Actor Ali Saam Talks About His Experiences on ARGO with AGENDA MagazineBy Kaylene Peoples | March 12th, 2013 | Category: Entertainment, Interviews | 1 Comment »
Ali Saam is an Iranian-born actor who came to the United States to finish his education and pursue a career in acting. He disclosed that being an actor, or being involved in any of the performing arts in the Middle East was not tolerated when he was there. Lucky for him his family chose to leave and make their home here in America.
I’ve known Ali for years. I directed him in a film he co-starred in (Redemption); and that little independent movie won a couple of film festival awards. He played a villain with heart in that movie, and he seems to have made a name for himself in other films and theater as an antagonist with layers. Ali has been in many independent films and has been a positive contributor to all of them; including his self-produced short film entitled $lowdown, which made an impressive showing and won awards in the independent film festivals. Ali Saam’s latest role is Ali Khalkhali in ARGO, where he played the revolutionary security official, and the main antagonist who drives the action.
After seeing ARGO in the theater, I was so anxious to hear Ali’s take on the movie. Since the 2013 Academy Awards just happened—and ARGO had seven nominations, walking away with three Oscars (including Best Picture)—getting a chance to talk with a cast member of the multi-award-winning, controversial film was exciting.
Interviewed by Kaylene Peoples
Responses by Ali Saam
I am the antagonist in ARGO where I play the Iranian security official who figures out what’s going on and he chases after the Americans.
How did you get started acting?
Since I was a kid I was always interested in acting, and I got my inspiration from watching American films and American TV productions: Westerns and Zorro. I knew that I was interested in performing at a young age. I always had the thought of getting into plays and productions. A lot of times when you come from a culture in the Middle East, being in the performing arts was not encouraged. Once I moved to the States I got involved in community theater.
Some of my favorite performances were Twelve Angry Men and Aaron Kozac’s The Birthday Boys. I played the Iraqi leader who was in charge of interrogation and getting information out of the three captured marines.
Let’s talk about ARGO. When I watched it, I have to admit I didn’t really know what the movie was about. I went into the theater cold. I was really taken in by the story. It was gripping, and I loved the fact that they used a movie as subterfuge to try to confuse the Iranian government. You’re the antagonist in this film. What was it like putting yourself in that kind of mental space? Is it hard for an actor to become that type of character? Tell me your process.
Absolutely. To answer the question, “Is it hard?” it shouldn’t be hard. Certain roles for whatever reason, whether they’re closer to you, or you have a better idea of approaching it, may be easier to approach. However, getting into the depth of a character, it can be a challenge. As far as playing the antagonist, I honestly feel like whether you play the antagonist or the [protagonist] in any story, every character does what he does for a particular reason. If you’re playing a terrorist, you don’t play him to be scary, or to actually terrorize the audience. In your character’s eyes, he is not the bad guy; he always has a reason for doing what he’s doing in a role. There are people who support their ideologies and their goals. So they have their supporters as much as they have their enemies. I approached the role the same way.
It’s crazy because if you don’t think that the movie is true, that it really happened, and you watched the movie, you would think that it was a crazy idea. How they came up with this fake movie idea to go in and get these six Americans out by saying they’re involved in this movie, they’re scouting locations, and then the goal was to go back to Canada—the real characters were not Canadians; they were Americans and diplomats, and managed to get away when the hostages were taken in 1979. It posed a great deal of danger to these six characters had they been captured.
I could tell when watching your character, you believed in what you were doing. I like how you showed a switch in personality when you were talking to the young housekeeper (Sheila Vand), how you were trying to appeal to her sense of obligation to her country. You actually turned into this empathetic person who showed tremendous depth in that one scene. It showed that you were a deeper person, rather than just some vigilant character trying to catch a bunch of Americans.
With any character that you portray, there are certain tools that you have for that specific character to get what you need in the scene. For my character in ARGO it was patriotism. I would like to interject about the six Americans. Their situation was as scary as it was because they were Americans, diplomats, and on top of that, they were the ones who escaped; and now for them to get out [of Iran] as Canadians, that was one of the biggest crimes they could have committed, according to the regime. Had they been captured, I would think . . .
They would be gone! But there were also a lot of Iranians in the same predicament—people who had connections to the regime or some other country; they had to get out of the country. I’m sure they went through a lot of scary moments themselves as they were passing through the airport. And there were a lot of Iranians who had escaped through the mountains. A lot of them got killed by the so-called Peyotes or by people who just got their money. You never know what would have happened to you. So a lot of these things happened in parallel to that story with other people who were from Iran.
Now, you’re from Iran.
Yes, I am.
In fact, you’re from the very city in which this movie is centered, Tehran.
Yes. I was born in Tehran, absolutely.
So how does it feel having been an Iranian citizen at one point? ‘Cause now you’re an American citizen.
Actually when we were shooting the film it brought back memories of when I was very young. I remember some of the streets the way they were when we shot some of the scenes in Istanbul; they used Istanbul instead of Tehran. The way they shot it, the way they scouted the locations, and the production design was phenomenal. When I was on the set and looking into the streets, it was extremely surreal for me. While I was waiting to do my scene, I was just standing there watching and taking it all in. It’s like I went back to when I was really young, and I was on that street and everything looked like it was from that time. I got goose bumps. It’s like I went back in time. All the actors were in costume, the cars were from the era, the types of houses and locations they selected; it was exactly like how it was in Tehran. It was very surreal and a very interesting ride to say the least.
Great question. Ben is just amazing to work with. First of all, he is very intelligent, and he majored in Middle Eastern Studies. He knew his material. He was familiar with a lot of things. And as a director, when I watched his previous films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, I became an instant big fan of his directing as well as his acting. I think he’s a wonderful actor, and I think he’s a fantastic director on top of that. It was great to work with him because he’s an actor himself. So he knew how to create the space for us as actors, and to give us the freedom and the space to play, and to bring out the best we could as those characters. He knows exactly how to talk to you as an actor. It was amazing to watch him work because he was very much into his thoughts. He knew what he wanted to do and he knew exactly what he wanted the shot to look like . . . and the lighting . . . where to start to shoot . . . all of that. He’s very creative. He is a director with depth.
It goes back to his personality the way I see it. He’s a very deep person. He cares about the important issues. When you speak with him, you can tell he’s aware of his surroundings. He knows what’s going on in the world and he wants to work on projects that matter. He wants to take the lens into this world and have you as the audience see what really took place. And what are some of the important things you get to look at as being art of the audience looking in. So he is a dream to work for. I enjoyed it tremendously, and it was a great experience for me as an actor to work with somebody like Ben.
One more thing I wanted to add, he surrounds himself with the best. He has these great people working on the set: The cinematographer is fantastic, Rodrigo is amazing, and all the assistant directors, David Webb, whom I got to meet and know, and all the other cast and crew who were working with him. They’re all amazing at what they do. And what makes it even more special is everybody who worked on the set . . . they love Ben. When you love working with someone, and you are surrounded by talented people, the chances of a project turning out the way ARGO did are pretty high. So I would say it was an amazing experience to work with Ben Affleck.
I do speak and write the language (Farsi/Persian) fluently. Anytime there was a question about the grammar, or about the words, I was one of the people who helped out with the Persian part of the script, or in the scene. When you work on a project, you want that project to be the best, so I gladly helped out as much as I could.
What can we look forward to with you in the next five years? What are your long-range goals?
To work on amazing projects like ARGO, and I would love to work on projects that really matter. I also want to continue doing plays because I love theater. I want to work on projects that are challenging to me and challenge me as an actor, to sink my teeth into the character.