By Iman Sadri
September 4, 2018
If you’ve owned a television the last fifteen years, then Amir Talai is undoubtedly a face you’ve seen on it. Talai is an Iranian American actor, with an IMDB so extensive, it is pages and pages long. Talai has 110 film, television and voice credits to his name and has appeared in over 100 commercials – with many appearing on Prime Time. Making Amir Talai the most Prolific Iranian American actor of his generation.
If you’ve watched the Super Bowl in the last decade, you may have seen Talai on the Bridgestone commercial which made the list of the Top Super Bowl Commercials of all time. If you’ve watched any Fox comedies this year, then you saw Talai on L.A. to Vegas. Playing the co-pilot, opposite Dylan McDermott.
Amir Talai has starred in What to Expect When You’re Expecting opposite Anna Kendrick, Chris Rock, Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz. Appearing on the film’s poster with the ensemble cast. Talai was in the film The Circle, opposite Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. He was the fan favorite Raza, in the cult hit Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
Talai’s credits include Family Guy, Bones, Modern Family, NCIS, MADtv, Nip/Tuck, Nash Bridges, The Ex List, Kung Fu Panda : Legend of Awesomeness, Turbo Fast, American Dad, Coogan Auto, Campus Ladies, and dozens of other titles.
Talai has forged a solid career playing a diverse range of roles. He even performs on stage in musicals – showcasing his singing talent. He was recently cast in the musical Annie, which just wrapped at the Hollywood Bowl. Talai isn’t just prolific on screen, but is an activist during his down time as well. He is involved in many charitable organizations promoting racial equality, voter registration and other important causes.
To get caught up with this prolific talent, we met with Amir Talai for a Q+A in Hollywood, California.
Iman Sadri : Thank you for taking time to meet with The Persian Observer. It’s a pleasure to converse with you. Can you please describe your early life, education and early bio ?
Amir Talai : I was born in San Francisco. My parents came to the U.S. from Iran in the early 1970’s. I grew up sort of in two worlds. Through my Persians parents I had a lot of Persian cousins, but at school, I didn’t really know any Persian people. It was like Persian on the weekends and American during the week. I went to magnet and academically involved schools. I was acting in middle school and high school. I didn’t really expect it to be a career. I fantasized about it being a career but never planned on it exactly.
I studied advertising and marketing at U.C. Berkeley. I thought I would work in advertising and marketing and try to make it as an actor on the side. And then I realized advertising and marketing is a 60 hour a week job and there is no on the side. I then said, ‘Let’s try this acting thing.’ After a couple of years I started making a living and just stuck with it.
IS : Did you study acting in college as well ?
Amir Talai : Yes, I minored in Theater. I took classes but wasn’t interested in the major. It was too much theory. In high school, I was in a teen musical theater group. We did about five musicals every year. I was constantly in rehearsal. That was pretty intense training. We were acting, training our voices and taking dance classes. By the time I got to college, I was pretty well trained. So I just kept at it.
Doing those shows in high school was very formative. It meant a lot to have that as an outlet. There is nothing like being an actor in college. You’re seeing the same people five days a week and it’s pretty special. It’s something you don’t realize how much you’ll miss once you get out. It’s literally seeing your friends every single day. It’s so unique to college. You don’t do that as an adult.
IS : What were some of the inspirations (movies, shows, musicals) if any, for you to pursue acting as a career ?
Amir Talai : I always loved Saturday Night Live from the time I was 13 years old. I remember loving all the characters and voices. Dana Carvey. Adam Sandler. Phil Hartman. Jon Lovitz. All those guys. I just wanted to be them.
IS : What talents did you see within yourself that you decided the entertainment industry was the best platform for it ?
Amir Talai : I was always a funny kid and the class clown. Part of it was because I skipped first grade and I was always smaller than every one through out first to eighth grade. I had a growth spurt just before high school. Before that I was little and I think I got by, by making everybody laugh. That’s what endeared me to people. So I kept at that. I’ve always tried to make people laugh. Early in my high school career people always talked about what great comedic timing I had. Which was really cool to me because it was not something that I was paying attention to. So I said, ‘That’s special. Let’s see how far it could take me.’
