August 22, 2019

Exclusive Interview: Iranian Jewish Actress Bahar Soomekh

By Karmel Melamed

January 2006

While the Iranian Jewish community has countless renowned doctors, attorneys and other professionals to point to with admiration, the very talented Bahar Soomekh has become the first and so far only Iranian Jewish actress to have achieved substantial success in Hollywood after landing prominent roles on network television series and major blockbuster films including “Syriana” and the soon to be released “Mission Impossible 3”. Her on-screen magic has made Bahar the pride and joy as well as envy of every young Iranian Jew aspiring to enter the entertainment industry. Bahar’s heartfelt and remarkable performance was captured two years ago after she played “Dorri”, a young Iranian woman in the Academy Award-winning film “Crash” that attracted the attention of Hollywood insiders. Her career has since been launched into orbit with supporting roles in other prominent films. Recently she shared with me her experiences of growing up in our community here in Los Angeles and her difficult journey in making it big as an actress in the entertainment industry.

Can you share with us some background on yourself and where you grew up?

I was born in Iran, Tehran on March 30th. My father is poet and he wanted to name me Bahar, which means ‘Spring’ and named my sister ‘Saba’ which is a ‘light wind in spring’. We traveled around a little before we moved to Los Angeles but we moved from Iran in 79’ before the revolution. I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles, I learned English literary from watching TV and I went to private Jewish school called Sinai Akiba Academy. I then I went to Beverly Hills High School.

What type of training have you had for acting or on stage performance?

I did a little bit of theatre as a kid, I was in an opera but my father who is a lover of music was very encouraging of me playing the violin. I played the violin for 13 years and I used to play with the junior philharmonic. So when I was in school I wanted to act, but acting at that time was just for fun…yet it was always my passion and what I yearned to do. But my father really wanted me to continue playing my violin, so I was the girl in the orchestra pit who would be playing the violin for all the shows that they used to do at Beverly but would enviously look up on stage and wish I was one of the performers up there. From our generation, I was one of the first Persian girls to go away (for college) so I went to U.C. Santa Barbara. There were no Persians, no Jews there and I was just able to lose myself, have fun and enjoy the college life. What I studied at Santa Barbara was environmental studies and just doing theatre for fun there—never thinking I could pursue it as a career. I later came back to Los Angeles, got a corporate job and I was just miserable and devastated working behind a computer in a building, not doing what I loved which was acting. My experience was with theatre but Los Angeles is more of the place for television and film as opposed to theatre, and I had no real training for television. So I had a daytime job doing motivation sales, but meanwhile after work would end, I’d run to Hollywood to take acting classes that started at 7 pm and end at 2 am. I did that for a couple of years to get myself trained and get a better understanding of the world beyond theatre. I had to support my career and get an education at the same time.

When did you know you wanted a career in acting and what motivated you to enter the profession?

I always wanted to. I went to Beverly and all my American friends were acting and everyone I knew and their mother was in the industry. But it was not encouraged in the Persian community and all my American friends were struggling at it, so I decided to keep it as a hobby and not a career. Once I got into a real career in the corporate world I was seriously miserable and I just didn’t want to be 40 and looking back and thinking ‘what if I could’ve but never gave it a chance?’ It’s really scary but with acting there is no guarantee. It’s so different than anything else because in the corporate world you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition and 90% of time there is rejection. So it’s really trying on your self-confidence and there’s no financially stability, so that’s why I needed to keep my full time job and study on the side. So at lunchtime I just went out for an audition, sneaked out here and sneaked out there, ran across to Burbank and auditioned and ran back to the office. But I had to do it, ultimately the turning point was when I said ‘I’m ready, I think I’m trained and I just have to give it a try’—so the scariest thing I ever did was quit my full time job to pursue acting full time. That was two-and-half years ago. I quit my job, started pursing acting seriously and not even three months later I booked ‘Crash’.

The entertainment industry is very competitive, how difficult was it for you as a person of Middle Eastern background to break into Hollywood as an actress?

The most difficult part was being type-casted. In the beginning it was especially tough after 9/11, all the parts I was going out for said that they were willing to see me for a terrorist, the terrorist’s wife, or the terrorist who blew himself up. For every other part I had to have a Middle Eastern accent—I played an F.B.I. agent on a show and I had to have an accent. But the reality would be that if I was working for the F.B.I., living in the United States I wouldn’t have such a hardcore Middle Eastern accent, I would have assimilated by then and lost the accent. Even though I don’t necessarily only look Middle Eastern, I could play Italian or Spanish, if you’re Middle Eastern you can only play a Middle Eastern. So that was one of most frustrating things, I knew I had to do that to build up my resume until something phenomenal would come by and it doesn’t matter than I’m Middle Eastern I could play anybody in any movie or TV show. So ‘Crash’ was that movie for me.

How did you come about landing the role of ‘Dorri’ in the film ‘Crash’?

