There’s a lot of baggage that comes along with playing the World’s Most Wanted terrorist, on one of television’s most popular shows. To see how one handles such a polarizing role—both on AND off screen—I called up Navid Negahban, who plays Abu Nazir, the man at the center of the United States’ war on terrorism on Showtime‘s hit show, Homeland. Navid, who’s currently smack dab in the middle of shooting a new pilot in Abu Dhabi, spoke at length about the many layers of his character, his bond with Damian Lewis (that’s Sergeant Nicholas Brody to you), and the reaction he gets from fans all around the world.
Beware those who aren’t yet caught up: SPOILERS AHEAD!
OK! Magazine: So let’s get right into it! Are you as big a fan of the show as the rest of the world?
Navid Negahban: I am. When it came out, it was revolutionary because no one had ever done a show like this before. I was completely taken by it when I read the pilot. I said, “I have to be on this show.”
OK!: You and the writers have found a way to make the audience fear you, hate you and sympathize with you all at the same time. How are you able to portray those layers?
NN: First of all thank you so much. The thing about the character is, that when I read the script, I saw the layers. But to be honest, the character was born at the end of the pilot. The scene that you see Damian breaking down and I take him in my arms, that was the first scene that I shot with Damian, and the first time we worked together. That moment wasn’t even written in the script, but the way we both connected to each other gave birth to Abu Nazir. He has his own life and his own journey. We didn’t want to manipulate that.
OK!: Do you feel the same connection with Damian off screen?
NN: We have a very friendly bond even off screen when we hang out. To me, I believe that the love [between Abu and Nicholas] is deeper than the connection we have as actors, but that generated the connection between Navid and Damian.
OK!: So because you are a fan of the show, I have to ask— do you think Brody is a terrorist? Where do you think the show is going?
NN: Oh gosh. That’s a loaded question. I think this season we will get to know us all better. And there are lots of unanswered questions that hopefully will be answered.
OK!: And is there any chance we’ll see you pop up in a flashback?
NN: From your mouth to God’s ear. [laughs] I don’t know! Everyone asks me and they say, “Oh you know something, tell me what you know!” And I say, “I swear to God I don’t know!” I don’t think so. I mean, I haven’t heard anything from them.
OK!: Did you know where your character would end up at the end of this season? Were you given any time to process that before the script came in?
NN: Okay, that’s a funny story! While we were working, once in awhile I would get together with the writers, the showrunner, to sit down to talk about the characters, but I wasn’t getting those calls anymore. And every time I saw them in person, they would divert their eyes and shy away and I said to myself, “Something is cooking here!” So during the premiere of the second season, I walked up to [producer] Alex Gansa, and said, “So Alex, do I have to look for a job for next season?” And all of a sudden he turns around and he goes, “What! Who told you that?” And I said, “No one told me that.. but you just told me!”
OK!: Will you miss playing him?
NN: To be honest, the character accomplished what he was supposed to do and keeping him longer was a waste of airtime. The only part I feel bad about is, to work on a character so complex, with so many layers, is an actor’s dream. To me it was fascinating that this character had so little to say, so everything he said…each word… had to have a story behind it.
OK!: So with a character so complex did you have trouble not bringing him home at the end of the day?
NN: You know, when I was shooting him I tried. The thing is, I believe as an actor, you become a library. And in the library, you have different books stashed. You might never look at them but they lie in the library. When you’re working on a character and creating a new personality, you always put it in that library and it makes you richer inside. And for me, I love all the different colorful books on the show. On the day I’m shooting, I try to stay in the character. Sitting there, you never know when you need to call up on those emotions. Does that make sense?
OK!: Yes, of course! It’s just like real life, where we have these experiences that we learn from and take with us and we move through our own journeys.
NN: Yes, that’s exactly it! For example, before I went to Israel to shoot [Homeland], I went there for a wedding. So [it was my first time there and] they kept me in the interrogation room for about 4 ½ hours.They were asking me these questions and looking at me and going back and forth, back and forth. Maybe it was my own fault. But while I was sitting in the room, I could see the way they looked at each other, the way they behaved; you could see the pulses on their necks. After, I said, “Oh I’m coming back in May, I’m here to shoot,” and one said, “What are you shooting!!?” And I said, “No! No, I’m filming here! I’m coming to film Homeland.” I’m like a little kid that plays with fire sometimes.