IS : Did you have any other career ambitions besides acting, or were you set on acting when you finished college ? You had mentioned advertising and marketing.
Amir Talai : When I started college I thought maybe I would be a teacher or work in advertising and marketing. But once I graduated I was like, ‘Let’s try and make this work.’ I’ve got a couple of years so let’s give it a shot. If not I could always go back to another career, or whatever. But you couldn’t do it the other way around. It’s not like I could work five years in marketing and then go into acting.
IS : Can you talk about the experience of one of your first acting jobs, Nash Bridges. How did that come about ? Did you need an agent and manager to book that ?
Amir Talai : I was auditioning through my agent in San Francisco. I got an agent soon after I left college. Just through submissions and things like that. And she was submitting me for stuff. Just regular auditions. In the Bay Area there isn’t a whole of TV and film. A lot it is voice over. Small commercials. Industrials.
IS : Can you describe the process from going from a student to professional actor ? For the new generation of actors, do they always need an agent, or can they audition without representation ?
Amir Talai : You can submit yourself for stuff. You can create your own material. Connect with other people who are doing their own stuff. The way to get an agent is you literally mail out tons of headshots and resumes. That’s how I got mine. Even better, is if you could get a referral from somebody. If you know a casting director or fellow actor or someone like that who can recommend you to an agent. You have to be constantly pounding the pavement.
IS : You have such a prolific IMDB, can you describe some your favorite highlights early in your career ?
Amir Talai : MADtv was cool. I submitted myself for that. Normally people would have mailed in their headshots. But I actually walked it in. And I happened to get a call from the casting director as I was leaving the office. She asked me to come in for an audition the next day. If I would have mailed it in she would have got the headshots after she had held the auditions. I got that before I had an agent. I was working the auditions for myself. That was really cool. It was great to get something on my own. It was my first major network job. I played an Indian dancer in a sketch.
Every experience I had, weather it was Legally Blonde, or The Tonight Show, or Jimmy Kimmel, it was just a matter of meeting as many people as I could.
IS : Can you describe your role on Campus Ladies ?
Amir Talai : I got Campus Ladies because my teacher at The Groundlings was one of the creators of it. I got an audition for it, and that was probably the most fun job that I’ve ever done. It was all improvised like Curb Your Enthusiasm, so we didn’t have a script. We just had an outline for every scene. They would say action, and we would just go. It was cool that in one of my first jobs I was co-creating the part. I was bringing a lot of myself to it. It was great to be one of the leads.
IS : Do you consider yourself an actor/comedian or actor ?
Amir Talai : I consider myself an actor. I’ve done some Stand-up but I have too much respect for Stand-ups to consider myself a Stand-up. I’ve done it as a lark and it’s fun for me and I enjoy creating my own material, but I think to be a Stand-up you really have to be doing it a lot, and dedicated to it.
IS : Are you in touch with any other Iranian Americans in Hollywood ?
Amir Talai : Pej (Vahdat) and I are good buddies. Navid Negahban is a buddy of mine. Omid Abtahi is a good friend of mine. It’s funny. There aren’t a ton. There are definitely more Indians than there are Persians. I know a lot of the Indians. We’re in a lot of the same auditions.
IS : Was your family pretty supportive of you going into show business ?
Amir Talai : It was slow. My Mom was supportive from the get-go. My Dad was not. He took some convincing. And a certain point it was, ‘This is Happening. So you can accept it or not.’ After that he came around. ‘ I am going to literally financially support you until you make it.’ Which was cool. For him to do such a 180. My Mom has always been super supportive and my biggest fan. Especially since I started working and making money. Then they were like, ‘OK, you’re good.’
IS : Can you talk about the memorable ‘Bottom-less’ scene in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay ?
Amir Talai : That was definitely a highlight. I remember shooting and thinking when I would ever have a more interesting scene than this in my entire life. It was fun. We shot that in Louisiana. That actually wasn’t a hot tub. It was a pool with jets in it. It was Louisiana in March, so it was quite cold. And it was night time. I was shivering between takes.
