An Interview with Faran Tahir

Photo: Anderson Group PR, used with permission
Photo: Anderson Group PR, used with permission

Faran Tahir is everywhere lately. Filming has just begun for the final season of Warehouse 13, where he plays highest-ranking Regent Adwin Kosan. Next month he plays President Patel opposite Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in the summer sci-fi epic Elysium, Neil Blomkamp’s first film since the surprising District 9. 

And this fall he’ll be teaming up with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to break out of a high-security prison in Escape Plan. It’s the first time Schwarzenegger and Stallone have been onscreen together for an entire movie, and Tahir is right in the middle of it all.

Combine that with his roles in Star Trek (as Captain Robau), Iron Man (as Raza), and endless TV appearances in everything from Alias to Supernatural, and the Harvard-trained, Pakistani-American actor has built an amazing career in the action and science fiction genres.

But Tahir is also full of surprises. He has an indie film coming out—Tornabout two families who lose their teenage sons in a mall bombing and grieve together until realizing one of the boys is the prime suspect. He’s an advocate for the representation of Muslims in film and television. He even has a recurring role on Dallas

So when Tahir spoke with me about his upcoming projects, finding a niche in science fiction, and getting his kids out of the house by eight o’clock for track practice, it was a very interesting conversation.

GeekMom (Jackie Reeve): What did you do today?
Faran Tahir: What did I do? You’re GeekMom, so I will tell you that I was a GeekDad this morning. I got my kids up. They’re both cross country runners, so I had to get them out the door at eight o’clock—which they were not very happy about since it’s summer. But nonetheless, that’s what we do as parents. Make your kids squirm, and get some comfort out of it… no, no.

Other than that just kind of boring stuff. I did get to go for a run, which was kind of nice. So here we are.

GM: What can you tell me about Elysium and your role as Minister Patel?
FT: Not a darn thing, I have complete amnesia. No, Elysium… well, I, first of all, think that Neil Blomkamp is really an amazing director and writer. If you remember District 9, the great thing about his work is he takes a hot button issue and then he just moves it slightly in the fictional zone. But not so much that you get detached from it. And then you can examine the issue a little better that way. And I think he’s done the same thing with Elysium.

The storyline of Elysium is that there is a space station, called Elysium, where all good things happen–cancer gets cured, it’s never over 75 degrees. You know, everything good (laughs). But all the grunge work for Elysium happens on Earth. Of course, naturally, the inhabitants of Earth want to get up to Elysium because things are so much better there. But they’re not let in.

So if you take that issue, it deals with elitism on one level. It also deals with immigration, and you pretty much have the same dynamic as a developed country and a developing country. For example, you can take the U.S. and Mexico, right?

But the great thing about the movie and the way he presents it is that it doesn’t matter which side you are on or what argument you subscribe to, you get to see the points in both arguments. I think that’s smart writing, it’s a smart way of dealing with issues. So that’s basically what the movie is about.

I play the president of Elysium, so my character is someone who, because he’s a political figure, is very nuanced. He wants to deal with these issues with some level of sensitivity and also wants to make sure that he still has a good base on both sides–the space station and on Earth. His counterpart is his Defense Secretary, played by Jodie Foster, who has a whole other way of dealing with these issues. So it’s that kind of a dynamic between the two of those characters.

What I liked–you know, people always ask me is he a good guy or a bad guy, and I didn’t approach it that way. And I think the script also didn’t want it to be that way. I think the idea is that these are people who have their own point of view. Let the audience decide whether they’re good guys or bad guys. For some, they will be neither. They’ll be just people dealing with their issues.

Photo: Anderson Group PR, used with permission
Photo: Anderson Group PR, used with permission

GM: Did you have most of your scenes with Jodie Foster?
FT: Yep, most of mine were with her because we were up in Elysium.

GM: What was that like?
FT: Absolutely great, could not be better. She is tremendously talented. I don’t even have to say that, we all know that. But she’s also been in the business for so long that there is an ease and a spirit of giving to her, which is contagious. And being in a scene with her, you know that you are in good hands because a lot of acting is trust. And to know that somebody has got your back is an amazing feeling.

