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NIAC's Fassihian Discusses NBC Sitcom Whoopi with Omid Djalili


By Dokhi Fassihian

September 29, 2003 - Djalili is Britain's most successful Iranian standup comedian and actor. His international appeal extends to having performed in over 12 countries. Raised as the son of an Iranian reporter and a dressmaker, his comedic interests sparked at a young age. Later he attended The University of Ulster, Coleraine in Northern Ireland and earned a degree in English and theater studies.

Djalili has also appeared on the big screen in "The Mummy," "Gladiator," "Spygame," and the James Bond movie "The World Is Not Enough." More recently, he will appear in the role of Kaji in "World of Tomorrow" with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. His latest film is "Modigliani" where he will play Picasso opposite Andy Garcia in the title role.

NIAC spoke with Djalili on his role as Nasim and the entrance of Iranians into American television.

NIAC: How does it feel being the first actor to represent Iranians for the first time on American television and how did you get the role?

Djalili: It's one of those things where I would be proud, if it's right. The way it all happened with me is that I had a deal with NBC to do my own show. That's why I came over, having been established as a standup in Britain. But then with the war in Iraq, they thought we couldn't have a lead actor in a sitcom who's from the Middle East. The deal was such that I could be in someone else's sitcom, and Whoopi Goldberg was very kind enough to have me in hers. The deal was that I could try and do something, but in this sense, you don't have much control.

But in the sense of being the first Iranian actor in a major NBC primetime sitcom, it's pioneering, exciting, and very thrilling. But I say it all with caution. The actual process is far more arduous and complicated and sensitive. But I'm not going to put a damper on it.

NIAC: Well, we're all excited. I'm excited as an Iranian to have you represent us on American television.

Djalili: That's great. Thank you very much. Most people say,"Baba, why do you have to get some short fat bald guy?" People see me on the street and they say "Hey, we saw you in the show, you'd be much better in Taxi. Why can't we get a Deniro. Why do we have to have a Danny Devito look alike, he's representing our country. "Agha, kheili khoshtiptarim as shoma!"

NIAC: The role was said to be slated for a Russian immigrant? Can you elaborate?

Djalili: Terry and Bonnie Turner, the series creators had it set up for a Russian housekeeper. Then NBC told them about me and that I was to have a show, and showed them a tape and they said yes. So I met Whoopi in New York after finishing a film in London. She said to me, "You seem cool, but I've got three questions for you: Do you like Iranian caviar?" I said yes.  "Do you eat a lot?" I said yes. "Do you like to say 'fuck'?" I said yes. She said, "We're gonna get along fine baby."

NIAC: Was it a risk for her?

I think she's aware of that. Whoopi is a person who is very politically savvy, and I think she understood to have a Middle Eastern character now would be very controversial, but it would have to be the right kind of person, someone who shares her sense of humor, as well. We share a similar sense of humor and we like to talk about issues, race and all that stuff. I think it's a good match, actually. I'm really enjoying working with her. Wren T. Brown is magnificent. Elizabeth Regan playing Rita is superb. We're a good group, it's been fun.

NIAC: The image of Iranians in the United States and internationally has suffered greatly since the 1979 Revolution. The first show made many references to the post-September 11 political climate that continues to affect Iranians and other Middle Easterners. How does comedy help heal wounds both within the community and larger society? Does the comic treatment of these issues help alleviate or exacerbate political and cultural tensions between Middle Easterners and Americans?

Djalili: I think it alleviates it. I know in Britain certainly, the way it works there is that if anybody has a sense of irony, as in to be able to laugh at yourself, then people immediately warm to that. Nobody is interested in cultures which seem quite stiff, closed, and don't have a sense of humor. The comedy of the 20th century has been Jewish humor. Jewish humor, pre, during and post-Holocaust is something that has healed the wounds of the Holocaust-to the degree that those wounds can be healed-but, to have such a rich sense of humor as embodied in Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, and hundreds of Hollywood films, I think shows that humor is such a gauge to spiritual growth. If you can laugh at yourself, then you're kind of okay, and it does make other people warm to you.