IS : How did that role come about ?
Amir Talai : It was a regular audition. I also had an ace up my sleeve. John Cho and the directors and I all had the same managers. I know I killed the audition. But then when it came down to it, if there was also a push, they were like, ‘He is on the same (management) team. Let’s give him the part.’ But mostly it was that I killed the audition.
IS : What was your character’s (Raza’s) nationality ?
Amir Talai : It’s funny. I talked to them about this. I said I’ve never met a Persian guy named Raza. I think what you mean is Reza. And they said one their best friend’s is a Persian guy named Raza.
IS : Can you describe your role on the X-List and some highlights your could share ?
Amir Talai : X-List was really fun for me. That was my first network series regular. I was making more money than I had ever made. I was shooting in San Diego. Which was California but still felt like away. I was on location. I got an apartment down there with a girlfriend. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was an amazing beach town making all this money. I was probably the fifth lead on the show so I wasn’t working 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. I had a lot free time. I got to enjoy San Diego and this money I was making. It was a blast. My character was this cute best friend. It was fun that I started out with a small part. They kept giving more as the season went on.
IS : Can you elaborate on how your role of What to Expect When You’re Expecting came about ? Can you elaborate on your character and your experience on the film ? You were on the poster, that’s a big deal.
Amir Talai : Yeah that was surreal. I definitely did not expect that. When I saw the poster I was sort of stunned. I still have it framed in my office. That was again, just a regular audition. I felt like I definitely had the part. And then they did a table read. To hear the script. They brought in some people. Rob Huebel was doing the part (that went to Chris Rock). I did my same part. I felt good about it. And then later I found out I got the part. And Rob ended up getting a smaller part. And they brought in Chris Rock to play his part.
That was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. We shot in Atlanta on location. I love shooting on location. Because it feels like college. You see your friends every day. If we weren’t shooting we were all having dinner together at nice restaurants.
IS : You’re in a great deal of the film. How long was the shoot for What to Expect When You’re Expecting ?
Amir Talai : It was about three weeks. If I remember correctly, it was a Monday through Friday. Then a Wednesday through Friday. Then a Thursday through Friday. So basically, like three-ish weeks. I was flying back and forth to Atlanta. They were flying us first class. Which was amazing. It was the first time I had ever gotten stopped by paparazzi at LAX, which was crazy. I think they got word that this guy is in a movie with J.Lo and Chris Rock and to get some quotes out of him. It was fun. Going out. Spending time on the set with Chris Rock. What I like about Chris is that he doesn’t have this phone on him on set. So he’s not texting, making deals. He’s not checking deals. He’s present. Which was cool. A lot of great conversations. He’s opinionated off stage as he is on stage. Soaking up knowledge from him and the experience.
IS : You play a wide range of diverse characters. Not just being typecast with traditional Middle Eastern characters. Can you elaborate on your acting versatility ?
Amir Talai : I think what’s tough is that most roles written for Middle Eastern people have to do either with the War on Terror or politics. I think about two thirds of Middle Eastern roles are in some ways tied to that stuff. The best avenue for someone who is Middle Eastern to break out of that are to play roles that are not for Middle Eastern people.
I’ve played some Indian roles too. There is more diversity in the types of roles that are available for Indian people as opposed to for Middle Easterners. I think it helps that I have a really good sense of comedy. Because in comedy there are more opportunities to not play the stereotypical Middle Eastern roles.
IS : Can you describe your roles of Coogan Auto and American Dad and highlights from those projects ?
Amir Talai : Coogan Auto was a web series. I just played a mechanic in a used car dealership. It’s one of those workplace comedies where everybody is a Dick. It was Rob Riggle. JB Smoove. Horatio Sanz. Funny dudes. We’re all just playing various versions of a Dick. The insecure Dick. The sex crazed Dick. The pompous Dick. We’re all jerks in some way. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of improv on that set. Rob Riggle created that project. It was a cool thing to be a part of.
With American Dad, it’s always fun to go in and do a couple of lines on that show. They’ve been really good to me over there. It’s easy.
IS : What’s the key for your memorization of lines ?
Amir Talai : It’s different for everybody. Some people just drill the hell out of it. For me I don’t worry about memorizing lines too much. It’s more so about understanding the connections between the lines. Usually if you just listen, your dialogue will be pretty obvious. If you have a good understanding of the character and what’s going on in the scene, the dialogue usually just flows. Also, because your shooting on screen, you don’t have to nail it every time, because you get multiple takes.
I like to sort of be loose with it. I don’t worry about lines too much. The only time I worry about lines is when I have speeches. That’s pretty rare.
IS : Can you describe your role on Turbo Fast ?
Amir Talai : I played a couple different roles on Turbo. I played one of the snails who was the crazy snail. His name was Skidmark. He was great because he could just be random all the time. They wrote fun stuff for me. They had me singing and rapping. It was silly fun. I also played Tito, the taco truck driver. They needed a sound alike for Michael Pena. He played it in the movie.
IS : How did the role of Kung Fu Panda : Legend of Awesomeness come about it ?
Amir Talai : They were looking for a voice match to David Cross. I ended up doing that for three to four years.
IS : You have over 100 credits on your IMDB. That’s remarkable ! You must be so proud of that.
Amir Talai : When I hit a 100, I just remember thinking, ‘This is crazy. How did I hit 100 ?’
IS : How many commercials have you been on ?
Amir Talai : Probably over 100. Right now I am in a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial. I haven’t done a commercial in over a year because of L.A. to Vegas.
IS : Can you elaborate on the Super Bowl commercial you were featured in that went viral ?
Amir Talai : I did a really great Super Bowl commercial for Bridgestone Tires. With the Killer Whale on the back of the truck. We’re driving down the road and the Killer Whale gets thrown into the ocean. It was a good one. It went for a good year. And then it was on the list of Top Super Bowl Commercials Ever.
IS : What’s great is that you have a chill demeanor in so many of your roles. It doesn’t seem like acting. What do you attribute that to ?
Amir Talai : It’s that looseness I talk about. It’s not about acting hard. It’s not about being funny. It’s about being yourself.
IS : How did your role of L.A. to Vegas come about ?
Amir Talai : I tried out for a different part on the show. The role of the gambler, who was written as Armenian. I think over the course of the audition, they weren’t finding the Armenian guy. They created the part the night before they started shooting, they said they have this co-pilot part. They just offered it to me. They said they didn’t know if I would be in future episodes. They were thinking every week was going to be a different co-pilot. But they liked me so much as the co-pilot they decided to bring me back for a few more episodes. And then a few more episodes turned into every episode.
I loved that part because it was very simple and funny. It was all punch-lines. I never had any setups. I just came in and did punch-lines. It was a blast.
IS : You have such great chemistry with Dylan McDermott.
Amir Talai : It’s pretty amazing when people tell me that. Because I’ve been such a big fan of his since The Practice. Not only that I got to work with him, but to where people commented on our chemistry.
IS : What do you attribute your on screen chemistry to ?
Amir Talai : I think it has to do with the listening and not over rehearsing stuff. If you’re just there as a person and not planning out your moments. Not : ‘I am going to do this then going to do that. I am going to say this and then move my hand that way.’ The key to chemistry is listening. If you’re too focused on your own shit to listen your chemistry will suffer. For me listening is Number One.
IS : Can you elaborate on some highlights from your experiences on L.A. to Vegas ?
Amir Talai : The most spectacular thing I would say is that we didn’t have a traditional premiere for the show. Where, normally you would screen a couple episodes and have a red carpet. We had our red carpet at LAX. And then we had the press and some other people on a plane to Vegas, and on the plane they played the first episode. Then we had a party in Vegas for like two hours, then we turned back around, got on a plane to L.A and played the second episode. By which that point everyone was drunk and exhausted. And no one paid attention on the way back.