And also, it raises you to do better because you’re dealing with somebody who’s bringing a lot to the table. She’s coming with a full palette, she has all the colors right in front of her. It helps you become a better performer, in a way.

GM: You’re also in Escape Plan later this year. How was that experience?
FT: Again, a great experience. I’ve been very blessed, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some wonderful actors, some wonderful icons. Escape Plan is Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Those two are action hero icons. There aren’t any bigger blockbuster action heroes than those two guys. And for them, this is the first time that they are in a movie together from A to Z. They’ve had The Expendables, they’ve had little interactions, but nothing substantial. So that was great.

It was also great to see these two guys. You go into student mode for a bit because when you’re not working and you’re just watching them, you know that they understand that genre so well that you should learn from it. To them, they know that dance, they know the steps, they know how to move in it. On that level it was great.

The movie itself I think is, again, a smart movie. It deals with this impenetrable prison where people are put having very little to do with guilt or innocence. It’s a prison run by some very shady characters, and it’s kind of underground. The story is that the three of us plan an escape from the prison.

So it’s very testosterone filled, a lot of men butting heads. All of that is a lot of fun.

But I think the storyline has a lot of layers in it. So does Elysium, it’s why I like these two movies. They have enough layers that people can go in and just take them for what they want. If someone wants to watch Escape Plan for all the action, they can watch it for that. But there are other layers to it if you’re looking for those–they are there, you won’t come back empty-handed. It depends on how deep you want to dig. Keeping in mind that we’re all serving a certain genre, a certain kind of a movie experience, and that’s the same with Elysium.

GM: You’ve built a real niche for yourself in the world of science fiction. How did that happen?
FT: By accident. Kind of, but kind of not. My background is in theatre. And sometimes I think science fiction, for some reason, has become a good niche for me because it has theatricality to it.

The stakes are so high when you’re dealing with science fiction–civilizations might come to an end. Everything is really high in its energy, and if you come from a theatre background, if you’ve done some Shakespeare, some Greek tragedies and all of that, it does have that same parallel, in a way.

It also has the same parallel of creating a make-believe world, in a way. In theatre you might turn on a light and all of a sudden it’s day and you’re standing in the middle of a storm, and of course it isn’t. Same thing with science fiction. When you’re shooting you could be standing in front of a green screen, and there’s nothing there. But you have to transport yourself, and you have to make sure that the audience has also come on that ride with you. So I think there is some connection there. I’ve always liked science fiction, it excites me. It’s been good.

Photo © Paramount Pictures 2009
Captain Robau, Star Trek. Photo © Paramount Pictures 2009

GM: Do you have any favorite science fiction films or TV shows?
FT: Before I’d done Star Trek, I was a Star Trek fan. I thought—even when the first series came out—that it was way ahead of its time. It made people think . In all of the fun, there was a great message underneath all of it.

I love movies like Blade Runner, stuff like that. It’s always been something that I go back to all the time. That’s the kind of science fiction I like, a thinking person’s science fiction. Not just aliens and blowing stuff up. I mean, that’s fine, but there’s more to science fiction than just that.

GM: We have some really big Warehouse 13 fans at GeekMom.
FT: Ah!

GM: What can you reveal about the final season? It just started filming, right?
FT: Yes. You know, I hesitate to reveal anything because, you know, this is the final season. Warehouse 13 is a great premise, and it’s a great, great, great cast and crew to work with. All I will say is that although we are shooting fewer episodes, I really think that people will not be disappointed with the direction that we’re going in. But I will leave it at that. As much as I want to say more, I am leaving it at that! I hate it when people give me the ending of a movie or a book or whatever, I am not going to be that guy (laughs).

GM: I’ve read that you’ve been a big advocate on your projects for the way Muslims are represented. I read a story about Iron Man, and you talking to the director about Tony Stark’s experience in Afghanistan not needing to be related to religion. How do you feel about the way Hollywood represents Muslims—and also South Asian populations—as a working actor?
FT: That’s an interesting question. It’s not like an agenda for me, but I think one has to be careful. And I have done this on the other side also; when I’ve traveled in the Middle East, and I’ve heard people say stuff that just isn’t true about the U.S. or Americans, I do try and engage them in a conversation.

