Interview with Navid Negahban
The Man of a Thousand Faces
Known as “the man of a thousand faces,” Negahban was born in Mashhad, Iran. He caught the acting bug at eight years old when his portrayal of an old man drew laughter from a large audience at an elementary school play. His passion for acting led him to Germany where he spent eight years honing his theatrical skills prior to moving to the United States.
Negahban is widely recognized as “Abu Nazir”, the enigmatic al-Qaeda leader he played for two seasons on Showtime’s Emmy-winning original series Homeland. This iconic role earned him a global fan base that includes both late Israeli President Shimon Peres and former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Navid’s diverse television portfolio includes the portrayal of “Amahl Farouk/ The Shadow King” on FX’s Legion, which gave him the opportunity to be the first Farsi speaking character in the Marvel Universe. He can also be seen as “Jamot” on the final season of 24 and in guest appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Catch, Scorpion, Law & Order: SVU, Veep, The Messengers, CSI: NY, The Closer, The West Wing, Without a Trace and The Shield, among many other notable shows.
Negahban’s star has continued to rise on the big screen on projects like Disney’s live-action blockbuster, Aladdin. Directed by Guy Ritchie, Navid played the Sultan – Jasmine’s sweet and protective father. His other notable film credits include: Twelve Strong: The Story of the Horse Soldiers, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Black Label Media; Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper; the espionage thriller Damascus Cover; the Mike Nichols directed the film, Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks; Gerard Barrett‘s Brain on Fire, and American Assassin just to name a few.
He is also well respected in international cinema. Baba Joon, the first Persian language film shot in Israel from director Yuval Delshad, received five Ophir Awards including the best picture. Variety proclaimed, “Navid once again transforms in the role of Yitzhak,” a turkey farmer struggling to pass his Iranian traditions onto his precocious Israeli-born son.
Negahban received a historic BAFTA nomination for his performance as “Hajj Agha” in the video game “1979 Revolution: Black Friday,” marking the first time a Middle Eastern and Muslim actor to be nominated in this category. The game, based on the Iranian revolution, was granted support from the Doris Duke Foundation in partnership with Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Program for the Islamic Art’s New Frontier Fellowship.
Negahban received the 2015 Artist of Distinction Award by the Gold Coast Arts Center in New York. In 2013, he was honored as the Cultural Ambassador during the Esquire Man at His Best Awards ceremony in Dubai, for his contributions to the local film industry.
He is fluent in English, Persian, and German.
Navid is currently fighting to save Romany Artist Center & Studios. An artist colony and residency. Where your heart and dreams are lifted by your friends! A safe haven, free from any kind of prejudice — for artists, built by artists.
ZH: Thank you very much Navid Negahban for this interview! We would like to start with you telling us more about yourself and your education.?
Thanks for having me here! Was born in Mashhad/Iran. I got my high school diploma there and then I left Iran in 1985 and I ended up in Germany via Turkey and Bulgaria where I applied for asylum. After being processed in the Ingelheim am Rhein refugee camp, I was placed in Kaiserslautern where I learned German while landscaping, painting houses, cleaning toilets, and Lord knows how many other odd jobs until I finally booked my first acting gig in the Sunday in The Park with George at Rheinland Pfalz theater. So that was the beginning!
ZH: Obviously back in your school time in Mashhad when you took the role of an old man at the age of 8 in the school play, you never thought of being known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces” in Hollywood one day. How did the acting career flourish in you?
I have always loved to entertain ever since I was a kid. I really enjoy making people laugh and I have no idea why I ended up just getting parts that would scare them. 🙂 Joking aside, I truly love what I do. I never thought I will end up being called The Man of A Thousand Faces, but you should know that being called MARDE HEZAR CHEHREH has always been a secret desire of mine.
I used to stand in front of the mirror when I was in Iran; changing my face using for example wool, glue, paint, and then I would try to become the guy in the mirror. My poor mom would look at me and then up into the sky saying: Khoda (God) what have I done that you are punishing me like this? Then I would lift her up as she was screaming “Put me down, put me down PEDARSOOKHTH!!!”. We had fun!
