Actor Faran Tahir, 54, was born in Los Angeles into a distinguished artistic family and raised in Pakistan before returning to the U.S. in 1980 to study at Cal-Berkeley, and then at Harvard with the American Repertory Theater. Best known as Raza in Iron Man and Capt. Robau in Star Trek, he made his film premiere in the 1994 live-action version of The Jungle Book. His numerous television credits include The Practice, NYPD Blue, Lost, The West Wing, Monk and Scandal, while his extensive theater credits include a critically lauded Othello with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. More than two decades after starring in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s first alfresco production, the San Diego resident returns to Boston this summer to play the titular role in CSC’s Richard III on Boston Common.
Jonathan Soroff: Line from Shakespeare that best sums up your life?
Faran Tahir: Let’s see. There’s a line in Othello that I love: “Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again.” I think that’s just such a beautiful line about loving someone. I aspire to that.
Favorite Shakespeare play? There are three: Othello, Richard III and Macbeth. For very different reasons. Othello, I think it’s intriguing this idea that every culture in every time period has always had this concept of “the other” in society. Here’s a man who, it’s fine for him to go fight their wars, but god forbid he fall in love with one of their women. That’s intriguing, how we reduce people to just being functions and utilities. With Richard III, his hatred for himself and others is very intriguing to me. And with Macbeth, the thing that really draws me in is: Here is a man driven to do drastic things with such tremendous inner conflict. He’s constantly haunted by it, which to me is exciting.
Your father is also an actor. How did he respond when you told him your career plans? [Laughs.] He said, “Do anything else but this.” Literally.
Have you ever acted with him? I have. And I’ve been directed by him. My very first foray into acting, and we won’t go back to when, was a TV show that I did with my mother. She didn’t play my mother, but it was interesting. My grandparents were also playwrights and screenwriters and directors.
Greatest length you ever went to for a role? There was a movie, when I first got out of the A.R.T. program, which I was very interested in, but I had a 6-week-old daughter. The only way I could meet with the director was to drive to Toronto. To put a 6-week-old baby in your car and drive all the way from Boston to Toronto was a long way to go. [Laughs.]
Thing about Pakistan that most Americans just don’t understand? I think we tend to put people in definitive boxes. I think there’s a misperception here that the progressive part of Pakistan is dead or stifled, and it really isn’t. There’s a very vibrant life there that is happening on top of all the craziness that goes on. We always think that in places where there’s a lot of strife, that a sense of humor and life is being curtailed, and I think it’s human nature to keep finding that normalcy. That pushes you forward. So people think of Pakistan as this conservative, isolated oppressed society, and it really isn’t. There are elements of that, yes, but a lot of it is quite open.
Thing you miss most about Pakistan? The food. Lahore is the food capitol and it’s just so good. I also miss the sort of laid-back attitude toward life. It can be frustrating, but there’s a charm to it. You ask someone to come over for dinner at 8, and they won’t show up until 9, out of respect for you, so that you have more time. [Laughs.] That’s their justification. But I sort of love that.
Any offers from Bollywood? I have gotten an offer or two. My issue with doing work there is that the script should speak to me. Movies in Bollywood are very much iconoclastic characters: the good guy, the bad guy, the hero, the villain. It’s very kind of mini-operatic in its approach, which is fine, but I do want a character to have some teeth and some nuance instead of just how you fit into the story. But I have worked in Pakistan. I’ve done a movie or two, and a TV series.
Color you look best in? Blue. It’s always been my color.
Most makeup you’ve ever had to wear for a role? Earlier this year, for the show called The Magicians on Syfy. It took nine hours a day to put the makeup on. The prosthetics were insane. And it was a very hard shoot because when we were doing it Vancouver was burning, and the soot and the heat was oppressive, and I was wearing this incredible makeup that turned me into a half-man, half-peacock. But it’s the greatest name of a character ever: The Great Cock of the Darkling Woods. I mean, c’mon.
If it took nine hours every day, that couldn’t have left much time to shoot. Exactly. You’re only allowed to be on set for 12 hours, so it was nine hours of makeup and three hours of filming. Then we’d take it all off, come back the next day and do it all again. It was totally insane.
Did Star Trek give you a lot of cred with your kids? Yes, it did. But also a lot of eye-rolling, because they’re my kids.
The character of Raza: Is he misunderstood or just pure evil? He might be pure evil to others, but I think in order to play a character like that, you have to find the justification of why he’s doing what he does.
Do you have to go to any of those Comic Con or sci-fi conventions? Yes, I have. And they are insanely fun and at times insanely funny. People are so invested in these characters and stories, they’ll ask all these questions about your character, and you’ll be like, “I don’t know how many kids he has.”
Do you prefer playing the good guy or the bad guy? Both. Bad guys are so delicious. That ability to do something heinous and have permission to do it, there’s something beautiful in that. Good guys are hard to play because there’s this expectation. I always want to find some cracks in him, so he becomes human.