I think it’s our responsibility as humans of this world to make sure that you set the record straight. I try to do it on both sides as much as I can.

As far as Muslims in Hollywood–look, the way I look at it is that there are good and bad people in every country, in every religion. Yes, there are times when you have a story that is based on something that can cast a negative light on a Muslim character. I understand that. Are there bad Muslim guys? Yes. Are there good Muslim guys? Yes. I just think that we have to look at the context of the story and see if we are now, deliberately or by accident, pushing an agenda or pushing an image which doesn’t need to be there.

For example, in Iron Man we don’t need to bring in religion. There are other ways to still make these guys effectively bad. And my conversation with them was, you know what, I think it would be more interesting if it was less about religion and more about them being soldiers of fortune, mercenaries, people who are power hungry.

A lot of terrorism has to do with all of that. It has less to do with the actual faith and more to do with people manipulating others to get control over them. Or terrorize them.

So my way of looking at it is, let’s engage people in the conversation and try not to set a combative tone, but a tone that actually invites people to have that conversation rather than just prove your own point.

Yes, there has been, in the past, a lot of negative portrayals of Muslims and South Asians. But I think things are also changing. I think there are more and more characters that are layered being presented in movies and television.

Which is great, because I think we do need to do that. And I’m hoping we can do more of that, we can find a balance so it’s not about every time you see a Muslim guy he’s a bad guy.

And partly I think it also has to do with the fact that even Hollywood is realizing that our market is much more global now than it used to be. We used to focus on domestic box office, but that’s not the case anymore. There’s a huge global market.

So I think things are shifting, and it’s a welcome change. I’m hoping that we can find that balance where “Muslim” and “evil” are not synonyms anymore. And if I can help in that conversation I’m going to try my best because I live here, I’m part of this culture, I have kids and family here. So I need to make sure that we do find that balance on both sides and be fair to both.

Yeah, there are times when I have to play a bad guy who is Muslim. Yes, I will play it as long as it serves and has some legitimacy in the story and it’s not being pushed on it as an agenda.

Iron Man's Raza, © Disney
Iron Man‘s Raza © Disney / Marvel

GM: As an actor, what’s the best piece of advice you were given or the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your years in the industry?
FT: That not all work is good work (laughs). So be honest with yourself.

As you said, I found a niche for myself in science fiction which is great, but if I was to just keep on exploring that and not show other sides of my talent or my acting I think I’d be shooting myself in the foot. So sometimes you have to take that risk.

I have these two movies—Elysium and Escape Plan—coming out, but I also have a couple of indies coming out which are completely different.

I have an emotional drama about two families–one South Asian American, and one Caucasian American–losing their teenage sons in a mall explosion. It deals with the collision of families when they’re hit with tragedy and can’t be partners in grief.

It also deals with the investigation of how this explosion happened and where they’re pointing the fingers. And I play the father of one of the victims. It’s a whole other kind of storyline.

And then I have a supernatural thriller called Jinn coming out.

So my point is, the biggest challenge is to keep showing different sides of you so you’re not pigeonholed as one thing or the other. You don’t just want to keep playing bad guys, you don’t just want to keep playing good guys, you don’t just want to keep doing science fiction. You want to change it up whenever you can. It’s good for you, it’s good for the audiences, and it’s good for everybody to see that there’s more you have to offer as an actor.

GM: What do you do when you’re not working?
FT: Well, I have kids, so of course they keep me busy. I’m an avid runner, a cyclist, I read a lot. I write a little bit.

I’m venturing slowly into creating my own work that I can produce. It doesn’t even have to be stuff that I act in, but stories that are closer to my heart or that speak to me on some level. And try to see if I can also venture into the outside of it a little bit and keep a balance between my acting and producing and directing, all of that.

GM: So you basically just love stories.
FT: I really do, I really do. I love storytelling. It’s been part of me and part of my family for a very long time, so I think this is what we do.

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Jackie Reeve is a Core Contributor and former Senior Editor at GeekMom. She's a librarian, a writer, and a quilt designer. She's wife to an Englishman and mom to a little geek girl, and she blogs about life and crafts at The Orange Room. Jackie's obsessed with cardigans and thinks Die Hard is the best Christmas movie there is.