Iranian Born Actor Ali Saam Says Goodbye to His Native Land, Tehran, and Embraces Hollywood with His Role as the Antagonist Ali Khalkhali in the Award-Winning Film ARGO

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In the wake of the 85th Academy Awards, and in lieu of current events in Iran, Tehran born actor Ali Saam doesn't look back at his native land. Ali talks about what it took to achieve his character Ali Khalkhali in his controversial role in ARGO; and due to Iran's current political climate, he can never go back.

ARGO means a lot to me personally and my role encompassed more than just acting. I speak Farsi fluently, and whenever there was a question about dialect, pronunciation, or grammar, I was one of the ‘go-to’ advisors.

Lately, Iran has been in the news and stirring up concern from the US government with threats of nuclear testings, refusal of peace talks with United Nations, and a bevy of controversial and medieval-style public executions (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/iran/index.html). One very concerned actor, and coincidentally, the antagonist in the record-setting award-winner film ARGO, speaks out against the less than scrupulous tactics of his birth land.

Actor Ali Saam played the role as the revolutionary security official, Ali Khalkhali, in the award-winning film ARGO. (The film is about the CIA's risky plan to free six Americans who found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador after the 1979 hostage taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.) Ali Saam’s character is the antagonist that helps drive the action of ARGO, and interestingly enough, Ali Saam was born in Tehran, Iran.

“While on location, I remember the streets in Istanbul, and the way it was filmed; and the locations scouted when I was on set looking out into the street. It was extremely surreal. I went back to my childhood and I got goose bumps. I went back in time,” Recounts Ali Saam.

With all the hoopla surrounding ARGO, actor Ben Affleck reignited his career, and became an award-winning actor in a “serious” role. Other talented actors have been illuminated, including Ali Saam. Ali always wanted to be an actor, but growing up in Tehran made that dream impossible. As a kid, Ali drew inspiration from watching American television: Westerns and Zorro. He knew early on that he was interested in performing. But in the Middle East, a career in the performing arts was discouraged. Once Ali moved to the United States and graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Information Systems, he got involved in community theater. Some of his favorite performances were TWELVE ANGRY MEN and Aaron Kozac’s THE BIRTHDAY BOYS. Ali Saam worked diligently to break into Hollywood, and after appearing in Off-Broadway productions, independent films, and trying his own hand at filmmaking with his short film SLOWDOWN, getting the opportunity to spread his wings in ARGO was a destiny-driven step in the right direction – a direction that had been carefully navigated by Ali Saam for years.

“I love working on projects that matter, whether film or TV. I also really enjoy theater, especially working on projects that are challenging to me. ARGO means a lot to me personally, and my role encompassed more than just acting. I speak Farsi fluently, and whenever there was a question about dialect, pronunciation, or grammar, I was one of the ‘go-to’ advisors.”

Acting in such a controversial film has its consequences. Iranian inhabitants are victims of an intolerant government, as Ali Saam has witnessed and heard about from the news, as well as from secondhand accounts through the years. By accepting his role in ARGO, Ali knew that he would never be able to set foot on the soil of his native land again, unless things radically change one day.

“It disappoints me that the government has no tolerance for criticism, even when it’s the truth. After 3000 years of civilization, today the government is responsible for public hangings (homosexuality, theft, etc., with no proof), where people have sold tickets. So it saddens me and disappoints me about what’s going on there. I am worried about the future of the people in Iran, and I am very worried about the government. I can never go back,” Asserts Ali. He continues to say, “The Iranian government is undemocratic and stifling, and they immediately shut down ARGO and accused it of being anti-Iranian and nothing but propaganda. ARGO is the highest selling underground film in Iran, yet they have no room for criticism, so the government immediately shuts things down and attacks them. They actually said that the only reason the movie sold so much was because people were giving away tickets—a fallacy.”

Ali Saam’s role of Ali Khalkhali, the Iranian security official in ARGO, required much research and depth on his part. Having the responsibility of being the main antagonist, figuring out what was going on, and ultimately chasing after the Americans, took extensive character development and research.

“Whether you play the antagonist or protagonist in any story, every character does what he does for a particular reason. You don’t play the terrorist to be scary, to actually terrorize the audience. In your character’s eyes, he is not the bad guy; he always has a reason for doing what he is doing in a role. The antagonist has his own audience, and there are people who support his ideologies and his goals. So they have their supporters as much as they have their enemies. I approached the role the same way—how they came up with this fake movie idea to go in and get these six Americans out by saying they’re involve in this movie, they’re scouting locations, and then the goal was to go back to Canada. The real characters were not Canadians. They were Americans and diplomats, and managed to get away when the hostages were taken in 1979—it posed a great deal of danger to these characters had they been captured. Playing the role of Ali Khalkhali allowed me to show many sides to this character, and I feel lucky to have been given the chance to show my range as an actor. I also feel privileged to have been able to work with a director with depth. Ben Affleck really cares about the important issues. He majored in Middle Eastern Studies from Occidental College. He knows what’s going on in the world and wants to take on the important issues. As an actor, it has been a great experience to be able to work with somebody like Ben,” States Ali Saam.

Maybe going back to Tehran, Iran, will never again be an option for actor Ali Saam, but being allowed to do his craft, work alongside talented professionals in his chosen field, and become an integral part of ARGO history, is more than most actors could dream about for their first big role. As ARGO continues to collect countless awards and multiple Oscar nominations, actor Ali Saam will always be remembered for his controversial role as Ali Khalkhali . . . the character that drove the action in ARGO, and had us moviegoers sitting on the edge of our seats!

To learn more about Ali Saam, "like" him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ali-Saam/436196453119352 and follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/alisaamactor

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Sean McKenzie
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