From Shakespeare to Stalin: Actor Paul Chahidi Stars on Film and Stage

It’s a late summer afternoon somewhere in west London. Paul Chahidi has just come off the set of “The Death of Stalin” – an upcoming movie focusing on the power struggles that preceded the death of the Russian dictator in 1953. The film is directed by Armando Iannucci (known for such hit productions as HBO’s “Veep” and BBC’s “The Thick of It) fame). Mr. Chahidi plays Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union and a member of the Politburo.

In person, the 47-year-old British-Iranian actor is warm and personable, with an easy ability to inhabit multiple roles, cross bridges, and transition between cultures. Those qualities have helped him build an impressive film and stage career in London, on Broadway, and now in L.A. As well as starring in film and television productions, Mr. Chahidi regularly performs with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and appears on stage at the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, and the Donmar Warehouse in London.

When he first appeared on Broadway in an all-male production of “Twelfth Night” in 2013 – a role that got him nominated for both Tony and Olivier awards – the reviews were glowing. “Audiences can’t get enough of Paul Chahidi’s hilariously imperious Maria, especially in tandem with two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance as his ‘mistress’ Olivia,” wrote Kathy Henderson on

Speaking to Kayhan London, Chahidi describes the play as “a beautiful, bitter-sweet story of love, loss and longing.” His character Maria, he says, is “a quite bossy, haughty, aristocratic lady in waiting.”

What made him choose the role? It’s not that he wanted to impersonate a woman, Chahidi explains. “I just wanted to be that character, and find the essence of that character as I would with any role: what that character wants, what they’re trying to achieve, what their background might have been and how they go about it. From there, I explored how would I be moving, and how would I be speaking.”

Chahidi credits the historic Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – where he is one of the longest-performing actors – for making him the performer that he is today. At the Globe, he explains, “I learned so much about acting, because you have to use every acting muscle. You have to move well, your voice has to be strong, you have no amplification tool. It gives you the confidence to look audiences in the eye, because you can see them. The theatre is lit, the audiences are lit, and you look them in the eye and just have a conversation with them.”

Chahidi’s Iranian father and British mother met while they were studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. Giv Paul Khatib-Chahidi (his full name) was born in Iran and grew up in Britain after the 1978-79 Revolution. He studied Arabic and Persian at Cambridge University.

“I had a grand idea of going to the Middle East and becoming a foreign correspondent,” he recalls. But once he started acting in his final year at university, his life took a dramatically different turn. After Cambridge, he followed in the footsteps of such greats as Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave, studying in the 1990s at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Mr. Chahidi recently completed the Fox comedy pilot “Chad: An American Boy.” Co-created by and starring Nasim Pedrad – the Saturday Night Live alumnus and Iranian-American actress – it’s the story of an Iranian-American family living in Delaware. Pedrad plays a teenage boy called Chad, and Chahidi plays Hamid, the uncle who has come over from Iran to live with the family.

What advice would Mr. Chahidi have for other young artists? “Apply for a drama school, a good one, and train, learn your craft,” he replies with all the verve and wisdom of an artist who has paid his dues.

“You need time to be able to experiment and fail without there being huge consequences,” he adds. “Pick apart what you think you know, and explore totally new things without the pressure of having to perform them for the public. Just keep, keep, keep at it.”

By Nazenin Ansari