These high profile roles came after years of working steadily in every available acting medium. He developed his stage acting chops at the University of California, Berkeley. Early film work included roles in Disney’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Anywhere But Here, and Charlie Wilson’s War. Tahir amassed numerous guest-starring roles on television shows as varied as Law & Order, Party of Five, 24, and 7th Heaven before more recently landing recurring roles on Warehouse 13 and Dallas.
Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Tahir about his upcoming projects, as well as looking back on recent performances that have made him such an in-demand actor.
Let’s talk about Elysium, the trailers look incredible. What can you tell me about the film?
First of all, I think the movie in itself is really going to be a treat for people, partly because I think Neill [Blomkamp] did an amazing job [as director] and did a spectacular job with District 9. Elysium deals with some very hot topics, but as Neill did with District 9, he has this way of taking a hot topic and putting it in a slightly fictional zone so we can examine it from all sides. It deals with, on a very basic level, elitism, immigration—issues which are very hot right now. It does this in a fun but provoking way.
How does your character fit into the story?
The way the movie is set up, there’s a utopian space station called Elysium. I play the newly-elected president of Elysium. He’s a politician, a negotiator who worked for the U.N., so he comes with all those tools at his disposal. He’s trying to deal with a crisis using some kind of nuance and diplomacy. The problem is, his Secretary of Defense, played by Jodie Foster, has a whole other approach with how to deal with this crisis, with more brute force. There’s not really any give-and-take between these characters, which makes it very exciting.
Would it be correct to assume the director has instilled these characters with some real complexity?
With the exception of a few characters, no one is “black or white.” They’re all working in different shades of gray. Even my character, one can say “Is he good or bad?” I didn’t approach it that way. I don’t think it should be seen that way. I think these are people who have many layers. They’re doing what they can. Whether you subscribe to their point of view or not is entirely up to you. I think that’s a smart way to go. Let the audience decide whether these guys are good or bad.
How would you describe the experience of working with Jodie Foster?
Amazing. The only thing you can say is amazing. She has been in this business for so long. You see it as she brings her entire palette when she walks onto the set. And she can choose the colors she wants to paint this character with. It’s quite a treat to work with somebody like that, because you know she will create an amazing life for the character. And it becomes contagious. People around her start to pick up on that.
Speaking of veteran stars, you recently worked with action icons Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan. What was that like?
It humbles you, because they are icons. There haven’t been bigger icons than them within the action genre. Just to watch them having this relationship with the camera. They know the dance the so well, they could improvise this dance and still stay true to it. For me, I go into this mode of being a student, watching and learning when you’re not on screen, because when you’re on screen you do what you need to do. Stallone and Schwarzenegger had never had the opportunity to actually work from the beginning to the end of a movie, creating a whole life. I think for action geeks, of which I am one, it was kind of history in the making.
How do you fit into the story of Escape Plan?
My role is, we’re all there in an impenetrable prison, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and I, and we plan to escape. The three of us are trying to find a way out of it. The person who’s trying to stop us is the warden, played by Jim Caviezel—an amazing in his own right. I’m the third person that Stallone and Schwarzenegger need in order to break out of this prison. That’s the set-up of it. What I also liked is that the script is very smart and the director [Mikael Håfström] is very smart. It gives you all the action and testosterone, but it also gives you something more intelligent behind it. You can watch it for the spectacle of it, or you can go a little deeper and find the underlying meaning and messages in there.
Iron Man presumably had a huge impact on your career, in terms of making you more recognizable. Would it be fair to refer to Raza as a breakthrough role?
You’re right. I come from a theatre background. I’ve done over 50 professional plays and all that. What Iron Man did for me was that it gave me the opportunity to create a character that audiences and people in the industry took note of. And you know, there is no overnight success. I think there are very few of those. But it did give me this opportunity to kind of show my wares and be in the mix for things which are exciting. So yes, I think it did help me. The question is: was that the breakthrough? Yes, it is a breakthrough for that moment, but I’d been working before that. But yes, I do think it helped in that particular way.
Was there a sense even during production that Iron Man was going to be something special?
Yeah, from the very beginning the plan was that if this one flies, if it does well, it will open the gateway to all these other movies. And fortunately it did really well, it set up this whole idea of a superhero legacy and all that. That was all in the plan, because Iron Man was, in a way, the first movie that Marvel really helmed. I mean, Spider-Man and all that had been done by other studios. This was the first time they were doing something. Almost like one of the most expensive indies in a way, right? It was that sense, that energy, that focus—on the set and around it. They were being so meticulous about casting it.
What the process like for you in securing the role?
I went through, like ten auditions. The final one was with Robert [Downey, Jr.]. They had built the cave. They wrote up these scenes, which are not in the movie, that Robert and I did seven, ten different ways. Just to see if there was a good give-and-take between the two of us, to find this kind of rapport between the two characters. They were trying to take as few chances as possible, because they really wanted to succeed. And it shows. It shows in the movie and it shows in what has happened since to Marvel and the franchise that they’ve created.
You played the first Starfleet captain of Middle Eastern descent in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, is that a point of personal pride?
On a personal level, I wasn’t looking at it as being from the Middle East or South Asia. The bigger thing I was trying to look for, and what [the director] J.J. Abrams really wanted, was that we were taking a fresh look at this saga. And it was very important to set it up the right way, because if the hook wasn’t there, audiences would not be invested in the rest of the movie. We needed to get their attention.
What was on your mind when conceiving how to play Captain Robau?
The whole idea was, let’s make this captain as competent as Kirk or anybody else, because he commands this ship. We wanted to show that [Captain Robau] is second-to-none in his own right. Yes, in the process there was the idea of the first Middle Eastern/South Asian actor playing this character, which was great in the sense that we’re giving a sense of hope that in the future, all these things that are so big to us won’t matter. We could all work for the common good or the common bad or whatever, and our ethnicities, our languages, cultures, or accents won’t be the focus of good or evil or any of that.
That’s part of Star Trek’s influence going back to the original series, mixing all kinds of cultural backgrounds.
Exactly. And it’s completely in that spirit that J.J. did it. And there were two or three other actors [auditioning] who looked completely different from me. I think what J.J. was going for, is he thought—and I think those other actors were amazing—in that particular moment, for whatever reason, what I did connected.
Were you a Trek fan growing up?
Yes, I was. When my youngest brother was born, it happened to be on the day that Star Trek would come on, the original series. And my dad said, “Hey, your mother went into labor.” And I was like, “Oh no, I hope it’s not around eight o’clock because that’s when Star Trek comes on.” [laughs] I think he was born around five, and my dad took me to the hospital and the entire time I was like, “Yep, he’s nice, he’s good, let’s go home now.” I just wanted to watch Star Trek.
All those years later, you find yourself kicking off the reboot of the film series. A little bit surreal?
When I got on the set the first day, I have to say that the nine or ten-year-old boy kicked in for a second. Here I was on the bridge of my own ship. So yeah, I was a fan. That did kind of hit me in that moment of stepping on the set and going, “Wow, I’m the captain of a starship.”
See Faran Tahir in Elysium, only in theaters, August 9, 2013. Escape Plan opens October 18, 2013.