By Shahrnaz Nancy Southwick
The Iranian-American actor Navid Negahban is best known for his role as the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir in the Emmy-winning series “Homeland.” He is sometimes described as “the man of a thousand faces” – for his skill at playing a wide range of characters.
His next role is as the Sultan in Disney’s live-action production of “Aladdin,” directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Will Smith, Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud, which is slated for release in 2019.
Negahban drew acclaim for his performance in Clint Eastwood‘s Oscar-nominated blockbuster “American Sniper,” the highest-grossing film of 2014. He played Sheikh Al-Obodi, an Iraqi tasked with helping snipers track down their targets.
He previously appeared in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Amy Adams, in which he was a refugee-camp translator; and in “Brothers” (2009), a thriller with Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman.
Q: Tell us about your latest role of playing the Sultan of Aghrabah in “Aladdin.”
This is going to be such an exciting and fun film. The cast and crew are wonderful people. I very much enjoyed working with Guy Ritchie. He created an environment free of ego on the set, where the actors felt safe and open. Then he challenged you to take your character a step further. He allowed you to explore and move beyond the page and bring your own essence to the performance.
His quest for collaboration is noble. That is what a great director does.[To go from being] a young child growing up on the streets of Mashad, to then becoming a refugee in Germany having no home at times living a very modest life, to now playing the Sultan of Aghrabah and being a part of this incredible film amazes me. Such a fantastic dream comes true.
Q: What was the catalyst for your love of acting, the first moment in your life that you knew you wanted to become a professional actor?
The first time I stepped on stage, I was about eight or nine years old, in elementary school. I was cast in the school play. On stage, I quickly realized the power that an actor has: to entertain, to captivate the audience, to bring them joy, and ultimately to take them on an adventure. From that moment on, I was hooked. I knew this would be my destiny.
As a child growing up in Mashad [eastern Iran], I watched the old Wild West television series, and imagined myself acting in them. I was obsessed with James West, and later discovered Spencer Tracy and his genius in acting. I loved Spencer Tracy’s layered sense of comedy: brilliantly funny, yet subtly serious at the same time.
Q: As an actor, how do you choose the roles that you are offered?
My objective is to take the audience on a journey. I like to play characters that have many layers to their psyche. I have played characters that are from many different nationalities: Russian, Mexican, Italian, Arab, Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, Syrian, Iranian and more.
I want the audience to be riveted, not only to be entertained. Once in a while, I hope to make a difference in people’s perception of the characters that I play. I want to become someone else entirely through my performance. I love to show the inner struggle of humanity.
I want the audience to leave the film and keep talking about the experiences they had while watching. That is my goal in choosing the characters that I portray.
Q: What advice do you have for actors that are starting out in this craft?
As an actor, you have to be the architect of your own reality. Never let go of your dreams. Become deaf to the negative critics that may surround you. Believe in yourself and be as authentic as you can be.
When you are truly authentic, you will attract your tribe, invest energy into that tribe, and create amazing endeavors together. Everyone and everything can become a teaching moment.
Keep moving forward and forge your own path. Don’t try to copy anyone else’s career. We all have a different journey. Each of us has a story to tell: seek to tell your own.
Q: What role was your most memorable so far?
My toughest role was in “The Stoning of Soraya M.” [the story of a woman who tells a journalist of the brutal punishment inflicted upon her niece.] This character was so far from my own true nature. I had to dig down deep to create it. I had to conceive an entirely different character – so far from my own that I didn’t even recognize myself while playing him.
After my mother watched my performance in “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” she was overwhelmed with tears and emotions. I asked why she was crying. Her response was very poignant: she told me that she knew what I had to go through in order to create this character, how she could see the struggle I must have faced bringing to life this evil character.