A couple days ago, I had an engaging and memorable conversation with Navid Negahban, the Iranian-born actor who portrays the Al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir. He is a brilliant, insightful man with a beautiful mind who speaks with immense passion about his work on Homeland, especially when he talks about his adoration for the cast and crew. We talked at length about a variety of topics including what ideas and values Abu Nazir represents, the questions the show raises about our relations with the rest of the world, and why he respects Homeland’s message about humanity. Plus, he shared what it was like growing up in Iran during the war with Iraq, and he gave me some words of wisdom about how we should treat each other. I admire his peaceful perspective a great deal. We also laughed A LOT, and I hope you’ll enjoy our discussions as much as we did.
BLAST MAGAZINE: Let’s cut to the chase. You died a few days ago.
NAVID NEGAHBAN: Yes.
BLAST: So my first question is, how does it feel to say goodbye to this character, and how do you feel the show handled Abu Nazir’s death?
NN: It’s certainly kind of sad. Saying goodbye to a character is sad. But we don’t know what is going to happen next season. At this point I can say, there’s a goodbye, but we need to see where the storyline is going to go. And how they handled him, he did what he needed to do. He said what he needed to say. At this point, I think it’s for you to decide. Do you feel like he did what he was supposed to do, do you think he was able to raise some questions?
BLAST: I sort of knew it was coming. It was inevitable at that point, the way the season was going. They definitely hinted at it when he was talking to Carrie. It sure seemed like he was ready to die. Nazir resigned himself to that.
NN: He was ready to give his life for what he believed.
BLAST: Yeah. And I don’t know how you feel about this, but it felt like he was giving up a little bit, in terms of the plan with Walden. He didn’t like Walden, but his style was always more mass casualties. So it seemed as if he had given up on that and all he had left was to kill Walden.
NN: No, I think he got what he wanted. He made his point. And…well, let’s see what’s going to happen (laughs). Abu is the mastermind that you think he is.
BLAST: Okay. So, when I asked you how it felt to say goodbye to the character you seemed to be suggesting that you may not be saying goodbye completely.
NN: I don’t know, that’s the thing. I’m saying goodbye to the character, but you never know where the storyline’s going to go. There are so many different possibilities of where it could go. There might be a flashback. I hope that there’s a flashback. That’s what I meant by that. It is sad…no it is, kind of…I don’t know. Chris, you are getting me in trouble.
BLAST: I’m not trying to! I guess I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a straightforward question. I mean, I’ll put it this way. I questioned the fact that we didn’t see him get shot. We heard the gunshot, and everyone says he’s dead. But I’ve watched enough TV to know, if you don’t see the person get shot, you might want to ask questions.
NN: Actually, I’m glad that you are asking questions because I want to know the answer to those questions, too (laughs heartily).
BLAST: Okay, I’ll leave that one alone then. But, I don’t know. I don’t know how much you read television criticism, but I feel like people aren’t questioning his death at all. I feel like in general, it’s all “R.I.P Abu Nazir.” I think they are taking the episode title, “In Memoriam,” literally. I’m not so sure.
NN: I’m glad you’re asking questions. At the same time, I think Abu Nazir was representing a legacy. Abu Nazir was the face for an idea, the face of the movement, and the face of the other side. He was the other side of the coin. The other side of the coin will always stay the other side of the coin. The faces on the coin may change, but you never know what’s going to happen. That’s what I’m saying. You hear me?
BLAST: I do.
NN: For us, we still need to be aware of the things that are happening around the world and in our neighborhoods. Just being more present. That’s how I feel.
BLAST: In terms of what? You mean in the context of the show?
NN: Yes. The show tries to raise a question. The show tries to present a “What If” situation. And those “what ifs” are still there. Any given second, our actions might cause a reaction, so we have to be aware of how we are handling ourselves.
BLAST: Ok, I like that. I didn’t realize I would be putting you on the spot, because you can’t really say whether you’re dead or not. I get what you’re intimating. I’m not trying to get you in trouble, I hope you know that.
NN: No, no. I’m having fun talking with you. We are going very deep. I’m glad we are having this chat.