So to answer your question, it's not just a nice thing to alleviate tensions, it's absolutely necessary in looking at the bigger picture. I'm a real globalist. I really believe that having an Iranian character is not just good for Iran but good for a truly multicultural society because we never see this group of people represented in any shape or form apart from being one-dimensional. I've been in films where I've had one line being dragged away shouting "It wasn't me who stole the grain," taken away to my execution. But that's not really a scope for developing a character. So I think it's very important, it's an absolute necessity just for a multicultural society for Iranians also to be heard.

NIAC: How has your identity as an Iranian affected your career? What have been some of the difficulties you've faced?

Djalili: I did a documentary about this for British Television that's coming out soon on how your culture impacts your personality. In my case, I went from being very proud to be Iranian, spoke Farsi loudly to no other Farsi-speaking kid in my class around 1977-8, and in 79, the Iranian revolution happened and the way it was portrayed in the press, that was it. My whole life as a teenager, as a 13-14 year old kid, was destroyed. I was embarassed. I did the whole thing, you know, Fereydoun becomes Fabio and Omid Djalili becomes from Sao Paolo, Brazil. I totally became ashamed to be Iranian. And then obviously as I got a little bit older and really into my culture, I felt that the only way I can best serve it for myself is to also promote it.

Comedy, and standup comedy especially, in its purest essense, is about who are you, why are you here, and what is it about your experience that is interesting for us.  Being a young Iranian kid growing up in Britain in the 70s and 80s is what I took from that. It sounds shallow to start with but you can find a lot of deep stuff within that. When September 11 happened I became a bit more political and bit more socially aware. Comedy is a great place to find yourself anyway, and so you dig deep at your cultural roots.  I had it instilled in me as a child, I went to Persian class so I can write Farsi. I think it's important, although I didn't like it at the time. And I'm very clear, I did not change my name. Everyone said change it, come on, Omid Djalili is ridiculous! I thought no way! I'm not going to call myself Trevor Sinclair Smith.  I'm not going to do that.

As an actor, I was just moving away from doing these stereotypical Middle Eastern roles, but when this came up, I thought this is a real chance to not just promote Iran, but to promote multiculturalism. If you notice very carefully, my character is Iranian but the accent I'm doing is generic Middle East. It was a very specific, creative decision that was taken not to alienate the rest of the Middle East. I could have done the whole "Eeerraaanian" accent, but I felt that would have alienated the rest of the Middle East, so basically my character has become a real symbol for the whole region and I think that is very very important. I don't want to alienate anyone, although we talk about Iranians versus Arabs. That was where I wanted to pick up on Iranian paranoia, but at the same time, the use of the generic Middle Eastern accent is so very key to the show. I'd like to believe it's a funny dynamic accent, not just an Irooni kind of thing.

NIAC: And even the name Nasim, it isn't particularly just Iranian...

Djalili: That's so funny that you say that! When I sent the show to my Dad, saying just for the record that the name is Persian, he said "Baba it's an Arabic name, what are you talking about?! Arab-e Aseel! It's a pure Arabic!"

NIAC: How did you choose the name? Who chose the name?

Djalili: Initially it was going to be Abbas and they were going to call me "Abba," and I thought well, think of something else. And before I knew it, the script came with Nasim, and I thought, I have both a female and male cousin with that name, so it's a unisex name. It's fine.

NIAC: Anything about the Iranian immigrant experience in Britain that is different than in the U.S.? Any resulting challenges in terms of your performance as Nasim?

Djalili: I hadn't really thought about that, but now that you mention it, there are some cultural references that are different, but I don't think it's been that important because I haven't thought about it until now.

NIAC: How is the character significant in either reflecting or shaping the identity and image of Iranian immigrants?