It was a really crazy experience. Dylan (McDermott) suggested that he didn’t wan’t to be on for six hours answering questions at the premiere. He wanted to go in character. He told me to come in character also to the premiere. With the pilot outfits on. The rest of the cast had nice attire; suits and dresses. Dylan and I showed up dressed as pilot’s in Vegas at the Bellagio. It was hilarious.
IS : Where was L.A. to Vegas filmed ? Especially with the plane scenes ?
Amir Talai : We shot it at the Fox lot. They built a plane there. Eighty percent of the show happened either on the plane or at the gate. It was really interesting to shoot at such a tight environment. It also made the days go really quick. We weren’t on location. There weren’t a bunch of sets that we had to light or relight. There were days where I was done with work by 10 am.
IS : How long does it take to shoot each episode ?
Amir Talai : L.A. to Vegas took us about five days per episode. Traditionally, that’s pretty typical of half hour shows. Hour long shows are about eight days filming per episode.
IS : Can you elaborate on some of your upcoming projects ?
Amir Talai : The Patient Man was an indie that I did. It was a fun movie. A friend of mine directed it. I pretty much knew everyone involved with it. The producers and the writer / director.
The Noah Baumbach project comes out I think in October. Stuck is out. It premiered at a film festival earlier this year. That was another offer. I am just trying to grind. Trying to keep at it.
IS : Can you talk about the acting process preparation with the difference of comedy versus drama ?
Amir Talai : It’s just matter of understanding the tone. And it’s really about instinct. The same way you behave differently at a coffee shop or at home, or a party or at work. Your vibe is different. You’re the same person in every different situation. If I behaved at a party the way I do at work it would be strange to people. They may not be able to put their finger on it. You just won’t fit in and vice versa.
People make a mistake when they play the two (types of roles) differently. Obviously, there are certain punch-lines you have to sell in comedy, but if you have a good sense of timing, that’s not very difficult.
IS : 1) If you could have dinner with an actor / actress no longer alive and 2) With an actor / actress who is alive, who would you meet and why ?
Amir Talai : Alive, it may say sound like an easy answer, but I would say George Clooney. He’s smart. He’s pretty woke. He’s very funny. He makes smart movies and good life choices. I’d love to just hang out with him.
No longer alive, I would have to go way back and say Paul Robeson. He’s someone who broke barriers and did this at a time when things were so different. And just see what that was like for him on the daily.
He was more than an actor. He was an activist in the way he lived his life. An iconoclast. He changed how people view black people. He obviously didn’t change everyone. But he made a difference by living his life, which is so impressive.
IS : What do you think about in making history being one of the only Iranian American actors who has forged a successful path in Hollywood ? The most prolific
Amir Talai : I’ve really proud of what I’ve done. I think we have long ways to go. I think that Middle Eastern actors still lag way behind. I think part of the problem still, is that you can’t have an Iranian character without mentioning his or her religion or immigration status. I love Necar Zadegan’s role on Girlfriend’s Guide to Getting a Divorce. She is an Iranian American divorce attorney.
A lot of times another problem, too, is that they will cast a Middle Eastern actor, but they’ll give them a White name and a White biography. They’ll cast a Middle Eastern actor and name him John. And you never meet his parents. His last name is like Johnson. Why cast a Middle Eastern actor if your going to make everything about that person White ? We need Middle Eastern characters that represent the full diversity of Middle Eastern people.
My Dad is an Iranian immigrant, who owned a restaurant and who owned a gas station. He’s not Muslim. He’s not involved in politics or terror. You just don’t see that anywhere. I am proud of what I’ve forged for myself but I still think we have a ways to go and I feel that we need to talk about it.
“We need Middle Eastern characters that represent the full diversity of Middle Eastern people.”
I think a lot of Iranians like to pretend that they’re White. Which, for a lot of Iranians represents safety. Because if you’re White, you’re safe. But, I don’t think that it’s served us.
We’re living in a time where they’re banning people from Iran. Because the only people who are identified as Iranian in the media are the people in these scripted shows who are terrorists, or Iranian politicians in the news. I think more Americans need to see Middle Eastern people in regular roles. 75 % of Americans have no friends who are people of color. So what is their experience of Middle Eastern people ? It’s what they see on TV.