BLAST: Good! I agree. So, my next question. A couple episodes ago, in “Broken Hearts,” you had a riveting scene with Carrie (Claire Danes) where she was Nazir’s prisoner, and you two discussed the war, of sorts, between the East and the West. And Nazir mentioned that for generations they’ve been prepared to make the sacrifices to win. He also criticized American extravagance and exceptionalism a bit. First off, I thought you did an amazing job of acting alongside Claire Danes. You held your own.
NN: Thank you.
BLAST: I also wanted to get your opinion on how that conversation went and how well it portrayed the ideological conflict between the East and the West.
NN: I thought it was a very good attempt. It was a good attempt to get us to pay a little more attention. Because I think the conflict isn’t between the East and the West, it’s between ideologies. It’s about how we are not respecting everybody’s belief systems. I’m not talking about just us disrespecting them; I’m talking about them not respecting us either. Both sides believe their way is a better way. I truly believe—this is one of those rules I try to live my life by—you are free to do as you please as long as your freedom does not take away from my freedom. I hope you write this down so that people understand where I’m coming from. It’s not that I’m taking sides. The way I look at life, there are no sides.
For instance, when I’m walking down the street, and a person is walking toward me, and only one of us can pass, I never expect the person to stop and move away for me to pass. But I would appreciate it if the person would move to the side so we can pass together. One person doesn’t have to stop. That’s how I feel, if we lived our lives this way, it would create less tension. It doesn’t matter who that other person is, what their status is. When I’m passing the person I’m showing the same respect I’m expecting to be receiving. Don’t be thinking, why should I have to pivot, they should pivot. All that time you spend being angry about that is the time that has been taken away from you being productive. So, you should change your behavior, it will change your point of view. By changing your point of view, you’re changing their point of view and that will change their behavior. Try it! One day, try walking down the street, and whoever you see, whoever you make eye contact with, try giving them a genuine smile and say, “Have a good day no matter what.” They might look at you like you are crazy, but after a few steps they will says, “Yeah, I should be having a good day no matter what.” And that’s great. You’re generating a change with your smile.
BLAST: I like that. That’s awesome.
NN: Thanks man.
BLAST: You’re absolutely right we are having a really deep conversation. We aren’t even talking about the show anymore, we’re talking about life.
NN: Well, I think that one of the great things about the show is that it raises questions about issues people are trying to avoid, that they don’t want to think about. So, in a way we are talking about the show. One of the reasons the show has become so popular is because it is giving a different perspective. Something nobody thought about. Now people are saying, “Oh I get it, I see it.” You know how many emails I’m getting, or people walk up to me and have a chat with me and say, “Oh, I see it.” The American people who were not that familiar with the Middle East or with that side of the world, they are coming up to me and they are saying, “I feel for him. I never looked at it that way before.” They feel for Abu’s pain. The Middle Eastern people, the people who are very Americanized, they have been here for two generations. They have no accent, they don’t tell me if they are from Iran or wherever, and they say, “Thanks man, you’re doing a good job of showing the other side.” Both sides felt something in common. And that’s what we’re driving for. That’s why I asked you, do you think [Abu Nazir] did what he was supposed to do. And to me, when I look at it, I think yeah. He was supposed to raise a question. He did that. The question has been raised, now you have to look for an answer.
BLAST: Wow, that’s great. You’re giving me a lot to think about! Sort of a follow-up to the question I just asked you. Part of the conversation that struck me, the one between Abu Nazir and Carrie was when they were pointing out to each other how there isn’t much difference between the way the U.S intelligence community carries themselves and the way terrorists like Al-Qaeda and Abu Nazir carry themselves. The point is brought up that there isn’t much difference between a drone strike on a madras and strapping a bomb to a cart full of toys in a busy marketplace —these are similar tactics that both sides use.
NN: And both sides bring destruction. They’re destroying lives.
BLAST: Exactly. Basically, I was curious what your take is on that ethical question that they’re raising—which side is more justified? Because they seem to be arguing over who is right and who is going about this fight the right way. What’s your opinion on that?
NN: Are you asking me, or are you asking the character?
BLAST: Both! Both would be fine.
