Would anybody want to hire us if we were all going
to be known only as terrorists?
By Cas Anvar
December 5, 2003
Kambiz Foroohar is right. Shattered Glass (the
film in which I portrayed Kambiz) is a great film and a terrific
And I loved reading his piece about it on this site posted a few
days ago.[See: Garden
Then I got to the part in the article about his
thoughts on my national origins.
wrote to him to let him know that I was not in
fact Indian but Iranian (by both parents, although I am born in
Canada) and was
surprised to receive a very angry and annoyed
message back which,
in a nutshell, accused me of being ashamed of my background and
of having no identity.
I am a professional actor in the film, television
and theatre world. I make my living assuming or creating the identities
of any number
of people or characters I am asked to portray. So to hear someone
say I lacked one of my own… well to say the least, that gave
After my initial scoff at Kambiz's ignorance
of the business of being an ethnic actor in North America and the
come with that, I started to trace back in my history to try and
find the root for this misunderstanding.
What I found was that
it did not come from a simple typographical error or poor fact
checking (which would have been
Kambiz's role in the exposure of Steven Glass.)
When I look back at how I represented myself over the years,
I don't blame Kambiz one bit for getting it wrong. I'm
an Iranian-Canadian, not Indian, but when I think back on it,
I guess it's not surprising that he didn't know.
I met him a few weeks ago in New York at the premiere
Glass but we didn't talk about my cultural background. And
having been born in Canada, my Farsi is not fluent so I didn't
speak to him in that language.
Typically when I am doing any kind of press interviews
bring up the issue of culture unless asked and then I try to avoid
being to specific and usually say I'm mixed. If pushed, I
will offer up being Persian.
When I saw his piece, I wrote him to inform him
of my Iranian background, and he said quite heatedly that the movie's producers and
director told him I was of Indian origin. That certainly surprised
me, given that I assumed they knew I was Iranian, but then again,
maybe it shouldn't have. After all, I hadn't necessarily
broadcast my Iranian-ness in auditions.
One must understand as a Canadian-born man in his
I grew up in a time when Iran was in the news a lot during the
formative years of my life. Most of the time the news was scary,
violent and embarrassing. At that age one tended to try to dissociate
oneself as much as possible from anything that would provide fuel
for harassment or segregation.
Being dark skinned was challenging enough, but being
from the country of "hostage takers" was impossible to talk your way
out of in a school yard. So one tended to introduce oneself as "Persian",
then Middle Eastern and finally East Asian as more and more of
that part of world became controversial.
When I entered university in my early 20's, I began to develop
a sense of self that slowly began to slough off the stigma of my
youth. It had been difficult to be proud when I had heard stories,
during the hostage crisis, of Iranian colleagues being relieved
of their jobs in the middle of film shoots, replaced by someone
Quite honestly this kind of discrimination was not
something I wished to experience. I was determined when I graduated
school in 1989 not to be type cast as a terrorist (the only roles
that were essentially available for Middle Eastern men at the time).
As a result of my efforts I have been fortunate enough to have
played a wide spectrum of challenging roles, the
majority of which
where cast on my talent rather than my ethnicity.
Since Kambiz's article came out [Garden
variety], I've done some
thinking about the role my culture has had or should play in my
Over 20 years as an actor, I've played dozens of
roles of different nationalities, from Hispanic to Italian to Middle
As the founder of Repercussion Theater, the only touring Shakespeare-in-the-Park
company in the world, based in Montreal, I've even played
16th-century characters with no connection to the Middle East.
It's an actor's meal ticket to be able to play any
role. I make my living by creating a world of illusion, an imaginary
place where people can forget their own lives for a little while.
That means I have to be ready to be any character, from any place.
Ben Kingsley's Indian heritage is negligible at best but
who doesn't think of Gandhi when they think of him? That
is what acting is all about -- being something more, something
different than what we really are.
As an actor I am lucky that I don't have a very
specific look, I can pass for Hispanic, Latin, east Indian and
I have been able to play so many different kinds of characters.
I have never hidden that I was Iranian by origin, but I didn't
offer the information either. But since Kambiz's article
came out, it's made me realize that his role in Shattered
Glass was the first major Iranian role I had ever played.
And why did everyone think I was Indian and not
Iranian? In retrospect I suppose I didn't go out of my way to offer
and was not opposed to having people misconstrue my origins leaving
me much more open to play whatever comes my way.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of this whole
issue is what has happened for Middle-Eastern actors post 9/11
. I remember clearly
the fear that I shared with my fellow actors at that time about
how we were going to be perceived. Would we ever be able to get
another role? Would anybody want to hire us if we were all going
to be known only as terrorists?
To the absolute surprise of all of us, there has
never been a better time to be an actor with an ethnic background.
There are now intelligent
stories with meaty, three-dimensional characters being written
for us. Granted most of the stories revolve around new world order
post 9-11 storylines, but they are still nonetheless sophisticated,
textured and human characters. There are opportunities that did
not exist before. And there are roles being offered, like Kambiz's
Glass, that are a pleasure to play.
I am proud of my Iranian origins and would want
to be known as nothing else. But that's me, Kasra Anvar, the person.
In all honesty I need to ask myself: if the climate
in the arts was not moving towards favoring Middle Eastern artists,
be shouting it from the highest hill? Probably not. It does not
serve me or what I am trying to do in my life. It is neither my
priority nor my passion.
When Kambiz Foroohar exposed Steven Glass for the
charlatan he was he was doing his job. As a journalist. If being
it more difficult to do that job or to be taken seriously or even
to have that great story given its credit, would the issue of culture
be important enough to sacrifice what you are working towards?
I am not sure.
Iranian parents with children born in North America
since 1960 should ask their kids how their cultural background
impedes their lives. I am betting based on the many discussions
with my cousins, all of whom share my experiences, that many would
say they find reconciling the two worlds difficult, and most often
the Iranian culture is the one that loses the fight.
How many of you know Iranian kids or adults who
have changed their names from Kourosh to Jack or from Maziar to
Mike or from Kasra
to Cas for the sake of integration? I don't think it is right
or wrong... simply human nature.
I am an artist first and foremost. I am also a Canadian
citizen of Iranian background. But my passions and opinions are
in culture nor partisan politics but rather in issues of the
Cas Anvar, the actor, can and should be anything
the script calls for.
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