Q & A With Homeland's Abu Nazir: Navid Negahban on Israeli and Persian Cuisine, Looking for Hummus in L.A., Shimon Peres' Facebook Page + Getting Detained by the Real Guys
Navid Negahban as Abu Nazir in Homeland
Who is Navid Negahban? If you're a fan of Showtime's Emmy-award winning thriller Homeland, you might know that he is the actor who brings a quiet, composed danger to Abu Nazir, an Al-Qaeda overlord who has violent plans for Damien Lewis' Brody, a U.S. military officer whose trust he gained as a POW. If you have thought "Where have I seen this guy before?" and gone on IMDB, you will know that he has a mile-long filmography that includes an arc on 24, a key role in the devastating drama, The Stoning of Soraya M. and that his film debut was in an award-winning short film, Boundaries, directed by Greg Durbin. You may even know that he's the son of a bank director and a schoolteacher and that in 1985 he left his native Meshad, Iran, for Turkey, then put in an 8 ½ year stint in Germany.
Part of what made Abu Nazir so terrifying in the first season of Homeland was how people's voices would tighten with dread when his name was mentioned (although he was rarely seen). But the Season 2 premiere, which airs Sept. 30th, hints at the promise of peeling back the curtain on the mysterious Abu.
One more thing about Navid Negahban that you might not be aware of? He knows his way around a kitchen. Recently we caught up with Negahban by telephone. To find out what he has to say about the superiority of Israeli hummus, what not to eat before going on stage and where to find sandwiches that remind him of home, turn the page.
Squid Ink: What is it about Abu Nazir that makes him one of the most intriguing villains on television today?
Navid Negahban: I think we're always intrigued by things we're not familiar with. I think what Abu is doing is showing another side. The audience realizes that he's just a man like them and he has the same appreciations for life. What would you do if you were in his position? I think that's one of the good things about the show and the writing. The creative team have created a character that is dangerous and at the same time you see how loving he is, how much love is in him for his people.
SI: You don't think that people are drawn to Abu Nazir because he is a bad ass, a master manipulator, an evildoer who, scarily enough, is three steps ahead of everyone else?
NN: I love that too! What the writers have done is created something that each person sees what they want to see. [For season 2] we shot in Israel and I was in a coffee shop and a guy approached me and said, "Oh, my god. You're Abu Nazir," and I said, "Yes. Hi.," and he said, "I just want to thank you because there are things that we didn't know and you are introducing the other side," and to me that was a gift. People are looking at him as a human being. They see what he has to deal with. If you see him as a bad ass, too, thank you very much. That's a compliment.
SI: What parts of Israel did Homeland shoot in?
NN: We shot for Beirut in Tel Aviv and Haifa and surrounding areas.
SI: Israeli cuisine. What called out to you?
NN: For the first time I had hummus.
SI: Get OUT. You've never had hummus before???
NN: [laughs] Yes, but someone brought me a dish of it and said, "This is the best hummus. This is what you have to have." I really enjoyed it and that was a [flavor] I brought back with me. Sadly, I haven't been able to find the same hummus in [Los Angeles].
SI: What is the intersection between Israeli and Persian food?
NN: One day they were cooking and they got some ground beef for kabob and the spices they used; it completely took me back to when I lived in Iran. The flavors are very, very similar, the spices, the flavor of the food, it was very familiar to me. It was like me being back home and having a shish kabob.
SI: Westwood Blvd. is Persian food central. What's your go-to restaurant for nostalgia food?
NN: Attari Sandwich Shop.That is the closest that I found to the sandwiches I used to have in Iran. Every chance I get, I drive by and go there. There's also another restaurant called Sauce on Hampton. It's in Venice. The thing is that the chef has traveled around the world. It's all organic and you get flavor that you have never tasted before. It's very fresh and delicious. You need to go check it out.
SI: Recently we watched a Homeland teaser video on You Tube. When people approach you on the street are they confused by the fact that you have a bedazzingly warm smile?
NN: They are! The funny that is that Abu is so real to some people that when they walk up to talk to me, they are approaching Abu, not Navid.
SI: Meaning their voices are trembling? That they behave as if they are saying howdy to a dangerous terrorist?
NN: Trust me. Yes. It is just like that.
SI: Example please.
NN: The first time I went to Israel it was for a good friend's wedding. [My trip] was right before we were shooting the second season of Homeland. When I arrived they saw my passport. [voice of homeland security official] "U.S. passport. Born in Iran. Okay. What are you doing here? What's happening?" So I ended up sitting in the room that they bring you into to question you.
SI: You are saying they detained you.
NN: I don't know if I would put it like that. It was a good education for Abu.
SI: How so?
NN: Because I was sitting in that room and I could see people walk into that room and I could watch them going back and forth. To me, it was fascinating. That added something to Abu. I was questioned three times by three different people asking the same questions. At the end, one of them -- a lady -- said, "Okay, you're clear." I said, "Okay. I hope next time I'm here I hope you don't hassle me as much." She said, "Are you coming back? When?" And I said, "In May." She said, "Why?" I said, "I'm coming here to shoot Homeland." Right at that moment there was a gentleman who was sitting behind a panel and I hadn't seen him. He got up and he came up to me and said [excited voice] "OH! You're ABU NAZIR! I LOVE the show!"
It was amazing. After that I was treated beautifully. They stamped [my passport].
SI: How did this enrich your characterization of Abu?