Gush I am sorry, I am drifting … back to your question.
So when I read for the first time that critics have called me “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, I was truly speechless. I just looked up and uttered, Thank you!
ZH: To further achieve your theatrical skills you left Iran for Turkey and from there immigrated to Germany. In my opinion, getting a degree from the land of literature and classical plays and writers like Goethe and Bertolt Brecht, where education is one of the main elements of art and theater, is like boiling the ocean. Isn’t it?
I wasn’t trying to boil the ocean as I wasn’t seeing it as an ocean. For me, it was a journey with no expectations, where I tried to learn as much as possible and then take the next step. I was hungry for knowledge and every individual who crossed my path became my teacher. I feel grateful for every single one of them.
You can never stop learning regardless of where you are – a small village in the middle of nowhere in Iran or in Germany the land of literature and classical plays and writers. Following a structure in an educational institution wasn’t a thing for me. I needed the freedom to learn in my own way. Hands-on, experimenting, and exploring what works for me. You are YOU, I am ME, I can learn from you but I will never copy you. I don’t want to be anyone else’s carbon-copy, right or wrong, I am me and I take full responsibility for being me. Original in my own way. It might sound crazy but it is liberating and feels wonderful!
ZH: Eventually, you worked your way to Hollywood Los Angeles, where you made a name for yourself by acting in more than 100 films, TV series, and shows. Do you still have time to play in the theater and Broadway shows?
Never done a Broadway show. I used to work on the stage, but lately, I haven’t been able to do that. I do miss it! I do have an original play written by Marilyn Felt called Asher’s Command, which I am developing at the moment. This is my baby and I would love to direct it on the stage.
ZH: You were in two well-known TV series: Legion and Homeland. Your roles in these shows have gotten the critics’ attention. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience playing these roles?
Homeland was a revolutionary TV show for its time and Abu Nazir was a pivotal role in my career. It changed my life.
First I was lost, I had an idea of who he was but I was struggling to find the one thing that would complete him. I found him when I found his glasses at a very small optical store in Charlotte, NC. Then I discovered his core when we were shooting the first episode; as Abu took Brody in his arms when Brody broke down. Something magical happened at that moment and Abu was born.
Legion was a dream role. I have always wanted to be part of the Marvel family and when I got the call from Noah Hawley, I got very excited. Amahl Farouk Became the very first Marvel character speaking Farsi, German, English, and French. I had tons of fun and truly enjoyed working with the team.
ZH: You have been playing in so many different roles such as a religious radical, an alcoholic man, and a king in the new Disney’s live-action “Aladdin”. Is there any particular character you haven’t played yet and you are eager to experience?
A schizophrenic patient would be a dream role! A Cowboy in a Western movie or just a sweet man next door, to name a few.
ZH: Do you take your voice-over jobs for video games or animated movies as serious as your other roles in feature films or TV shows? Is this something you’d like to do more of?
Of course! Sometimes you have to even work harder when you do a voice-over job because all you have is the vibration of your voice and what you do with it to create different emotional nuances for the character. I am very proud of my work portraying “Haj Agha” in the video game “1979 Revolution: Black Friday,” Directed by Navid Khonsari.
ZH: Tell us more about the Romany Artist Center & Studios.
Romany Artist Center & Studios is an artist colony and residency.
A safe haven, free from any kind of prejudice — for artists, built by artists.
A place where your heart and dreams are lifted by your friends!
I am building the Romany Center and Studio to give others what I didn’t have when I started my journey – a place to live, create, dream, and grow in a community of other like-minded artists. I want to help other artists as they set out on their journeys.
Romany Center is an artist-hostel and creative space located in Boyle Heights-Los Angeles. It will provide housing, a studio and recording space, and an opportunity to earn an income for artists who need a place to stay and work while they get on their feet.
ZH: Thank you for being with us at ZH.
Thank you for having me! It is a pleasure to share my story with you and the ZH family.
In collaboration with ZH Media
Interview by Ray Shaw, Cover Photo by Bjoern Kommerell