NN: (Laughs). If you are asking the character, he is definitely saying, don’t think that you are better than me. We are both fighting for what we believe in and we’re both destroying lives. It doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger, a life has been taken. It doesn’t matter where the life is coming from. If you are asking me as an actor…If I slap someone I’m causing a chain reaction. If I slap someone, my hand would hurt as much as that person’s face does. So to me, it doesn’t matter who is the enforcer, who is creating the problem. Both sides are being harmed. And I’m coming from a generation that went through war. We lost friends, we lost family members. I just thought it was useless. Sometimes I look back and I remember the war between Iran and Iraq. Do you know how many people got killed in that war? But for what? A piece of land that had more oil. Literally, it was for oil. Saddam (Hussein) thought he could take over that region and the Iranian people they said, “No, this is ours and we’re not going to give it to you.”
And if you look deeper into that war, you will realize how many people got killed. I remember I was in high school, and there weren’t soldiers, there weren’t enough males. Everyone was on the frontlines. High school kids had the option if they wanted: they could serve as a policeman in the city or they could go to the frontline. Every morning we used to go and get military training, because any second you could get called to the frontline to go fight. They would ask who wants to go. Some would volunteer to go. Or, you would go to school and you would see there’s a red tulip sitting on a student’s desk. Have you ever opened a red tulip? In the center, if you open the petals, you would see a black dot, and everything around it is red. And that represents a bullet wound.
NN: So, when we saw that red tulip on the desk, we knew our friend is not coming back.
NN: We learned from that. To be very honest with you, the thing I hate the most is war—going around and harming each other. Because if we all get together this world could be a beautiful place. And I’ve traveled, I’m a gypsy. I’ve never had a problem with people from different regions. I went to places where people told me, “Don’t go there, this is the most dangerous place.” but I went, I made a couple friends, I was invited into people’s homes, I ate their food, I got to know them, I took pictures, and I came out! I don’t know. If I can do it, why not everybody else?
BLAST: That’s a great question.
NN: Why can’t we just respect each other and be friends? So, we went a completely different direction now (laughs).
BLAST: No, that’s what an interviewer hopes for! You don’t disappoint, Navid. This is a great conversation.
NN: Thanks, man.
BLAST: No problem. But let’s move on to the next question. You got me thinking about so much I can’t concentrate.
NN: (Laughs) Sorry.
BLAST: No, that’s what I want! For you to get me thinking, it’s great. This is a different direction, but, as a TV critic I’m hyper-aware of how people react to episodes of Homeland. And in the second half of the season a lot of fans seem to be—angry is a strong word—disappointed in what they perceive to be ridiculous or implausible plots. One in particular, is Abu Nazir sneaking into the country. Many fans and critics think this would be impossible for him. Other objection by fans and critics is Walden’s murder via pacemaker. They thought it was contrived, and wouldn’t happen in real life. What’s your opinion on the legitimacy of these storylines? Do you feel the ends justify the means? Because I think we still got some great character moments out of those plots…
NN: Yeah, definitely.
BLAST: And it makes me think, does it matter if these things could happen or not, because they produced very human reactions.
NN: Thank you! You just answered yourself. That would have been exactly what I was going to say. I’m serious. I’ve been asked this question and I would have given the same answer again. To me, the thing is we have to look at where the show is supposed to be going. The show was supposed to raise a level of awareness, make us more aware of ourselves not necessarily our surroundings or everything that is happening around us. First of all, I’m grateful to all the audience members and critics for paying so much attention, to all the details. It means that we have…that we haven’t done that bad. We have got their attention, so they are paying attention to every small detail. And that’s says something good about the show. If people don’t ask these kinds of questions it means they weren’t paying attention. If they weren’t paying attention it would have meant then we haven’t done our job.
The other thing is, for Abu Nazir coming into this country. Why don’t these people go stand at the border, and see how many people are crossing the border, coming in and out.
BLAST: Thank you (laughs)! Thank you so much for saying that. That’s exactly what I said when I began to read what people were saying about it being impossible.
NN: And you know what it is? We feel protected, because we live in the cities and we say, “No, no, we are protected. Nothing can happen to us. Everything is safe.” They don’t hear what is happening out there. There are no borders out there. Somebody wants to do something I’m sure they can find a way to do it. And with Abu Nazir being so high-profile, and he even has people inside different offices. He is so well-connected. Do you think it is going to be difficult for him to come in with a false passport? Or, another way.
