The Man of a Thousand Faces: Navid Negahban

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Why you should care

Because his journey to stardom has been anything but easy.

You might have seen him in 24, FX’s Legion or even Homeland. Now, Iranian American actor Navid Negahban is embarking on his second season of Tehran on Apple TV and … building an artist haven in LA. Join him this week on The Carlos Watson Show as he sits down with the “man of a thousand faces” himself to discuss leaving Iran, his latest adventure and finding true happiness. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

On Getting Out of Iran and Into the Theater

Carlos Watson: How hard was it for you to leave Iran, given everything that was going on? Did you have to do it quietly or in stealth?

Navid Negahban: It was difficult. Carlos, realize, see, you guys grew up here. I’m sorry. I just need to clarify something. You guys grew up here. When you were going to high school, the whole hallway was covered with trophies and pictures of the proms and this and that. When we were walking down the hallways, all the pictures on the wall, there were pictures of our friends with a black ribbon over it, because most of us were going to war. There were no adults in the city.

Watson: And Navid, to be clear, you’re talking about the Iran-Iraq war.

Negahban: Yes. And that was when I left. I left in the middle of it. I left in ’85. It was very difficult. I went to Turkey. I lived in Turkey for a while. I tried to come to America. They wouldn’t give me a visa. Then I went to Germany, and I tried again for a visa to come to America. They didn’t give it to me. So I applied for asylum in Germany. They put me in a refugee camp called Ingelheim refugee camp. It’s like a war prison camp with the barbed wires around it. You cannot leave until you are processed. Then they processed me, and I was sent to Kaiserslautern. Kaiserslautern is a city that is very close to Vogelweh and Ramstein. All the American military bases were there. And they had an amazing theater company called Rheinland-Pfalz-Theater.

They were auditioning for Sunday in Park With George. I couldn’t speak German. I had a friend who had to translate the play for me to understand exactly what the play is. And I went to the audition and I got the part, but I didn’t have a work permit, because I wasn’t allowed to work. I was still under that asylum status.

I went to a police department and I said, “I don’t need social welfare. I don’t need governmental help. Let me work. I found this job, and I’m really passionate about it, and I want to do it.” I was the only guy from our group and the first guy from our group who got a permit. I went and I got the job. And I will never forget the chief of police and some of the staff who were in the police department. All of them came to the opening to support me. And that was the start of my career. I’m telling you, it was a life-changing moment for me. And I found myself in Germany.

Watson: Navid, what would have happened if they had said “no,” do you think?

Negahban: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I would have found a way to do it. I would have done it, even if I would have done it under the table without getting paid. The thing is that the word “impossible” doesn’t exist … it is only in our head. Before this theater happened, because I was very eager to be my own man, I used to go there, take my dictionary, go to that police department and say, “I’m here to help you. There are lots of Iranian people who don’t speak German. I sit here. If you need help, I will translate for you.”

See, all these steps that you are taking sometimes if you start thinking about it, you think, “Why am I doing it?” I mean, it is insane that you don’t speak German, you go and you say, “I want to be a translator.” That was it. That was the journey. And step by step you find your way, and you move forward.

Every door that slams in your face, or every door that doesn’t open, it doesn’t mean there’s a cul-de-sac. It just means changing direction. There is a road sign for you. The universe is giving you a sign. OK, you cannot go straight. Turn right or turn left. If you’re standing and keep hitting your head against the wall, it’s not going to work. There is a way, just find it.

An Artist Haven in LA? Perfect

Watson: And what made you decide to start this artist’s haven?

Negahban: When I came here back in ’93, I couldn’t speak English, and it was very difficult. And I was coming from Germany with no money, it was very difficult. I remember I was driving a cab. Then I bought a shuttle. I was driving a shuttle. Most of the time, especially when I was in LA, I was sleeping in my car. And I was sleeping on the park benches, and the trunk of my car was my office. I had my headshot, my résumé. At that time you could go and knock on the doors and drop in hard copies. That’s what I used to do every morning and take a shower at the 24 Hour Family Fitness, getting out, dress up nicely, go, “Hello. How are you? Thank you.”

Carlos, it was crazy. I really got screwed here. I bought this place about three years ago, and everything that I did … everything is here: a house, a mechanic shop and a gas station. I turned a mechanic shop into this beautiful soundstage. And I’ve had musicians who came here played, and they recorded. I had photographers. I had a couple of people that came and they shot movies here. It’s a house that can house up to six artists in it, which I’m still working on. I’m still trying to finish it.

It has a basement. And then outside I’m turning the gas station into an ice cream coffee shop. The artists who can stay in the house, if they need to have a source of income, they can share the ice cream among themselves and start working there, because if they live in one place, they can run their place, and they can make money, and they can use the facility.

And outside I have 4-by-7 panels, and all these panels I’m turning them into canvases for street kids. Because the street kids are coming, they’re tagging the walls, and they run away. Now they don’t have to run away. I give them paint, I give them canvas. And at the end, I will have an exhibition. Whatever piece is sold, the kid will get the money. Have you ever seen the movie Boys Town?

My favorite line from that movie is, “There are no bad boys, only bad societies.” This place is color-blind, religious-blind. You can be whoever you are. You can be whatever you are. When you are here, you are the same. You are equal. And I’m trying to create a space like a support system for the artist by the artists who they are here and they are mentoring. This has been my dream, and basically, it’s just what I wish I had when I came here.

Feeding His Spirit Animal

Watson: Who is your spirit animal, do you think? Do you know?

Negahban: That animal is the one that keeps me going. I mean, I’ve always been fascinated with the black puma. There’s strength, there’s sophistication. At the same time, they are not as aggressive as you think they are, but they stand their ground. And they go for what they want. A while back — about 10, 11 years ago — I got to the point that I was sitting on the couch and I couldn’t do anything. I was completely lost. I couldn’t create, I couldn’t think, nothing was there. I became just a machine, working on providing for the family. And I didn’t know what I should do. I took a trip, and I went to Germany. I rented a car, and then I drove to all those theaters that I performed in, all those places that I worked in, all those cities.

It took me about 15 days. I was just on the road. I didn’t stop. I just kept going. Then I saw my friends who have made a difference in their lives. And they have businesses, they have this, they have that. They are very happy, and they are very successful. I go there and they say, “Oh, Navid, I did this because you said that. I’m doing this because you said this.” I said, “What happened to me? I cannot find myself anymore.”

Then all those elements, all those teeny-tiny elements, Carlos, it woke something up inside me, and I found myself. I realized that I became like a machine. I lost those innocent things that were inside me that I didn’t care about. So I came back, and I stopped caring. I mean, I stopped worrying. And I said, “I’m just going to do it.” Because when I left, I didn’t care where I’m going. I just took my backpack and I left. I left with three suitcases. By the time I got to Germany, I had only one backpack and a duffel bag.

I got rid of everything. And I came here and the whole system, and then I looked at myself and said, “What do I want to do with it?” I came naked. I will go naked. I don’t need to worry about any of those things, I just need to be. And that changed my life. I’m a much happier person.

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