Djalili: This is something we talked a lot about before we even started. If you get all the immigrants together in a place like America, which is such a diverse place, you get everyone, and if you put them all in a minced meat grinder, what is the end product? I'd like to think that Nasim is the conglomeration of someone who's obviously had an education, someone who's dynamic, someone who has a sense of humor, someone who's English is good, but always has a bit of an accent. You don't have an accent, I don't have an accent, but all of us together, you'll find that even some Iranians who've been here since they were 14, they'll still have a bit of an accent. So give him a bit of an accent, give him also drive and dynamism, and a real ability to adapt. Iranians are fantastic at adapting to different cultures. I'd like to think Nasim is a conglomeration of everyone in one. So I'm trying to make him as universal and as much of an every man character as possible.

NIAC: As I think about the character while talking to you, it's making me laugh, just thinking about it.

Djalili: He's got to be funny, that's it. He's just a funny, wacky guy. That's the idea, he has to be funny, that's what will warm people. It's like Latka Gravas in Taxi. It was just funny. No one remembers if it was one-dimensional or two. He was just a weird guy saying weird things with an accent. He was just funny. I think it did a lot of good for Poland. I hope I have a chance to do a bit more than Latka did. Latka had very little to do even, but he really was everyone's favorite character. Here, they're going to try to use me in a very strategic way. I'm kind of there, don't use me too much, but don't use me too little. I really hope that people think it's funny. It'll do more good than harm, I think.

NIAC: A recent poll showed around 70% like the show and think it's positive and around 30% think it is too focused on stereotypes. What is your reaction to feedback from Iranians?

Djalili: That's great. But the 30% who think the character is still too one-dimensional, I think they have a point. I didn't know that the way sitcom works here is that you start characters, and you've got to give them about four seasons to develop. The first six episodes, you're doing a variation of the same theme in the pilot. You're still introducing characters. I didn't know that. I'm actually even with the 30%. I think they do have a point. The show still does not have fully formed characters. But I've seen some of the comments people have made, and I have no problem at all with what anybody says, even that guy Bruce Bahmani (Whoopi's Latest Show is Funny...and Insulting,, September 12, 2003). He mentioned certain things that I've had long conversations about, long conversations.

He picked up on the line the character says, "It's too bad in America you don't have a secret service," and it makes it that Iran has a terrible secret service and America doesn't and I said, well, America does have a secret service, and the response was "oh, yes, but your character is quite innocent." I said "well you've got me having some kind of link to an Iranian milita thing." And it was, "oh, but you know, it's an ironic comment, everyone knows America has a secret service." I thought okay, I'll try to deliver it ironically, although I don't think that people will get the irony, at all. They didn't. That's why Bruce Bahmani's shout that America does have a secret service makes me feel that I was right because the joke was taken as "oh, Iran has a secret service, they're all so cruel and awful, and that America is such a wonderful country." Lots of discussions about that and I said look, I cannot just be a mouthpiece for George Bush.

The 30% of people who do maybe have a problem with it, I would like to assure them that whatever concerns you have, I have exactly the same concerns. It just takes time because I don't have full control. This is not my show.

NIAC: How do you respond to Iranians who criticize your playing a handyman? Some might say that this is not truly representative of Iranian Americans in this country.

Djalili: That's another thing when I mentioned the mix. A lot of people are working beneath their capacity. Nasim is a rocket scientist who is now working as a handyman . We have professors selling laboo in the streets. I thought that was a very important thing. We could have so easily had him as a lawyer, but I don't think he would have been as funny. I think it's much funnier to see characters who are struggling and suffering. We have Nasim as  working well beneath his capacity, but we see someone who's intelligent, educated, funny, but who can do much more than just change a bulb.

NIAC: I didn't realize he's a rocket scientist.