I fought very hard to get this part. When they were auditioning people, my agent wasn’t very good at the time I had heard about this film. I had read the script and I was dying…my heart was aching to be part of it. I loved my character Dorri so much and really related to her and how she was feeling, so I kept calling my agent and said ‘they’re auditioning for this part’. The way I found out was that there was this Indian girl who wanted to hire me to teach her how to speak Farsi for the movie. I had been waiting six months for them start casting for that film and I said ‘no way am I going to teach this girl how to speak Farsi, this is my part!’ I kept calling my agent and he wouldn’t even try, he was like ‘yeah, yeah I’ll take care of you’ and I heard through the grapevine that they were going to offer another woman the part. So in desperation I called the one person I knew, another Jewish Persian girl in the industry at a very prestigious agency called William Morris—her name is Ashley Daneshrad. I called her and said ‘I need you to do me this favor, there’s this part and my agent can’t get me in, can you try to get me in?’ She called them and said don’t give the part to this other woman until you give Bahar Soomekh a chance. So I went in there totally as the underdog, but I went in there and gave them my heart, my soul, and love for Dorri. I felt like I owed it to all the people that came to this country and loved and took care of their parents…I owed it to them to breath life into Dorri. I sobbed my eyes out in the audition, they said ‘thank you’ and I walked out. I went into my car and literary cried for about forty minutes because I loved her so much and it hurt me think that I wouldn’t be able to do this film. And then two days later I got the call that I booked it.

In “Crash” your character frequently speaks Persian to the character playing your father, has knowing Persian and the culture been an asset to landing your roles?

Oh absolutely. It’s a story about L.A. and Persians are a significant part of L.A.’s population. My character was a first generation in the United States, but my character didn’t necessarily have to be Persian it could be any culture whose kid goes up in the United States and whose parents still have not assimilated. I can’t tell you how many people outside of the Persian community related to my character. When you’re a first generation who almost takes on a parental role with your parents, and my character was the same way, that kept going to the store when something went wrong. I related to it on a Persian level because I’m very protective about my parents, since I knew English better and understood the American culture better that I had to take care of my parents. I understood the dynamics of a strong family bond.

What has the experience of working opposite major Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise on large-scale films been like for you? Is the work as glamorous as people think it is?

First of all it’s so surreal. You just brought up M.I.-3, Tom Cruise was my childhood crush, and I was obsessed with Tom Cruise since ‘Top Gun’. I can recite every single line of that film and here I am, I get to meet and work with him…it’s just surreal. Not just with him, but also with so many other phenomenal actors, in ‘Crash’ I got to work with Don Cheadle. Don is probably one of the most talented and remarkable artists I have ever known. I got to work with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible 3, and he’s just another creative genius. It’s real, exciting, and so fun to see the people that I’ve watched on TV, to be collaborating with them and make art with them.

Iranian Jewish parents seem to want their children to join professional occupations, what was your family’s reaction when you told them you wanted to be an actress?

My parents were not encouraging in the beginning. Of course who wants to see their daughter out of work all the time because they’re not booking something and every parent wants their child be a doctor or lawyer. But my sister and I have always been non-traditional and doing things we were passionate about like environmental work. At first they were definitely hesitant, now they’re so proud and excited. My parents have been such good role models for me and represent what a lot of Persian Jews in L.A. represent, which is hard-working people that love their families. They really committed their lives to making a good living for their families…and not giving up. Even though they weren’t excited about me becoming an actress, they never ever said ‘don’t do it’ and they never tried to say ‘don’t do it and you should become a doctor or lawyer’. They said it’s not the best industry and this is a tough world, but if this is what you want to do, then we support you.

What type of response or feedback have you received from the Iranian Jewish community since you’ve achieved success in landing roles on major television and film projects?

It’s so sweet and I am so grateful. It’s so nice to have a community that really supports you and is proud of you. Wherever I go, people I don’t even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community. It’s really a lot of brotherly and sisterly love – I’m overwhelmed and honored by it all. The older generation has been so encouraging and telling me how proud they are and it’s unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me ‘it’s always been my dream and I’m living vicariously through you’.

How important is Judaism in your life now and how are you involved in the community?

Judaism a significant part of who I am in my life. I went to Sinai Temple, I learned my English there, and I’m a member of that congregation. I think Judaism has enriched my life and developed who I am. I hope to raise my family with the values and ideals of Judaism, and the big one for me is ‘Tikkun Olam’. I studied environmental education and one of the things I think is important is the health of our environment or children’s issues. One of my dreams is to utilize whatever I can and utilize my name to bring attention to certain causes involving environmental and children’s issues.

You’ve landed amazing roles on widely movies like “Crash”, “Syriana”, and “Mission Impossible 3”, as so what’s next for you?

Acting, I love acting and that’s where I want to be. Right now my agent, manager, and I are in the process of deciding what my next move is.

What advice do you have for other young Iranian Jews looking to enter the entertainment industry but are facing opposition from their parents?

I would say their passion and commitment to it should be a 110-percent and honestly don’t give up. Even as an actress it might take several years to establish yourself, get recognized in the industry and build a resume of good work until you get acknowledged and recognized. So it’s constant hard work and chipping away at it. Tell your family that ‘I need you to support me because this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done’.

This interview was originally published in the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine: