GAME CHANGER: Navid Negahban On His Artistic Evolution & Role On FX’s ‘Legion’

Navid Negahban is one of the most dynamic actors in Hollywood. Photo by Michael Kraus

Through the years, Navid Negahban has established himself as one of the most dynamic actors in Hollywood. While he may not (yet) be a household name, chances are you have seen him lighting up the screen in some of Hollywood’s most intriguing projects. The versatile scene-stealer has drawn critical praise for his work on the final season of Fox’s hit series, “24.” In addition, he has a diverse TV portfolio that includes guest work on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Scorpion,” “Law and Order: SVU,” “VEEP,” “The Closer,” “The West Wing,” “Without a Trace” and “The Shield.” Negehban is best known for his critically acclaimed and SAG nominated performance as Osama Bin Laden archetype Abu Nazir opposite Damian Lewis on the hit series “Homeland.” 

Wrapping up a few of his busiest years in the business, he’s been in a multitude of recent projects including the hit film “American Assassin” opposite Michael Keaton, the Netflix film “Sand Castle” alongside Henry Cavill and Nicholas Hoult, as well as staring in the independent film “Baba Joon,” which won five Ophir Awards, the equivalent of the Israeli Oscar. Negahban also just wrapped filming on Disney’s Guy Ritchie live-action remake of “Aladdin,” where he stars as the Sultan opposite Will Smith, Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud in this live-action re-telling of the classic 1992 animated Disney film. No matter the medium, Negehban’s passion for his craft keeps him driven and able to raise the bar with every new project he takes on.

In April, fans can catch Navid Negahban starring in the highly anticipated second season of the hit FX comic book drama series “Legion.” One of the best new series on television, “Legion” is based on characters from Marvels’ X-Men universe and created by “Fargo” producer, Noah Hawley. The series boasts an all-star cast featuring the talents of stars Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Aubrey Plaza, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder, Bill Irwin, Katie Aselton, Jemaine Clement and more. As Ahmal Farouk, aka the Shadow King, Negahban joins the cast for the new season as the mysterious villain with a thousand faces and who is hellbent on destruction.

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Navid Negahban to discuss his unique career path as an actor, the challenges he has faced along the way, and where the journey may take lead in the future.

How did you get involved with the arts early on in life and when did you know you wanted to pursue your passion professionally?

Oh my gosh, I have been interested in entertaining people from the time I was a kid. I loved drawing and being the clown in the family. Every time I was at a family gathering, if I felt that the energy was a little bit down, I would jump in and try to entertain them. When I was 8 years old, I did a play at my school and that play really introduced me to the world of theater. I have the picture on my Instagram, I was 8 years old and you see me with a beard; I’m playing an older man. It was fun! It was great! Acting is something I have wanted to do since I was a kid. I think that was the life-changing moment; when I was on stage and saw all of these stiff parents, sitting down very proper. It was a private school so nobody would move. They were all dressed up and sitting down to watch the play. When I was up there, nobody could stop laughing and everyone was loose and comfortable! To me, it was a joy. It was a power and joy seeing them laughing! It was very interesting.

My career really started in Germany. I was a refugee in there. There was a camp process where they would process you and then send you to different cities. I was lucky because I was sent into Kaiserslautern in Germany. When I was in high school, I had a friend who was deaf. He introduced me to his theater company, where everyone was doing mime and pantomime, so I was introduced to the craft there. When I was in Kaiserslautern, they were doing “Sunday in the Park with George.” If you are familiar with the play, George travels through the park and talks about what he remembers. The director wanted someone who could portray George’s emotions while he is taking and moving from one corner to another corner. I got the job and that was kind of the beginning of my career!

You have come a long way from those early years. What are your creative milestones along the way?

It’s crazy because I’m still learning and every step I take is a milestone for me! Every project I work on gives me something. Even when I’m walking down the street and I see a guy sitting on the street and performing, it reminds me of when I was doing that! I stand back and I start watching him. I say, “Oh my god, see what he’s doing? Beautiful! Amazing!” I’m so taken by people and what I learn from them. When you ask me that question, I think my biggest milestone might have been the 20-minute short film that took me two years to finish. When I moved from Germany to the U.S., which was in 1993 and until 2003 my career wasn’t moving. I was doing small plays here and there and I was doing live western shows and stunt work. I did a short film called “Boundaries” and I played a mute trombonist. That film went to different festivals, won numerous awards and went to Slamdance and won the grand jury prize there. It also came to Los Angeles and was screened at the Egyptian Theater. I think that was my introduction to Hollywood!

Navid Negahban in the wild. – Photo by Michael Kraus

It takes a lot to make it in the entertainment industry. To what do you attribute your longevity?

I knew this is what I wanted to do and I trusted the universe, let’s put it that way! I didn’t let people put doubt in my mind. I knew that I was different and I wasn’t like the guy next door. I knew there are certainly parts that I would not be cast in. I wasn’t greedy, jealous or envious. I just thought, “It is what it is. This is what I want to do. I like what I do and I like being different.” I never tried to change my name or become mainstream. I like to play my characters. I love some of these characters and they were big lessons in my life because they introduced me to a part of the world or something I didn’t know. I would say to trust yourself, don’t listen to the no’s or cant’s because the person who is saying it to you is a person who wasn’t able to do it. When the person says, “Oh no, it can’t work. It’s doesn’t work.” When they say that, what the person is telling you is from their own experience but that person is not you. You might be able to do it but you have to trust yourself and trust your instincts to move forward. Look at my career! My gosh, I washed cars, I cleaned up rooms, I drove cabs! Everybody who was around me in the family had their own titles or degrees hanging on the walls. I was the loser of the family because everyone thought that I was just a dreamer and a crazy guy who doesn’t want to work. What they didn’t realize was that I was the one who was working harder than anybody else!