Djalili: There's a couple lines. He builds missile systems for an Iranian militia group. But that's all back-story that you're going to see later on. He's some kind of engineer, rocket scientist. I thought that was a very important thing that whatever he is, he is working beneath his capacity.

NIAC: You mentioned earlier that you were going to have your own show. There were reports that you were to play a professor, but that the networks weren't ready for that type of role for a Middle Easterner? Is there truth to that?

Djalili: Oh, but the networks were ready for it. We were all ready to shoot. We were all ready to go for pilot. But then the war in Iraq happened. They weren't ready to have a Middle Eastern character be the absolute lead character. The show was probably going to be called the "The Omid Show." That was the deal, and I had no idea that if they don't do my own show I could also be used as an actor in someone else's show.           I don't think it's a bad thing at all. It's like Frasier. Frasier was on Cheers, and then he got his own show. For me it doesn't matter. NBC really liked what I do in stand up and they wanted to introduce me to the American audience. That's absolutely fine by me.

NIAC: So it was just the war that changed their mind?

Djalili: I think so. They had 15 pilots to pick up. Apparently there were arguments to the last minute about mine. Some people really wanted me to this or that particular thing, others, I think, were saying, maybe it's too early why don't we develop him, which is very nice if they want to develop me. I'm really thankful for that. It hasn't been a disappointment at all.

NIAC: How did September 11 play into it?

Djalili: I was very clear with that. Why am I here, why do you want me, why did you  have no one else before? Is it just September 11? They said, no let's get that absolutely clear, it's got nothing to do with September 11. There has been nobody that we have liked. I said there must be from the Middle East, what about Tony Shaloub, the Lebanese-American actor? They said he's completely different, he's a dramatic actor who doesn't even play on his Lebanese roots, he's just a fantastic actor, and good luck to him. But for someone who's dealing with Middle Eastern issues in the way that we think is edgy and funny, they said, no one has been around. No one has done this.

NIAC: How much of a say do you have on the development of the character and script?

Djalili: A big say. In fact, the original idea was that they had story lines, and I could just add a few lines. Not this Tuesday, but next Tuesday, you will see a story line, an internet dating one and I really pushed to change my story line. I was very very clear. There was a big thing whether my character should have sex or not, or an allusion to it. I said baba, I don't mind that, but the story line was that I do internet dating and get abused and exploited as a handyman, so I do that. But then they wanted the character to have sex, and I said if you have him having sex then that ruins that whole being exploited as a handyman. They said well why else would you go there. I said baba, Iranian people are romantic people. We make someone's shelves for ten hours to sit and hold their hand for about five minutes. 

That's not representative of all Iranian men, but I wanted it for Nasim because Nasim has this innocence to him, and he has to be a lover in the sense of being in love with love and romance and not just into shtepping. I say that from a cultural perspective because I know Iranians will turn off to my character shtepping everyone. That's a very important thing, and I got it changed and I think what you'll see is hilarious. It's good to feel you're consulted on certain things, and if I have a real issue, I'll bring it up. It's all a process. We're all getting to know each other. The first season is always like this. And hopefully as things go along, I'll have a bit more control, a bit more say in what our culture's really all about. At the moment, it really is just brush strokes.  I don't have the control to do that. If it was my own show, boy, we'd have all sorts of things, which I think would have made me such an icon in the Iranian community. I don't think people would be ready for that.

NIAC: So will the character move away from stereotypes in upcoming seasons?

Djalili: With each episode, you'll see something more. The control aspect is a sensitive thing, and you have to let the writers write and see what they do, and they're allowing me to improvise, and are keeping some very good lines. Because we're just a few years from September 11, the first couple of episodes is dealing with people's perceptions of Nasim, and people immediately assuming that he's a terrorist, that he's trouble, and Nasim's own sensitivity to it. Once we did that, I told them, okay, enough of the terrorist jokes, let's move on now, let's build the character, and I think that's happening


... Payvand News - 9/30/03 ... --

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