With Walden’s pacemaker, there has been some research that says it is possible if you have a hacker they would be able to do it. I’m not familiar with the technical aspect of it, but I have a feeling Henry [Bromell, who wrote the script for the episode, “Broken Hearts”] did his research. He’s one of those writers that is so…what he writes is very real. He has a book Little America. That’s a book I suggest you read. I recommend it, your readers should know about it.
There’s a saying, a friend of mine said it. “I’m old enough to know, what I don’t know.” That shows us not to assume we know everything. When someone talks to me about something I don’t know, I say, “I don’t know.” I don’t need to know everything. Teach me! Tell me another way. I love this saying. We shouldn’t go around pretending to know everything.
BLAST: I think people get defensive with television shows because they don’t like to feel like they are being tricked, like there’s a veil being pulled over their eyes stopping them from questioning things. So their response is to question everything. And I feel with a show like Homeland—and I agree Henry Bromell did his research—because they are so meticulous, when people feel they are taking shortcuts, it upsets them. I think in this case, it is so outside of most people’s realm of thinking that it’s hard for them to confront.
NN: That’s right. To be honest with you, when it comes to those issues and those points—we have full access to the Internet. We can go to Google and research before attacking instead of attacking and then researching. But you know what, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I respect that. If they don’t like the show or if somebody comes and says this was wrong, that’s from their point of view. I accept that. If nobody wants to accept that, they can do their own research.
BLAST: It also comes down to story-truth versus real life-truth. I think often that gets confused.
NN: Yes, if people are stopping me at the airport because they think I’m on their most wanted list, I’m assuming those people might think the same way about the pacemaker.
BLAST: (Roaring with laughter) Can I include that? That’s an amazing quote.
NN: (Laughs) Go for it!
BLAST: Oh wow…that was really funny.
NN: One of the best questions that I’ve gotten when I was being interviewed was, “Is it easier for you to play a terrorist because you grew up in Iran?”
BLAST: Ugh, that’s awful.
NN: (Almost choking with laughter)
BLAST: Man, people are nuts. That’s crazy, I love it.
NN: I wanted to tell the person, yes, every morning when my mom woke us up, after morning prayers she would show us pictures on the wall and say, “These are the infidels you are going to kill today.” That was a joke! (Laughs) Don’t print that out of context!
BLAST: No! I don’t want to make you look bad; I want people to read how awesome you are.
NN: Good! But they really asked me that question. And that was my first instinct, what I wanted to answer with, but I kept my mouth shut.
BLAST: He would have shit himself.
NN: (Hearty laugh) I didn’t say that! I kept my mouth shut and said, “There are other ways to explore that part of the world. I don’t think everybody that grows up there is a terrorist. You should look into it; watch some videos of the region.” And the interviewer said, “Oh, maybe I was misinformed.” I said, “Yes, maybe you were.”
BLAST: Let me put it this way, you’re a better person than I am because I probably would have said that joke. I would have done it.
NN: But it’s not that person’s fault if the person is misinformed and being fed wrong information. And it’s not about me attacking the person. It’s a misunderstanding. Instead of me attacking that person, it’s my responsibility to inform the person that not every person that is from that part of the world is raised a terrorist. That’s one of the things that gets lost. For a second it shocked me like, whoa! People are not born terrorists.
BLAST: That’s a great perspective. And I think, and you would probably agree with this, I don’t anybody is born evil or ignorant. I think what they’re exposed to, and the people that surround them influence the person they’re going to become.
NN: Yeah! I grew up watching a movie, Boys Town. Have you seen that movie?
BLAST: I haven’t.
NN: You should. Boys Town, with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. It had such a huge impact on me. It changed me as a person. I’m a vagabond, I’m a gypsy, and I’m a crazy guy who wants to ask questions, find new things, go exploring, and go to different places. I’m very curious. There’s a line in that movie where someone says, “These boys are bad.” And Spencer Tracy says, “There are no bad boys, we are creating them.” Something like that. Maybe I’m a crybaby, but I cried watching that movie. It is very sad the way we are labeling people and forcing them to become everything we were afraid of them to be. That is where things get dangerous.
