I recently got the chance to talk to Shiraz Haq about his role in Iranian drama, ‘I Am Nasrine’. Here, Shiraz talks about what it was like working with the cast and crew on-set and which three guests he would invite to dinner…
Hey Shiraz. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film ‘I Am Nasrine’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
It’s a coming of age story about two siblings, Nasrine and Ali, who flee Iran when things become particularly difficult. Upon arduously getting across borders they hope for a better life, but of course things don’t work out so predictably. It’s largely about finding oneself set against a backdrop of the modern-day refugee experience.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
Ali is happy with his life in Iran until he is sent abroad, as guardian to his rebellious sister. Once in the north-east of England he starts integrating himself into the community, working days and nights whilst trying to keep up with the cultural leap he’s made. We see Ali inevitably battling his own demons as he finds himself embracing an independent life, and what he really stands for.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
A voice teacher from drama school who I still keep in touch with, Caryll Ziegler, sent me a text asking me if I could do a Persian accent and that it was urgent. I jokingly replied “If you can teach me one”. Another ex-student of hers had auditioned for Nasrine’s role, and so Caryll was aware the production was looking for a suitable male to play Ali. I received a phone call from Tina Gharavi herself a few weeks after sending in my CV, she said that although I looked the part it was really important I sounded like I just came from Iran.
Having been born and bred in England I knew I had to work fast at adopting this very foreign accent. My parents are from Pakistan so I have an ear for talk from that part of the world, but it’s very different to the Iranian accent. I couldn’t find a specialist dialect coach when I looked, so I structured a couple of one-to-one lessons with an Iranian lady who worked as a teaching assistant in the school my father taught at. For five days I talked this accent any chance I had – I’d talk to myself when driving, I’d read books aloud, I took random walks around London asking strangers for directions as if I’d literally stepped into the country. To feel like a foreigner put things into context, people treated me with a kind of pity that helped inform my take on the character. And thankfully, it all paid off after several auditions.
The film stars Micsha Sadeghi, your good self, Christian Coulson, Nicole Halls, Steven Hooper and Darren Palmer – with Tina Gharavi onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
Being on set in the north-east for a couple of months proved an exciting step and I was gifted with a really supportive crew. Tina is captivating from when you first meet her, and working with her is a really fortunate experience. She allows her actors to go through a unique process and there’s a lot of spontaneity and trust involved. She moulds the story in a really organic way. And we always manage to have a laugh. I spent a lot of time around Micsha in different parts of the world and it helped me with my sense of a sibling relationship. Having a strong actor playing Nasrine meant my job was challenging and better for it. I have an unsaid trust with Micsha, like being able to see her after however long and you think the last time you saw each other was yesterday. Christian, Steven and Darren were all experienced actors and fantastic guys to have the opportunity to work with. Professional and modest, the perfect work combination. I was aware the project was Nichole’s first experience of being on set, and she did a brilliant job. And then there’s the car wash guys and refugees I filmed with, the real folk who I had the chance to know, due to the documentary style Tina often films in. I couldn’t have asked for a better chemistry looking back, and that’s a relief to know for any member of a film crew.
Let’s talk a bit about you Shiraz. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
I’ve always been fond of good stories, and since I can remember I was moved by good stories, particularly on film. That seemed to be the artistic medium that penetrated into the home I grew up in. I wanted to be able to help tell such stories, by painting the picture on-screen much like I was seeing. And it was a desire that has never left me. It’s inspiring to be an actor and it’s inspiring to watch them do their job well. It could be any job when I put it like that, horses for courses I guess! I’ve also been always fascinated by behaviour. The way it governs every aspect of life and influences our actions. Behaviour to me is like matter to a physicist – it underlies the construct of life. And it’s the behaviour from everyday life that eventually ends up on-screen to tell stories.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
Train. Stay patient and build your stamina. You can be the best at your job but you’ll only manage to promote yourself if there’s room at the top. Lots of actors become disillusioned within the first few years of having left drama school if they haven’t become successful. I understand how tempting it is to go for a secure job to source the basic fundamentals in life like your own place, or simply to pay off the debts you might have accrued since training. But such seemingly natural aims can be cancerous for a budding actor, because it’s the type of profession that chooses you at its convenience, not at yours. The actors that ‘make it’ are those that have been patiently at the disposal of audition after audition until they one day find their feet. Sure, a lucky actor is insanely busy after a short amount of time, but many take years to build a respectable CV. Put the effort in, be ready, and always take a deep breath. You’ll hear “No” far more often than “Yes”, but that’s the nature of the job. If you can master dealing with that sense of repeated rejection whilst keeping your efforts up, then you’re pretty much on your way.
What is currently on your I-Pod right now?
The Heavy. I recently got introduced to a couple of their albums and am quite hooked.
If you could invite three guests to dinner – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
- Sanford Meisner. I’d be fascinated to have a few acting lessons under his instruction. He really revolutionized a training discipline alongside Strasburg’s already popular method.
- Sigmund Freud. Yes he had some pretty outward views but doesn’t any person who causes change to happen?
- Richard Attenborough. I was fortunate enough to have him hand me my Psychology degree in 2004. Back then although I was making my first student film, acting as a profession still seemed such a distant road for me. Now that I’m actually working internationally, I’d cherish an afternoon to ask him about his extensive career, quaffing over a drink and a shared appreciation for Sussex.
If you were stranded on a desert island – what three things could you not live without?
- A rug.
- A knife.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
I’m working on a documentary with the BBC about espionage, filming in Bruges. And whatever else next year throws at me! This job can be awfully quiet or amazingly busy, that’s the curse and the beauty of it. But that’s also why I love it, it’s fluid and constantly changing.
Thanks for the interview!