who is going to be the stunt double came and stood next to me and all of a sudden, this tiger ran into this hunting posture. And the trainers came and they, you know, they held on to the tiger and they picked up the guy, they threw him behind the table and I didn’t understand what was going on, and they said, well, you know, you can train these tigers but you can’t tame them. They are still wild animals, it was a great learning moment to realize that you know what, be careful, this is not your – your family dog you are dealing with, this is a tiger, right.
AMINA CHAUDARY: It’s very Life of Pi.
FARAN TAHIR: It is my Life of Pi, it is, exactly. Exactly.
NARRATOR: From then on, Faran was appearing for auditions all over the country, but the biggest opportunity came when he would appear along side Robert Downey Junior in the Iron Man. Faran would play Raza, a leader of a terrorist group in the Middle East. And while at first it may seem that Faran as a South Ssian, browned skin actor was pandering to Hollywood by playing the typical terrorist, it’s interesting to see what he was able to do with the part.
[Excerpt of Iron Man]
FARAN TAHIR: If you take the role of Raza, when I looked at it I went back to the writer and the director and the producer and there were some illusions in it to Islam and my point of them was that, you know, what if this was a realistic movie about realistic events, real events, are there bad guys who are Muslim in background, yeah, But this is a Marvel superhero movie, why do we have to have the ideology of my faith be a part of it, why can’t this guys be soldiers of fortune. And to my delight, they actually listened. So, we were able to take a lot of those illusions and they weren’t doing it because they had evil intent, it was their introduction to our world. But being able to engage them in a dialogue actually changed that. And we were able to take that out we were able to give him a different reason, why he wanted to control the world.
NARRATOR: Questions about his race or the color of his skin would serve as a challenge for him to prove that his acting was beyond the stereotypical clichés. A short while after Iron Man, Faran would play Captain Richard Robau in the 2009 StarTrek movie.
FARAN TAHIR: StarTrek, the idea was never that this guy South Asian Middle East in the character, the other three people who have been considered for the same role, were not South Asian Middle East at all. The director’s idea was I want this scene or this character or this segment of the movie to be as real and as gripping as possible. So, it had nothing to do with my ethnicity, we gave him the ethnicity because I played it and even then we decided that he was not just South Asian Middle Eastern. In the future, the geographic lines may change, so we gave him the background of the Cuban Middle Eastern South Asian, because who knows what the geographic lines are going to be in those days. So, that’s how we played it, and it had nothing to do with my ethnicity.
[EXCERPT FROM STARTREK]
NARRATOR: So this forward-looking utopia with its blurred racial lines isn’t quite a reality yet, and Faran admits to running into his share of discrimination along the way.
FARAN TAHIR: A story that I have always tell is, that very early in my career I had this script, which was to play a convenient store owner who is being held on a gunpoint, right. So, I looked out and now, that okay, so, I see, what they are trying to do, they want a South Asian convenient store owner, I mean, that’s a stereotypical thing, okay. And I was in the audition and the director gets up and he goes, you know what, you are not being South Asian enough and he proceeds to show me how to be South Asian. And that’s the moment when you go, you know what, I can’t do this, I mean, and I had very politely, excuse myself
AMINA CHAUDARY: Can you give me an example, what did he expect of you being South Asian?
FARAN TAHIR: Oh, yeah, he wanted me to have that accent go, “please, don’t be hurting me”. I don’t even if it was evil intent, I think it’s just lack of information, it is what it is, you know, in that particular case, it seemed to me that I was not going get through to him. In the case of Iron Man, there was a kind of an openness that I saw, where I could take a character, which was to play this bad guy and I could engage them in conversation and then help shape and change the history of this character.
I want to engage people in the conversation. I think through those conversations we learn about each other and we start to break down stereotypes and it is very important to me because it’s not just me that we are talking about, if we don’t break down these stereotypes, I think we are doing a disservice to the generations to come.
NARRATOR: Faran continues his struggle, not just navigating the tricky act of balancing his appearance with his talents as an actor. Like all actors, he faces the tough job of dealing with rejection.
FARAN TAHIR: When you think that you have given your best and you don’t get the reward of it, it’s going to have an affect on you. So, I kind of run into a closet for little bit and close the door and I sat there for a little bit. And I was asked if I was okay, I was like, no, I am not okay, but I will be in a little bit, so give me time and something great happened in that moment, when I realized was this, that what I – the rejection that I was feeling, it cannot be about me being rejected completely. They only got to see ten minutes or fifteen minutes of my life. So the only thing they can reject, is those ten, fifteen minutes of my life. They can’t reject all of me.
NARRATOR: And as a person, Faran is stretching public perceptions of what these characters he plays are all about, while drawing from his own life experience.
FARAN TAHIR: I think I was in Paris, I was at the airport, my brother, I asked him in Urdu where the camera was and he pointed to his jacket and all of a sudden, you know, the security set upon us and we were taken into these rooms and stripped and you know, question for hours, And then, you know, I will never forget this, they kept the flight waiting for us and everybody was on board. So for a couple of hours everybody sitting there and they don’t know why the flight is not leaving so everybody is very angry and then they let us back on that flight thank you very much, I didn’t even ask for glass of water for the rest of flight because that was one big tube of, hate, you know, so, yeah, I mean, those things do happen. The thing we have to remember is, that when that happens, I have a choice, either to get very mad and when if I get very mad, I think I won’t engage people in a dialogue, rather than getting into a combative reactionary mode. If you want to change the person’s mind, then find a calmer way to engage the person in dialogue, it doesn’t happen all the time.
I think the bigger thing is to remember that it’s not just to change their mind, I think that’s not a conversation, that’s, you know, I think when you engage somebody in a dialogue, also be ready to change your mind, you know, I think that’s the bigger challenge, where you always want, you know, come in with our own agenda, our own you know, rattle off our own points. But that’s not a conversation.