A date with Homeland's Abu Nazir in Tel Aviv

Iranian-American actor Navid Negahban speaks about ‘Homeland’ fame and his latest role in the award-winning Israeli drama‘ Baba Joon.’

FAMILY TIES: Navid Negahban (left) and Asher Avrahami star in the awardwinning Israeli drama ‘Baba Joon.’ (photo credit: YORAI LIBERMAN)
FAMILY TIES: Navid Negahban (left) and Asher Avrahami star in the awardwinning Israeli drama ‘Baba Joon.’
(photo credit: YORAI LIBERMAN)
When Navid Negahban, who played Abu Nazir, the deadly terrorist on Homeland, and is now starring in the acclaimed Israeli film Baba Joon, offers you a date, you take it.
Sitting in a small, quiet office in Tel Aviv, Negahban still radiates the dangerous energy and intelligence that made Abu Nazir one of the most memorable villains in television history. Although the soft-spoken Negahban couldn’t be more polite, it’s hard to forget his portrayals of Nazir and, more recently, the stern father in Baba Joon. That toughness and menace is there, even as he does something as innocuous as unwrapping a package of dates and other goodies that Baba Joon’s director, Yuval Delshad, has just brought him, a gift from the kibbutz where Delshad’s wife grew up.
“These are so delicious,” says Negahban, who only takes a bite once everyone else in the room has started eating.
Life is sweet lately for Negahban, who has managed to achieve both international stardom and to do great work in independent films, a coup for any actor, but almost a miracle for someone who grew up in Iran and left the country as a teenager fluent only in Farsi.
“Sometimes the universe gives you a gift, you don’t know why you’re getting it, but you don’t turn it down,” says Negahban, explaining how first-time feature film director Delshad was able to get him the screenplay for Baba Joon. The movie, which just opened in Israel, is the story of the conflict between an Iranian immigrant father (Negahban) and his son (Asher Avrahami), who live on a moshav in the Negev and run a turkey farm. It won the Ophir Award for Best Picture, which means that it is Israel’s official entry to be considered for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, and was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
Negahban had been to Israel while shooting Homeland – the Beirut sequences were filmed here – and heard about a planned Israeli film focusing on an Iranian immigrant family. He got a copy of the script, but it was in Hebrew.
“I Google translated it into English, and I read it,” he says.
Even in that format, he knew he wanted to take the part. “The story was so truthful, so genuine. I am an immigrant. I left Iran. I could identify with each and every character, and I’ve dealt with them, so it was like me telling my own life story. And I wanted to be part of it...The character I’m playing is very similar to my younger brother, who stayed behind [in Iran] and when I left and went to Germany, I said, ‘Why don’t you leave?’ and he said, ‘No, who’s going to take care of Mom and Dad?’... I believe there is a Moti [the rebellious son] in all of us, who becomes a Yitzhak [the stern father],” says Negahban, who grew up in Mashhad, Iran, and left as a teenager, living in Turkey and Bulgaria, before he settled in Germany.
After a few Skype conversations between Neghaban and Delshad, it was a done deal.
“I knew Navid understood the essence of the character,” says Delshad, who is the son of Iranian immigrants and admits the film has some autobiographical elements.
Negahban’s father, a bank director, and his mother, a school principal, hoped Negahban would become a doctor, but he was determined to act. His first role was in a German children’s theater production of Puss in Boots, where he learned his lines by writing them out phonetically in Farsi.
Through great determination, talent and a knack for making good decisions, he built an acting career, moving to America and getting parts in television shows such as 24 and The West Wing, as well as small roles in movies, including Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.
When he heard about the screenplay for the pilot of Homeland, an adaptation of the Israeli series Prisoners of War, he was intrigued, and asked around until he got to see it. In a similar situation to how he felt about the Baba Joon screenplay, he knew he had to play Abu Nazir, who only had a few lines in that first episode.
“Homeland was revolutionary. I had never seen a script like that. It was so brave, not having a hero, but telling a story, creating questions...As I read it, the scenes were coming to life for me, I sat down and started daydreaming about this character.”
Asked the question he will probably be answering for the rest of his life, he explains how he got into the character of Abu Nazir. “I saw the character as a man, a human being... He is trying to protect his beliefs, his environment. I saw him as a teacher. He had a need to explain himself to [Nicholas] Brody [the US prisoner of war whom Abu Nazir convinces to change sides], he doesn’t want to be misunderstood... Abu came to life in the pilot during the moment when he is forcing Brody to beat Walker [a fellow Marine in captivity] and Brody breaks down and collapses on his shoulder and I put my arm around him. I improvised that moment. I felt their connection.”
Since leaving Iran, Negahban has acted in some Iranian films made abroad, among them Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M., about a woman killed after her husband, played by Negahban, creates a rumor that she has been unfaithful. “That was the only character I really hated myself for doing. For weeks afterward, whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw that person. My mother saw it and she told me she was crying, not only because of the story... but because she saw what I had to do to myself to play the part.”
Getting to play the complex, starring role in his native tongue in Baba Joon (Negahban speaks only a few lines in Hebrew) was also a very emotional experience.
“When I breathed in the air of Israel, in the Negev, I felt at home, it felt familiar,” says Negahban, who has documented this visit on his twitter account (@NavidNegahban). “There are some people who want to know what I’m doing, and there are some people just in Iran who are curious about Israel.”
Building a career abroad hasn’t been easy, but it has been satisfying. “You miss home but you carry it in your heart. And playing Yitzhak triggered so many feelings and memories for me.”
He recently filmed another movie partly in Israel, Damascus Cover, a spy story directed by Daniel Zelik Berk, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Olivia Thirlby, as well as Israeli actors Aki Avni, Igal Naor and Tsahi Halevi.
Asked whether he misses being part of the Homeland ensemble since Abu Nazir was killed off in season two, he says, “It was a great journey and it was great for me. The character comes, tells a story and when it’s done, it’s done.”