OK!: You can’t say “shoot” in an Israeli airport!
NN: The moment “Homeland” came out of my mouth, a guy came out from behind the screen and said, “Yes, of course! You’re Abu Nazir!” [Aferwards], I told the producers, and they said they would’ve gotten me clearance. But that was the best time I had. I would’ve never had the opportunity to be in the room and see and feel how someone like Abu would feel. So to me, it all added up to the way the character becomes richer and I really enjoyed every second of it.
OK!: Because the character you play stirs up so many emotions for a lot of people, have you ever felt any sort of misplaced anger from fans? Any backlash?
NN: Yes. I’ve had that happen to me. Especially when I have my beard, and I’m very scruffy. I look kind of scary…I scare myself! But I understand it. I think there is a fear of the unknown inside everyone. But in reality, I believe the spirit itself, the soul itself, it doesn’t have any color, religion, gender, or nationality. If we treat each other as the soul is supposed to be treated, we’re not going to have this many problems.
I love this quote: “You will see the truth when you are blind and you will hear the truth when you are deaf.” When you see people for who they are, it’s a completely different experience. I have had experiences with people, and the way they looked at me and responded to me, there were so…ready to defend themselves. I wasn’t assaulting. It was just because of lack of knowledge. It was because they were afraid. If I say anything or do anything I will scare them more. So I walk away. I smile and I say, “Yes, thank you.” I mean, this is one of those conversations that will take forever. It’s a conversation that is never ending.
OK!: I feel like you’re put in a very interesting position having played this role.
NN: I am.
OK!: You’re now in the role to be able to teach people what it’s like on the other side.
NN: You know, I love what you just said. You know what happened to me in Israel? I was at the coffee shop and someone walks up to me and said “You’re playing Abu Nazir! Good job. Thank you.” So I said, “You’re welcome.” And he said, “I never saw the other side,” and then walked away. It touched me. Sometimes, when you go through your journey as an actor, you are able to float out of your body and see different situations and different people. As an actor, you can’t go in and say OK, I’m going to be playing a terrorist. Then it’s a caricature of the character.
OK!: So many of your past roles have been this certain kind of character. Is there a totally different role you’d like to play? Is there a romantic comedy in your future perhaps?
NN: [laughs] I’m a funny guy, I swear to god! But nobody sees me as a funny guy. I love to laugh. I love to make people laugh. The first time I stepped on the stage and fell in love with acting, I was playing an older man, I was 8 years old, and the audience were all these rigid, Iranian parents, sitting very properly in the school auditorium, and I was performing and they couldn’t stop laughing! And I said, “Oh my god! See what I can do?” I was hoping to be a comedian, not the most wanted man in the world! But that’s okay.
OK!: You know we have something in common, because I’m not an actress, but one of my first roles was also an old man.
OK!: Yes, I was the grandfather who didn’t get to go to the chocolate factory in a play of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. But I didn’t get as good of a response as you.
NN: [laughs] Well we all start somewhere.
OK!: There’s some Emmy buzz about your character of Abu Nazir. How do you even process something like that?
NN: I try not to even think about it. Everyone is talking about it and chatting and it’s amazing and truly, it’s a great honor to be part of the buzz. But I don’t know. I’ve never been in this situation. I started on the stage…so that energy that you receive feeds you. To me, the reaction to that, or the way [people are] talking about you, or the people that walk up to you, and the group of people I work with…that was my reward.
OK!: What’s next for you? What can we look forward to?
NN: I just finished something with Fred Schepisi called Words and Pictures. It’s with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, and I’m playing a headmaster of a prep school. So the only ones I’m terrorizing now are the students!
What do you think will happen on the next season of Homeland? Do you think Abu Nazir will show up in some capacity? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us @OKMagazine.