A Lahori in Hollywood: Faran Tahir
By Laaleen Khan
Pakistani viewers may recall actor Faran Tahir in crucial roles on Star Trek (as Starfleet Captain Richard Robau of the USS Kelvin in 2233), in Iron Man (as Raza, an Urdu-speaking character among a Hindi-speaking group of Afghani terrorists), and on a memorable episode of Grey’s Anatomy, where he played cancer-stricken Isaac (a well-liked lab technician at Seattle Grace Hospital who happened to be Muslim). Back in 1999, he also starred in one of the first desi-American indie flicks to hit the big screen, aptly titled ABCD, as Raj, an Indian American struggling with his cultural identity.
An FC College, Berkley and Harvard alum, Mr. Tahir belongs to a respected group of thespians that convincingly portray various ethnicities, speak with multiple accents, and act with a subtlety rarely encouraged in this part of the world. In an exclusive interview with the Express Tribune, the native Lahori reveals his Hollywood experience, upcoming projects, and how he got to where he is today:
What are some of the responses you get in Hollywood when people realize you're Pakistani?
Producers and directors are focused on how someone can enhance their product so there approach is more analytical. So if you fit into their vision then you are in, regardless of where you come from. Fans, on the other hand, have been extremely supportive.
How did you manage to reach where you are now? What encouraged you?
A lot of hard work and the undying belief and support of my family.
Can you tell us about your upbringing and schooling in Lahore?
Lahore is always a big part of my heart. I grew up in Model Town and attended Divisional Public School and Forman Christian College. I have made friends and memories, which shall stay with me till my dying day.
Was your family’s theatrical background (Tahir is a 3rd generation actor; his father Naeem starred in Khuda Ke Liye) inspirational in your career?
Coming from a family so steeped in performing arts has been a great source of inspiration and caution. The time and energy spent on discussing plays, films and literature was an invaluable gift. I have witnessed people blossoming into incredible artists and I have also seen incredible artists get destroyed. My family has always been supportive but at the same time challenged me with some hard questions that made me do some soul searching.
As a Muslim and a South Asian, was it challenging to find a talent agent to represent you?
Finding an agent who works well with you is always challenging. I was lucky to find my first agent right out of my graduate work in theatre.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Take your successes with humility and your defeats with bravery.
Have you ever experienced any form of ignorance or discrimination since you started your Hollywood career?
Ignorance and discrimination generally comes from misinformation and misinterpretations. This happens everywhere. It doesn't matter whether you are in USA or Pakistan. It becomes our responsibility to engage people in constructive dialogue to change their minds. Combative stances never help.
How would you describe yourself in one line?
Forever an optimist.
What insight do you bring to mainstream film, TV and theater a non-white actor?
There is a unique take on things that filters into your work because of your unique experience.
What kind of projects would you be interested in working on in Pakistan in the future?
Any project that is well written and has a thought-provoking message (he will be appearing in Samjhota Express, a series directed by his brother Ali, later this year).
What has been your favourite part to date?
(It’s) Hard to say. Any role you are working on must become your favourite at the time. It is the only way to do justice to it.
How long do you think it will take for Hollywood to get over its obsession for terrorist-centric storylines?
In all fairness, it is a similar question to “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” Hollywood doesn't only produce films that have this storyline. Similarly, no one country or faith produces people using violence to solve issues.
What cultural genres can Pakistan offer that appeals to the global movie-going public, aside from clichéd topics like arranged marriage?
We have so much to offer: rich stories from our literature, folklore, mythology and history.
You appear on Warehouse 13 (a sci-fi series currently airing on American TV); can you tell us a little about what it’s about?
It is an interesting premise. The idea is that every great civilization, from the Ancient Egyptian, to Greek, Roman and Mughal, have been entrusted to safekeep a warehouse of artifacts that can have powers. These artifacts can be drawn from fiction and non-fiction. The struggle is to secure them before they get into the wrong hands. I play the head of the warehouse (Adwin Kosan). Very fun stuff.
Is Jinn (a recently completed supernatural film) a horror movie or a thriller with religious motifs? What can you tell us about your character, Ali?
‘Jinn’ can be regarded as all of the above. It is also an attempt to bring a different understanding of jinns than what Hollywood has put forth like the ‘genie in the bottle’ (concept). Again, very fun stuff. My character is trying to be a lightening rod for jinns so that their attention is averted from my nephew.
In Two Mothers (recently completed and co-starring Mahnoor Balouch), you play a bereaved parent. Was this more challenging than, say, Iron Man?
Both (are) challenging in their own way! How do you make a bad guy believable? How do you make bereavement not melodramatic?
Do you think a film like Ashes (an inner-city drama about Indian-American gangsters) would do well in Pakistan if it were made or dubbed in Urdu?
The storyline of ‘Ashes’ has a universal theme. It’s a story of two brothers—one spiraling into mental illness and the other into the world of drugs. They have no one to fall back on except each other. The story rings true regardless of where you set it.
Can you offer any advice for young Pakistanis who dream of making it in Hollywood?
Never give up on your dreams. But to turn your dreams into realities, you have to work very hard.
Can you tell us about your family?
I am married to an incredible woman and have absolutely amazing children (Mr. and Mrs. Tahir live in San Diego with their daughter, Lena, and their son, Javan, who incidentally also acted in Iron Man).
What's the dumbest question anyone's every asked you?
‘Whom do you like better, your mother or your father?’...Please!