Sunday, May 24, 2015

The many faces of Faran Tahir

cover story: interview

The actor talks to Instep about working with Hollywood royalty, the changing face of Pakistani cinema, and finding empathy through acting

It is always heartening to see an artist of Pakistani origin make an impact on the international stage, even more so when the thespian establishes his or her name by demonstrating their skill, not by generating controversies and chasing headlines. That is precisely why Faran Tahir is so impressive. The actor is a frequent presence on the international screens, both big and small, with appearances ranging from guest spots in television series to co-starring roles in feature films.

Silver screen success

Building a career in Hollywood as a Pakistani-American actor had its challenges, but Faran thinks there are always some obstacles on the road to success. “Anyone’s path in trying to make it in the entertainment industry is going to be hard,” he says. “I had my set of challenges, but I always took these challenges as fuel to my fire and never as fuel that burns me out.”

While choosing roles, does he feel any added responsibility because of his Pakistani roots? “I try to avoid characters that are written as caricatures regardless of what and who I am portraying,” Faran answers. “Of course, I never forget my roots. To me, the biggest factor is if I find the character challenging in some way.” There are some projects that he has walked away from in the past because of cultural or religious considerations, but none of them were important enough for him to dwell on. “To be honest, projects like those never end up being anything great. I honestly couldn’t remember the names of trash projects. I would have to go back and look at my records.”

Faran’s resume now includes appearances in films like Iron Man (2008), Star Trek (2009), Elysium (2013), and Escape Plan (2013), working alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Jodie Foster, and Matt Damon, all of whom he describes as “extremely talented, giving, humble, professional people”. His interaction with Downey Jr. in particular remains memorable. “When Robert and I read for Iron Man,” Faran recalls, “he pulled me aside and told me that he was game for anything I threw his way and that we can hug, apologize, or pat each other on the back after the reading. I thought that was pretty cool.”

Iron Man is, of course, the film that Faran is best known for, and his opinion also prompted the reshaping of his character in the movie as well as some changes to its script. The actor also says that the choice to have the members of the film’s terrorist group in Afghanistan speaking Urdu – something that might have stood out for Pakistani viewers – was deliberate.  “We made a deliberate choice to mix many languages so as not to implicate one country or one people,” he reveals. “Some of my minions spoke Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Hungarian, etcetera. We wanted to show that this group was made up of people from all over the world. My character also spoke fluent English. It was never established that the cave where we imprisoned Tony Stark was actually in Afghanistan. He was abducted in Afghanistan but could easily have been taken elsewhere.”

Starring in films that have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars hasn’t given the performer any airs. He remains passionate about the Pakistani film industry, and recently supported director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary Song of Lahore (2015) by attending its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. When asked about the Pakistani industry, he speaks with enthusiasm. “I think Pakistani artists are redefining Pakistani cinema. There are some extremely talented directors, actors, actresses, and writers on the horizon. I couldn’t be prouder. Bravo!!”

Small screen saga

With his name and image firmly established in the international entertainment industry, the actor will next be seen in one of the most anticipated series of the year: Supergirl.

In the last few months, Faran has appeared in shows including Criminal Minds, How to Get Away with Murder, The Blacklist, and Backstrom, and he will now play the recurring role of an evil alien called The Commander in the new action drama Supergirl, which is based on the DC Comics character and will follow the story of a young woman bestowed with super powers, learning to embrace her talents. “I play a character whose mission is to bring down Supergirl,” Faran confirms. “It’s a very fun and delicious role.”

The show is set to premiere later this year on American channel CBS, and stars Glee actress Melissa Benoist, whose casting in the lead role has drawn a lukewarm reception from potential viewers, especially those who were hoping actress Laura Vandervoort would instead reprise her Smallville role for the new series. The unveiling of the Supergirl costume also drew a mixed response, with some likening it to a cheap Halloween costume. But with firsthand experience from the Supergirl set, both the actress and the outfit have received Faran’s seal of approval. “These mixed reviews are based on the opinion of people who have not seen the costume or Melissa’s portrayal of the character since the show has not aired yet. I think [Melissa] rocks,” he enthuses.

Supergirl joins DC’s other small screen ventures like Arrow, The Flash, and Gotham, and Faran thinks the show will benefit from being a television series as opposed to a film series. “Television gives us the ability to delve deeper into characters because we have the freedom to explore the character slowly,” opines the actor, “so I think it would be an interesting series.”

This isn’t the first time Faran has been cast as a bad guy. Even his most prominent role – Raza, the leader of a terrorist organization in Iron Man – saw him portray the baddie. But the performer says he has no qualms about playing the villain. “I have no issue playing a bad guy,” he asserts. “It would be an issue if that was the only kind of character I played. Fortunately, I have been able to play a fairly wide variety of roles. I also did six projects this year where I didn’t play a bad guy.”

Still to come

Faran’s upcoming projects include the movie Flight World War II (2015), which is expected to be released this summer. “It is about an ordinary commercial flight taking off from Washington DC destined for London,” he reveals. “The plane is hit by a lightning storm and the next thing we know is that we are flying over Germany during World War 2. I play the captain of the flight and it is my job to bring my passengers and crew back home safely. Fun stuff!”

Also in the pipeline is the movie The 11th (2016), which is set to star the likes of Christopher Lee and Michael Nyqvist. “It is the story of 11 lives directly and indirectly interacting right before 9/11 in Copenhagen. It is a very smartly written screenplay. It shows what effect a historical event like that can have on ordinary lives that are not directly impacted by such an atrocity.”

Film and television aren’t the only mediums keeping the actor busy. Faran is also going to portray the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello onstage with the Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company. “The director, Ron Daniels, and I have worked together in the past,” he mentions. “We did Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream together at the American Repertory Theater many years ago. He is an amazingly talented director, a visionary and a teacher. We had been talking for a while about the timeliness and timelessness of Othello since it deals with prejudices and racial divides, how these things can unravel and ultimately destroy a decent and honourable man. We proposed the idea to Shakespeare Theatre Company and they saw the merit in it. We hope we can do this wonderful classic justice and at the same time show how the story still relates to the present.”

There is plenty in store for Faran’s fans, and the actor is excited about his career and future. “Acting affords us the opportunity to find empathy with others,” he says about his craft. “It gives us a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit. It reminds me that the kindest and the cruellest actions on this earth are committed by humans. This notion intrigues. I am pleased that I have a TV show, a film, and a stage play to dig my teeth into.”

- By Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th May, 2015 *

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