Forget Kirk vs. Picard. Faran Tahir is hands down the Best Starfleet Captain Ever for his role as Captain Robau in 2009's Star Trek. This year, Mr. Tahir returns to the big screen with two science fiction extravaganzae, Elysium and Escape Plan.
We caught up with Tahir and asked him a few questions.
io9: According to your bio, you were born in Los Angeles and grew up in Pakistan, returning to the United States at age 16. That must have been an interesting cultural transition.
When I was born my parents were at the theater school at UCLA, so it’s something I grew up with. Moving was a cultural transition because we didn’t have all the social media facilities that we have today, so it was a bit of an adjustment. And the other adjustment you make is you realize all of a sudden that you are completely by yourself. It’s been a learning experience which I feel blessed about. I wouldn’t change anything.
Completely by yourself?
I came back because the political situation in Pakistan at the time was not conducive for me to be there. I moved to a very small town in the middle of Maryland and didn’t have too many people around from my community or even very many friends at all. So it was a moment when you kind of reflect on yourself and where you’re going. It was a bit of an adjustment.
Your parents have a background in theater, yet when you told them you wanted to drop economics and business and study acting, they begged you to reconsider.
In retrospect, I really am glad that they made me soul search. When I told them I wanted to be an actor, they asked why. They didn’t say no, they asked why. They wanted to make sure that regardless of how much or how little talent I had, in the end, I would not be a broken person.
In this business you can have great successes and you can have great failures. The question is how you deal with either one of them and how that affects your core as a human being. I think their challenging me made me take a look at it and ask “how am I going to operate in this reality?”
Because, of course, there are no guarantees. It’s a field where merit has something to do with it and luck has something to do with it, as well as connections, all of that. So I’m grateful that they put me through this exercise of trying to figure out how I would handle either success or failure.
You’ve spoken extensively about the challenges actors of South Asian descent face with typecasting and stereotyping in American films. How has this affected your career?
It’s changing. I think it’s changing because we are growing in numbers and we are in every walk of life now, so there is more breadth to our presence in this culture. That is having an effect.
Has there been stereotyping? Yes, there has been stereotyping, no doubt about that. But sometimes stereotyping happens not because of any nefarious reasons but rather because people don’t know who you are or where you come from so they go for the broad strokes about you, your culture, your faith, all that.
But I think you’re seeing more and more nuanced characters coming out, greater frequency of characters coming out in part because we don’t just focus on domestic box office anymore. The box office has become global. I think that factors in to the question of how to portray different ethnicities and cultures. I think the next decade is going to be very interesting to watch and be part of.
Speaking of the global box office, Escape Plan is an American film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and was directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström. That’s quite an international production.
Globally I think it will do well. The three of us try to escape out of a prison, so you see someone of South Asian ethnicity in a decent role. The prison we break out of is a kind of shadow prison where you see people of different ethnicities from all around the world, so you see all of that come into play.
You’ve also done a good deal of work on television. What has your experience been like dealing with ethnic stereotypes in that medium?
The thing I’m seeing in television that I’m very happy about is that there’s an openness to dialogue, which is always encouraging. You can engage people and say “you’ve written the character this way, but if we add this or take this out it will serve us better.” You don’t have to win every battle, but you can at least start a conversation or put that thought in the head of someone so the next time they write they’ll have that in their thought process.
Elysium was directed by Neill Blomkamp who also directed District 9. Both of these films touch on issues of race and class differences in society. How have your experiences with these issues in the real world affected your approach to this project?
I think you can do science fiction, but you have to ground it in some realism. People need to identify with the characters, with their plights and their issues.
Elysium deals with elitism and immigration. People have asked me if my character is good or evil. That’s not the way to approach it. We need to make the characters believable and have them present their case and let the audience decide who’s good and who’s bad.
Neill is an amazing director and writer. He does take hot button issues, like he did in District 9, and sets them slightly in a fictional zone but not so far that you get detached from it. He does the same thing in Elysium.
Elysium is a space stations where all good things happen and all the grunge work happens on Earth. Naturally, all the people on Earth want to get up to Elysium and the people on Elysium don’t want people from Earth coming in, so there’s this palpable tension between the two.
My character is the president of Elysium, so he deals with all this with some nuance and some sensitivity. His counterpart is the defense secretary, played by Jodie Foster who has a whole other idea of how to deal with this issue. So you have some really great layered characters that you’ll be seeing on screen.