NN: The people, they look at you and they don't know where they know you from. You look very familiar. They wonder, "Have I seen this guy's picture on my wall?" They're going back and forth. It took 4 1/2 , 5 hours. It was fun.
SI: You were detained for roughly five hours and loved it? You are a most unusual man.
NN: I try to take it as it comes and look at the positive side. One of the producers, Gideon Raff, asked me, "Why didn't you tell us that you were coming? We would have gotten you clearance." I said, "Are you kidding me? That was the best education. I would have never been able to experience that." Looking at everyone sitting in the [holding room] and how when their name was called they tried to put on this smile, this false smile, a "there's-nothing-to-worry-about-me-I'm-a-good-guy" smile? Everybody knew the smile was fake. And talking to the people and listening to the way they talked to me? They were very pleasant, but I knew they were drilling through my soul, looking for one exhale of breath in the wrong place. [laughs] I have to say I enjoyed myself.
SI: Any other vivid snapshots from your trip?
NN: I met the president of the state of Israel. I was on the set and Gideon Raff came up to me and said, "Shimon Peres invited you to come to his house. Are you interested?" I said, "Sure, I would love it." [A few of the producers] and I went over there and I have lots of respect for this man and what he is trying to do and the way he maneuvering through people who are against him to create a peaceful region. Right after I left, a friend of mine called me and said, "Hey! Navid! You are on Shimon Peres' Facebook page!"
SI: What? Shimon Peres has a Facebook page? Who knew?
NN: Yes! You should check it out! He talks about all the things that are happening and what people are doing to create peace. [pause] Have you heard about the Facebook page Iran loves Israel. Israel loves Iran? Israel- Loves- Iran was created by this Israeli guy who is married and has a kid.Then someone created Iran- Loves- Israel. It just took off. When the people comes together, the government can't control it. Sometimes the government creates a phobia between the people.
SI: The rumor is that you are a great cook. When you were in Israel, did you ever cultivate harmony between nations over a dinner table?
NN: When I was in Israel, I met these people at a coffeeshop and we started talking. The next day they called and invited me to a club. I went. After that, I went to one of their houses and I said, "I can make you guys some Persian food." They said, "Great!" Then I said, "I have a couple of friends here in Israel. Can I invite them? That way we can all get to know each other." They said, "Sure. Bring everyone." So I did. I brought 12 people to the house of someone I had known for only an hour. Later on, one of the guys [who lived there] said to one of my friends, "I don't know if we adopted him -- or if he adopted us." We were there until 2 o'clock in the morning. I loved it because it is exactly the way it would have happened in Iran.
SI: Now is moment when you share the menu.
NN: I made maast-o khiar for the table.
SI: You are referring to yogurt and cucumber dip that sometimes contains minced shallots or chopped nuts. What a great choice considering that Israelis know a few things when it comes to growing vegetables.
NN: The perfume of the cucumber -- it was amazing ... I cooked rice with saffron. I cooked tadig.
SI: Tadig is made from crusty golden rice at the bottom of the pot and is typically topped with a stew. Yes?
NN: Yes. I made some kabob. And I made baba ganoush. MY baba ganoush. Which is one of the best anywhere. Which is the way I learned from my grandma. When I was little, I would be in the kitchen and I would watch and learn from her. My mom was a teacher so I was raised by my great-grandmother, BiBi -- my mom's grandma -- and she became my nanny. I have lots of stories and things that I learned from her. She shared so many life secrets with me. She was a very strong woman.
SI: After you left Iran, you moved to Germany. What's the secret to a perfect schnitzel?
NN: It's the bread crumbs, the spices and very hot oil. I lived with a German family. I learned about schnitzel from Ritta Seiffer. When she cooked she'd get the oil really hot so that it sealed everything and in the middle was very juicy. That's the secret to a great schnitzel.
SI: When you were in Germany, you did a lot of theater, correct?
SI: What's the one thing you should never eat before a performance?
SI: Duly noted.
NN: Also starting maybe an hour before I go onstage, I stop drinking water. I only wet my lips.
SI: Yet another practical choice. On a very different note, what is going on with Abu Nazir this season?
NN: That's a very tricky question. You are going to get me in trouble. You can write that you will see how wide his web is spread. You will also see the connections that he has. I am afraid to go into more detail except to say you will see a lot more of him.
SI: An interesting difference between you and Abu Nazir: You, Navid, are a very animated speaker. You gesticulate a lot, you lean forward, you run the gamut of rubbery facial expressions. Abu Nazir is always so still.
NN: You should see me right now! It's like I am talking to you like you're in front of me! My hands are all over the place! [laughs] The first film I was ever in, Boundaries, I went to Slamdance and won the Grand Jury Prize. In it, I am a mute musician. [When they were casting] they said, "We're looking for a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd character." These are my favorite actors. They told me, "You're too tall and you look like a leading man." I said, "Give me a chance," and I left. I went to a second-hand store and bought myself a long tuxedo with baggy pants and I sanded it to make it look worn out. I made a straw hat from a shoe box and sprayed it black. When I walked in, I looked three or four inches shorter than I did before. His mouth dropped open and he said, "This is the guy."
SI: It has been written that you are a trained mime. Is this true?
SI: Mr. Negahban? To be honest, we have no follow up question. We just like picturing Abu Nazir in white face and a striped shirt trapped in an imaginary box.
Check back later for Navid Negahban's recipes for Baba Ganoush.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.