Absolutely! All that hard work paid off!

I’m grateful! I’m grateful and very thankful!

You have a big project on the way with a role on one of television’s most exciting series, “Legion.” I’m a huge fan of the series. What spoke to you about this project and made you want to be a part of it?

I was in London. I had just finished “Aladdin” when I got a call from Noel [Hawley] and he was telling me about the project and the character. The way that he described the show and what he is trying to achieve and say got me hooked! I wasn’t that familiar with the Marvel world or the character, so I had to jump in, go and try to educate myself. The best teachers I had were on the set! Aubrey [Plaza] was very helpful, along with Dan Stevens. Bill Irwin came and said, “Can I help you with the scripts?” The whole team was very supportive in helping me understand the concept and learning the language because it was a completely different language to me! It was interesting, I came in and I had to backtrack because they were on episode seven, so I had to shoot seven episodes just to catch up with them. I was kind of thrown into it. I hope that you aren’t going to call me and say, “Damn you, man! I’m disappointed! You destroyed ‘Legion’ for me!” [laughs]

I’m familiar with your work, so I highly doubt that is a call I’ll have to make! [laughs]

[laughs] Thank you, Jason!

“Legion” is a well-written series. What did you bring to the character of The Shadow King that wasn’t on the original written page?

The character has been around forever; he’s as old as the universe. I think maybe the ups and downs in my life, my journey and my being a citizen of the world added something. I was able to bring everything in. It was a platform for me to bring in those experiences and say “Oh, I’ve done that. I’ve done his. I’ve been there, I know how it feels.” Noah and Nathaniel, both of them, were so amazing in helping me, massaging the character and getting the right tone of the character. The character speaks four different languages and he is man of the world with incredible power. I don’t know, let’s see what comes out of it! [laughs] What I loved about this journey and the character is that I was able to challenge myself. I needed to challenge myself to reach a depth that the character has and, for me, it took the guidance of the whole team. They helped me to go there. It’s a fascinating character. It’s very interesting and, this season, you will learn more and more about the character. There are so many one-liners that might seem insignificant to the audience but, if they follow and connect all of those dots, then they will discover more from the journey. That’s what I like about the character. The character doesn’t reveal itself, the character needs to be discovered! For me, when it comes to the roles I take on, what is very important is the depth of the character and that the character is not just a caricature. It is important for the character to have a journey and depth that you discover. That’s what’s important to me. This particular character was very interesting to me because it brings all of the of these characters and their relationships together. I feel it shows the nuances of humanity and how we are dealing with each other.

We are living in a great time because easy for people to seek out and find your past work. Of your past projects, which had the biggest impact on you and your craft?

My gosh, the most challenging work that I have done is “The Stoning of Soraya.” That character was a very, very harsh character. I had to completely separate the character and the actor. I had to let the character take over and that was very tough. The characters that I really enjoyed? It’s like you are asking which one of my babies is my favorite! [laughs] Each character that I played has given me something and taught me a lesson about myself, which encourages me to discover more. I think Abu Nazir [on “Homeland”] was a huge surprise because that was one of the characters that, even at the time I was doing it, in the pilot, he had only two lines. The team I had at that time were telling me, “You just came off of ’24.’ Why do you want to play this role? There is nothing here.” I said, “No, no. I have a feeling. There is something here that I have to discover. There is something here!” Before that, I had almost 170 projects on my resume but that character was the one that really introduced me to the world! It doesn’t matter where I go … my gosh, I was in one of the villages in Denmark. I was shooting a project there and I was walking. A young couple approached me and said, “We just started watching ‘Homeland.’ Oh my gosh, this is amazing!” [laughs] The show was great but that character was something that led to so many things. My gosh, I visited The White House and it got me invited to Shimon Peres’ house in Israel! It was something where I was just going for a ride! I was just taking the character and allowing the character to be. I wasn’t judging the character. It was a great journey!

Navid Negahban continues to raise the bar with every role he takes on. – Photo by Alexander Pernhorst

Where are you headed in the future?

I don’t plan the future and I go for the ride! There are certainly things that I want to do. I have a couple of projects that I would love to direct. They are sitting on the side and I say, “OK, I will do them. I will put it out there.” The thing is that, sometimes, what I’ve learned in my life is that it is good for you to have ambitions and desires of what you want to do but, at the same time, you have to read the road signs on the map so you don’t get lost. So, let’s see what’s going to happen! I have a couple of stories that I want to tell and those are my babies! [laughs] Let’s see!

What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?

Every door that closes and every barrier that gets put in front of your way is not there to stop you, those are the road signs. Just believe in yourself. The most important thing is knowing that you are the individual. No one else is like you and you are like nobody else. Believe in that and know that this is your journey! Don’t try to copy someone else’s journey because it’s not going to work. You have to find your own path. Trust yourself, trust your instincts and move forward. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t try it. If you are sitting back, afraid and being scared by other people’s fears, whoever tells you it’s not working, that is simply their point of view and what they know. What does that have to do with you? You go find your own path!

Thank you so much for your time today, Navid. I appreciate it and wish you continued success! With all the great work you’re doing, I’m sure we will cross paths again in the future!

Thank you, Jason! I’m looking forward to it!

‘Legion’ Season 2 premieres on Tuesday, April 3, at 10 PM on FX. Follow the continuing adventures of Navid Negahban via social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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