I am happy with the path that I’ve forged, but there is a lot of work to be done. We need to push for Iranian American visibility. We need to push for positive depiction of Iranians.
” We need to push for visibility. We need to push for Iranian American visibility. We need to push for positive depiction of Iranians. “
IS : Do you think it’s time for Iranian Americans to have their own show on network TV ?
Amir Talai : I would absolutely like to see one. I wouldn’t say that it’s time in the sense that, ‘We deserve one, or why is there not one or that it’s past due.’ I think that it would be a positive thing. I think there is certainly people who are capable of doing it. Nasim Pedrad almost had one with Chad. Let me put it this way. I don’t think we are necessarily owed it. But I don’t think there is a reason why there shouldn’t be one.
And I think what has to happen for that to come to fruition, more people of color in decision making processes in Hollywood. Hollywood is not a meritocracy. I think people have to be committed to changing the world. It’s too easy to say, ‘I only see one color and that’s green.’ I don’t buy that. Every person in power has to recognize the responsibility they have. And not just make the easy choice.
There will be a need for people in positions of power to take chances on people of color. To take chances on Iranian actors, creators and characters. You don’t have to decide between a White sitcom and a Persian sitcom. Maybe you’re doing the White sitcom. Maybe you cast someone like me in it. And maybe you make my character authentically Iranian American. What if the character has a similar background as me. A similar name as me. That’s why it’s very important for me to change my character’s name whenever I do stuff like that.
“There will be a need for people in positions of power to take chances on people of color. To take chances on Iranian actors, creators and characters.”
Actually in the Noah Baumbach movie, the character’s name was Greg. And I said I don’t know any Persian guys named Greg. I’d really love to have a little bit of Middle Eastern visibility. And long as your going to cast me, cast all of me. Don’t tone down my Persian edges to fit into this White character that you wrote. What if the character’s name was Amir. He thought about it and said, ‘Ok, let’s do it.’ So you need that kind of visibility. For me, I want to be playing the Persian guy and have the character be interesting.
IS : What more can be done to get Hollywood to help steer change in this direction ?
Amir Talai : You need people who are willing to take chances on Persian creators. Persian characters. Persian decision makers. I’ve yet to meet a Persian studio executive. One of the ways to do that is to pay interns. When a Persian kid graduates from college his parents are going to tell him or her to get a job. And he or she won’t get a job at an agency with no pay. There has to be the systemic pathways, to bring more people of color into the system. And one of those ways is to pay your interns. And Persian people in this industry need to fight harder. We need to fight for our stories to be told. We need to fight for Persian visibility even as something as simple as I do with changing my character’s names when I can.
” We need Middle Eastern characters that represent the full diversity of Middle Eastern people.”
IS : Congrats on performing in Annie at the Hollywood Bowl. Can you talk about your musical experience ? How often do you audition for musicals ?
Amir Talai : I audition for them semi-regularly. I end up doing theater once every year or two. I love doing musicals. I love singing. Again, you don’t get many chances as a Middle Eastern guy. But it’s great when there is a director who thinks outside the box. Annie takes place in the 1930’s. But, Michael Arden saw no reason why I couldn’t play that part and he cast me.
My singing comes from my high school experiences. I couldn’t sing before I started musicals in high school. But then I did so many. Around 25 musicals in high school.
IS : Imagine you’re 100 years and reading your Wikipedia profile ? What other life and career highlights would you like to see on there ?
Amir Talai : My ultimate fantasy is to be in a place where Brad Pitt is. He is making good movies but also helping a lot of people. I think it’s all a waste if you’re not making the world better for the people who are here now and for the people who are going to come after. Pitt. George Clooney. Kal Penn. There are no Persian actors that I can think of. Part of that is because they don’t have the profile in America to do it. But I’d like to be that. I’d like to be more than just a successful actor. I’d like to be a change maker.
Follow Amir Talai on social media @AmirTalai
Iman Sadri is the founder of @LASmileMagazine and @ThePersianObserver