How do you stay in shape? I starve because I’m an artist. [Laughs.] I have a pretty regular regimen. I work out every day except one. It’s a mix of cardio—either I run or I bike—and some medium weights. I think heavy weights hinder your movement as an actor. And I do a lot of core workouts.
Favorite thing to eat from craft services? I stay away from craft services like it’s the plague! [Laughs.] I know the second I start frequenting that, the costume is not gonna fit and we’ll be headed for disaster. It’s crazy what they serve. I have never understood why they do that. All those Snickers thingies and the ice cream? No, no, no!
Would you or have you ever done full-frontal nudity? I have not done full frontal, but give me enough money, and everything will come off. [Laughs.] Whether you want to see it or not.
Most awkward thing about filming a love scene? Well, first you want to make sure the other person’s a good kisser, and that your breath doesn’t stink. But it is really hard, because most of the time, you don’t know the other person very well, and here you are trying to do something extremely intimate and sell it to the audience. I always have this conversation with whomever I’m going to do a love scene. I say, “Look, I will not do anything that you’re not comfortable with, so you let me know. It doesn’t matter if the director wants it. Let’s just be sure we’re playing by the same rules.” Once you’ve established that trust, you can go places with it.
Biggest audition nightmare? There have been a couple, but one was funny because I knew exactly where it was going. It was very early in my career, and I auditioned for this role in a TV movie, and of course, it was to play a 7-Eleven guy getting held up at gunpoint. I go to the audition and I do the scene, and the director looks at me and he goes, “That was really good, but the only thing is that you’re not being South Asian enough.” Then he tried to show me how to be one. [Laughs.] I couldn’t really burn any bridges, so I just said, “Ya know, I totally understand what you want, but at this point in my career, I don’t think I can make that artistic leap. Thank you so much.” [Laughs.]
As a Pakistani actor, do you feel like you get typecast? I can, and people have tried, but my rule is simple. If I do two to three things that are similar, then even if it’s a kick in the pocketbook, I tend to do something different, just for my own mental health. I also think once you get typecast, and you’ve done that enough, people think you have nothing else to offer, and you’re done. So it’s for my own longevity in the business that I try to put out diverse stuff.
Did you ever consider Anglicizing your name? I never did. I never saw a reason why I should. So, yeah, my name is difficult for Americans to pronounce, but if you practice it enough, you won’t forget it. [Laughs.] A couple of times, I’ve had people say, “Can I call you Frank?” My response was, “Can I call you Zahid?” And when they say, “Well, that’s not my name,” my answer was, “Well, Frank isn’t mine, either. Let’s stick to our names.”
Role you were up for and wanted but didn’t get? Yes. A couple. One that stands out, I felt I could have put my personal stamp on it, but when I saw it, the person who did it did an amazing job. That was the role that Naveen Andrews did in The English Patient.
Is stardom anything you ever aspired to? I’ve always tried to focus on creating a body of work. Some of that could have high exposure, and some of it might not. I don’t really worry about it. Just being a star is not what I’m hoping or looking for.
Actor you get mistaken for? There are a few. Of course, Ben Kingsley, because we both have shaved heads, but he’s a much better actor than I am. I bow down to him. And then there are a few other actors who do come up.
Ever been intimidated by working with someone? It’s not intimidation, really, but one of the first movies I ever did was with John Cleese. Growing up, I loved Monty Python and knew every single word. I could recite episodes. So meeting him for the first time was really one of those amazing moments. And when you meet someone who is infinitely funny, you also want to be funny, and you quickly realize, “Just don’t do that.” It’s like showing your basketball moves to Michael Jordan.
Stage or screen? I’ve asked myself that question many a time. My thinking on it has evolved. I used to be a complete theater guy, but what we’re doing ultimately is telling stories. The analogy I use is that a painter sometimes paints in oil, sometimes in watercolor, sometimes sketches, depending upon what he’s trying to capture. Similarly, certain stories are best told in the intimacy of a stage setting. There’s a back and forth between the actors and the audience, and it’s unmatchable. But other stories are better told on screen. If you put Star Trek on stage, it would be laughable. You need to be transported to a whole other reality. And then, by the same token, there are stories that are best told on TV, because you can stretch the stories and characters over many episodes.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be? I would want to be an architect. I think it’s a wonderful balance of art and science and psychology and ergonomics. There’s something beautiful about creating a space that’s not just attractive but also functional. To me, that challenge is something that’s always interested me. ◆
Faran Tahir, Photographed for the Improper By J Heroun at Boston Park Plaza; Grooming: Alicia Dane / Ennis Inc.; Styling: Jenny Wilson / Anchor Artists; Wardrobe on this page: Armani Jacket From Bloomingdale’s and Armani Shirt from Barneys New York; Wardrobe on the cover: Theory Jacket And Armani T-shirt from Bloomingdale’s