Interview with Elysium’s Faran Tahir

Den of Geek sits down to discuss Elysium with Faran Tahir, as well as the finer points of big budget, high-concept acting, including his work in Star Trek, Iron Man and this October's The Escape Plan.

If you have enjoyed any of the better blockbuster launches in the last five years, then chances are you have enjoyed Faran Tahir’s fine work as an actor. Whether it is motivating Tony Stark to build his first armored suit or literally being there for the birth of Captain Kirk, one could say he has the ability to facilitating the genesis of these heroes. And as a respected character actor with a long history in theatre, he continues to appear in interesting projects every year, such as Warehouse 13 and this weekend’s opening Elysium. It is in build-up to the latter, as well as his upcoming work in October’s The Escape Plan with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, that allowed us to sit down with Tahir last month and discuss the finer points of working in this kind of high-concept cinema. DoG: You’re appearing in [this week’s] Elysium. In that film you play Minister Patel, so do you have the inside details of what’s going on in this guarded community among the stars and why Matt Damon wants to get there so badly? Faran Tahir: The movie is a real spectacular feast as far as the science fiction and all that is concerned. But it also has some very serious issues that they’re dealing with. The [hostility toward] immigration and all of that. The way that the movie is set up is that there are two places: A utopian place called Elysium, which is a space station, where life is just wonderful and all the people who work for Elysium are on Earth, where life is miserable. So, naturally the people who are miserable want some greater [way] to get to Elysium and the people on Elysium really don’t want that to happen. Also, if you were to change those names, Elysium could become a developed country and Earth became a developing country, you would have the same dynamic. It also deals with the haves and have-nots of the world. I think it is that conflict you’re dealing with. We have just set that conflict slightly in the future. Not so far in the future that we don’t have a connection with these people, but far enough that we can actually examine these issues and see where we stand on them. DoG: It follows the science fiction tradition, including in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 of dealing with the issues of today in the future. Tahir: Exactly and he does it so beautifully. I think it’s such a wonderful way of examining ourselves that that was one of the reasons I was attracted to this project, because Neill is such an amazing person, such an amazing storyteller, and such an amazing artist who can create this world that you become a part of. DoG: How would you say working on this would compare to other science fiction films you have worked on in the past? Tahir: It’s right up there, because the storyline is intelligent; because Neill is one of those great directors who knows exactly what he wants, what his vision is. But he never shoves it down your throat. He is confident and smart enough, and patient enough to let you find your own truth organically. And he puts his trust in the actors, in his crew and in his people that they will find that truth for him. He will guide it, but he will not shove it down their throats. DoG: If you’re the executive officer of Elysium does that mean you run the station? What role does Secretary Rhodes [Jodie Foster’s character] fill in that capacity? Tahir: I am the leader of Elysium, so she is my secretary of defense. There is an interesting conflict between the two. My character, being the politician, is a little more sensitive to the nuances of the issues and wants to find a more political, a more rare solution to the problem. Her character, being the secretary of defense, has a whole other approach of how to deal with this issue of people trying to get in. And you find that discussion, that conflict, between these two and it’s an interesting one. DoG: Do you enjoy doing high-concept, spectacle films? Tahir: I love ‘em. It’s not the only thing I do and I wouldn’t want to just do that. I’m very fortunate by the end of this year that there’s four very different movies I’ve been a part of. I do like them because you can get your imagination transported to a whole other reality; there’s some beauty to that.  DoG: In Star Trek you were the first Federation captain of Middle Eastern ethnicity in the franchise’s nearly 50-year history. Given the brand’s legacy of crossing cultural norms, did the casting have a special significance for you? Tahir: I look at all of this in this way: I am going to play the character as truthfully as I possibly can. The ethnicity and all that should inform the character, but the thing I focused on was mostly the man’s competence more than anything else. Everything else is an attractive sidebar to the storyline. We didn’t approach it that way. We just wanted it to be a part of this character of who this guy is without pulling focus to it. DoG: When you were working on Iron Man, were you able to talk to Jon Favreau or anyone at Marvel about what significance the Ten Rings could have meant down the line or in other Iron Man movies? Tahir: Yeah, we had very open conversations and discussions about it. And much to my delight, all points of views were heard and listened to. One of the things we did was it could have been very easy to make these guys, the bad guys, to be of a certain face or a certain ideology. But we stayed true throughout our discussions to informing each other to the idea that these Ten Rings were being soldiers of fortune to whom faith and culture and all that is just a tool to gain power. It was that kind of dialogue that was the basis and you could steer clear of making these guys of a certain terrorist or faith based [group]. DoG: I understand, but I know that the Ten Rings are associated with the villains in the third movie— Tahir: Yes, we knew loosely where we wanted it to go and loosely it got there. I think the vision more than changed as they made other movies, which is part of the process. You start someplace then you see where it’s going to go. The last one had some allusions to the Ten Rings, not completely focused on that, but it did have that. It just leaves that question open if that whole side of Iron Man and the Ten Rings will come back if they make a fourth one. DoG: What draws you to acting? Tahir: I think mostly because it’s a great way to empathize with people if nothing else. When you play a character, you get to see the world through their eyes. Whether it’s a fictional world or a real world, you do get to see somebody else’s point of view, whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. To me, that’s what draws me to acting. It’s a learning process. It’s understanding other people and their point of view, whether you subscribe to them or not. Just trying to find that connection with another person, a human being, a character.  DoG: How does that work compare to television roles, such as on Dallas and Warehouse 13? Tahir: There’s certain stories, which I always say, that are best told on the big screen, and there’s a great kind of challenge and excitement in creating characters that can stretch over a period of time, which television affords you that luxury, where you can see these characters episode after episode and discover something new about them. To me that’s a great challenge. Film gives you that opportunity of creating something and transporting the audience there for about two hours and holding their attention, and television affords you this great opportunity to hold the audience for an hour and somehow you have to make it interesting enough that they’ll come back next week and continue with you while taking a breather in the middle. DoG: Do you hope to continue doing both in the future? Tahir: Yeah, I come from a theatre background also, so I like doing all of that. It depends on the character, it depends on the story, it depends on the project, but I’m hoping that I can create a body of work that’s equal amounts of film, television, and theatre. DoG: Speaking of the future, you are also appearing in October’s The Escape Plan with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Can you talk a little bit about working with them on that project? Tahir: Those guys are icons of that genre, of the action genre. There haven’t been bigger stars in the history of moviemaking than those two, and to be able to see them—they’ve done cameos and little scenes together—but to see them both work together on a full project was very amazing. It was kind of history in the making. You learn a lot, because when I was not acting, I wanted to watch how they approached it. And there are people who know that dance inside and out; they know every step of it, and it was great. It puts you in the student mode. The movie itself is a [story] about the three of us eventually having an escape from an impenetrable prison. So, it was great to be working with these two icons and trying to find the fun and the reality of it. It was a real treat. DoG: So you can say that in the movie, you will be trying to help them in this great escape? Tahir: Yeah, we join forces at some point and it’s a lot of fun. I think people will enjoy it. DoG: I just have to ask: Will there be any motorcycle jumps across border fences? Tahir: [Laughs] Well, I wouldn’t give you that….there are jumps. Whether they’re motorcycles or not, I’ll leave that to people to discover as they watch the movie. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!