BLAST: I definitely need to watch that movie. I trust your opinion. Especially, if it had such an impact on you. I hope it’s on Netflix.
NN: It’s also a real place. The movie was based on, or inspired by this center for boys.
BLAST: Cool. I have a few more small questions. What will you treasure most about your role as Abu Nazir? Obviously, you may not be done yet, but, what will you treasure most?
NN: How complex the character was. That was fascinating to me. So many different layers. He had to be very precise in what he was saying, and for that I’m grateful to the writers and creators. I was attracted by his legacy; I was so taken by that.
BLAST: That’s why I almost hope you aren’t done yet.
NN: Well, you never know (laughs).
BLAST: Again, not for certain yet, but when you have to say goodbye to this cast and crew, what are some of your best memories that you’ll take away from being on set?
NN: Every second I was there. No, seriously, it was like a family. It was very precious. My gosh, if I go through the list, everybody was so…so giving and so generous.
BLAST: That’s awesome. Any people in particular that you see yourself keeping in contact with for a long time?
NN: I think I’m in contact with most of them. It got to a point where we all were giving e-mails and texts, and it went back and forth, I was never too busy for them. But the whole crew was…it was very…lots of people gave the most heartfelt…my gosh, I don’t know. I miss all of them. I’m serious, now that you are asking me, and all the memories are going like a movie in front of my eyes and I remember the moments—Oh yeah, we did this, but the other day we did this. There’s so many good memories I don’t know which one I should pick. I’ll pick one. The first season, when I was still a guest, I got a call on the weekend from Diego [Klattenhoff, who plays Mike Faber] and Kim Kennedy—Kim Kennedy was our second AD. She was kind of keeping tabs on me, all of these things. What am I doing, what am I not doing? She would always watch out for me. She’d tell me they were going bowling, and she’d ask “Would you like to come?” She welcomed me even when I was a guest. It was very nice. I’ll also miss David Harewood (who plays David Estes) showing off his cooking expertise, always bragging about how he’s the best cook. But all of them. Good memories.
BLAST: This question is directed at Abu Nazir. Abu Nazir, if you could have any last words, what would you say to the American intelligence community or the American public?
NN: I’ll be back…
BOTH: (Burst out laughing)
BLAST: That’s genius. I didn’t know Abu Nazir was an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan.
NN: Oh he grew up watching Arnold Schwarzengger. He learned a lot from him. Abu was hoping he could be governor of California, but it didn’t work out for Abu.
BLAST: That’s upsetting. Did he try and recruit Arnold?
NN: Yeah (laughs)! What else would Abu say? He would say, treat people the way you like to be treated.
BLAST: Now, what are the final words of Navid Negahban? What will be the lasting legacy of your character and these two seasons of Homeland?
NN: Wow, it was a great experience, but am I ever going to find another character like Abu? I’m searching for the next Abu-like character. Chris, I’m telling you, this one and Ali in The Stoning of Soraya M., these two characters they…Ali was a torture to play him, it was a big challenge. There are those characters where you say I will take it, I will do it, but then you go deeper into him and he’s so complicated. The way he walks, the way he talks. You are building a whole new person. That’s the fun part. It’s like trying to pull each string and get at every part of him. It’s like one of those cutout dolls that you dress the way you want. You are creating those characters. That’s what it was like for me. Which outfit do I want? Yes, yes, that’s the one.
BLAST: Anything you can tell us about this weekend’s season finale (Sunday 10PM on Showtime)?
The one thing I can say about the season finale—do not TiVo, you should watch it. Because the moment that it airs, people are going to be talking about it and you won’t be able to avoid them. Anybody who wants to get the right impact and be completely satisfied with season two of Homeland, watch it when it airs. I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s going to make TV history.
BLAST: Wow, you have me licking my lips in anticipation…
NN: No but, I watch a lot of TV. Maybe I’ve missed it, I don’t know, but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a season finale like this. That’s all I can say.
BLAST: That’s great to hear. Well you’ve sure whet my appetite. Thank you so much, Navid. It’s been a pleasure talking with you; I hope this isn’t the last time we talk.
NN: Thank you, man. It’s been wonderful chatting with you. I hope we get to do it again and again. You never know…