Toktam Abouzary is a well known character actress in the Iranian American community and has a growing profile in Hollywood. She has worked opposite Dolph Lungren in the film Larceny. She has shared camera time with Michael Jai White in Cops & Robbers. She has been in the film Baja, directed by Tony Vidal. She has been in the featured film Condo written and directed by Joseph Hovsepian. Toktam has also starred in the Spanish film Los Patriotas, directed by Oscar Lopez. Some of her other credits include Antidote, Aylan Baby, and Breath Control. Ms. Abouzary has also appeared in many Persian stage plays and theatrical productions in Los Angeles. Most notably, Aroosi in 2017. To catch up with this prolific actress who is a regular at a multitude of Hollywood events we caught up for a Q+A in Los Angeles with Toktam Abouzary.
Iman Sadri : Thank You for meeting with The Persian Observer. Please describe your early life, education and upbringing ?
Totkam Abouzari : I was born in Mashhad, a city in the North East of Iran. Growing up my mother was a teacher and my father was a dentist. I was the first child in my family. Later on one brother and two sisters were added to our growing family, expanding our family size to six members. As a child I was extremely creative. I would do any sort of art, including drawing, painting and fashion design. I would also write. Both stories and lyrics for songs. And sometimes I would write songs with stories in them.
I had a lot of fun getting lost in my own dreamy world. I still have some of those stories and drawings, mostly inspired by European novels, which I would read at a very young age. My ultimate dream was singing and performing on stage. It was one of the things I would see in myself when I was a kid. That I was funny enough that I would pretend I am an English speaking singer In America. It’s really funny how a child can think beyond borders so innocently. I was in love with the camera and fashion from early age.
I was also very interested in all kinds of human interaction with society, politics, philosophy, history, geography, etc. Whatever that would make me to think deeply about life, truth and ultimately ‘who am I’ from a very very young age. This intellectual side of me was more appealing to my Mother which made her think I absolutely shouldn’t spend time in art. I remember she would get extremely worried over my obsession of drawing characters in such details. I was very obsessed because instead of drawing flowers at the corner of my homework notebook, I would draw mid-century Europe females. Dressed in full costumed design dress and make up. I would keep fighting with my Mother to gain my freedom of any form of artistic expression in my childhood.
In that struggling between me and my Mother constantly about me wanting to be free in life as a girl, I was able to get away with my desire until one day suddenly I lost both my parents in a dramatic event at the age of 9. I still cant stop crying when it comes to remembering that day but it’s maybe not a topic to talk about it here.
That incident of losing my parents drastically changed my life. We moved to a small city in the North of Iran where my dad’s family was living. In Iran the father’s side take the responsibility for taking care of the under aged kids. In that new life we had to grow up with my Father’s family, who were very religious to the point where most forms of art for women were considered sins. That’s how my grandfather’s idea was about music, art, theater, etc. My mother’s side of the family was religious too, but I would get a way with it because she was my Mother.
With my Grandfather being very fanatical it was impossible to resist. I never forgot when I was 10 I wrote and created an entire play with kids in the family. I was using water color to do the make up of my actors and my Aunt came and pulled me aside. She asked how dare I used make up when I was just 10 yrs old. I told her that was the whole point of doing a play. I still remember how I crashed internally trying to understand what was wrong with the idea of a play.
When I was a teenager I was loved fashion. With one of my cousins we would create our own photo shoots, modeling for the camera. I would always get caught. My dad’s family forbade anything regarding art. There was also a lack of appreciation for art in some of the family members those years. It was a whole different era. So I limited myself only to study to become a doctor, (very typical in an Iranian family) and I only stayed in my world of writing and drawing away from the eyes of my family and sneaking it in between homework. I suffered a lot not to be able to express my artistic side openly.
In that closed environment my brother and I kept our passion for drawing movie characters. He would draw Western actors with some of the best drawing I have seen in my life. We kept our enthusiasm for movies by getting film magazines in Iran to keep up with the latest in Hollywood.
I eventually became a good writer in High School and also would participate in plays and the school chorus group, without the knowledge of my family. Somewhere along the way the whole drawing for me and my brother’s artistic expression and eventual creativity got blocked. Maybe it was from all of the pressure and restrictions.
I couldn’t become a physician either, and I studied Botany – a branch of Agricultural Engineering unwittingly. I eventually even got my Master’s Degree in it. I am still regretting it. But perhaps I wouldn’t be here if all those events did not happening that way.
I got my Bachelor’s in the city of Rasht and I went to Tehran to study my Master’s Degree. When I was in Tehran I got approached by a few directors to act in their films. Somehow they were believing I can become a movie star. I refused acting in movies back then still having the voice of my family in the back of my mind that it wrong and bad to be an actress. Even though I was 23 I thought I was too old to become an actress back then.
I also didn’t want to stay in Iran and deep down I knew my life would be somewhere else. For the most part of it I was still confused and perhaps uncovered from my parent’s sudden death. Even though in Tehran I was way more free to act based on my wishes yet I thought it was too late for perusing my artistic dreams.
I finished my Master’s Degree in Tehran and I went To India for a Yoga course. I fell in love with the country. I backpacked all over India for a period of four years and went back and forth between Iran and India. I learned a lot about other cultures and learned from many spiritual gurus and Ashrams. I also appeared in the movie The Bourne Supremacy with Matt Damon while they were shooting it in Goa. Also I was in a few other big Bollywood films as Western extras. In India I got approached to act in Bollywood films and even though I wasn’t interested in Bollywood I was considering it. While I was In Pune I decided to start. I wasn’t able to do in Iran and I wanted to start with modeling, which was one of my all time dreams. Also I created my fashion line there in Puna. I signed up with a modeling agency.
I got to visit Meher Baba’sAshram in city called Ahmed Nagar. When I went there, Meher Baba’s last disciple asked me to stay in the Ashram which was a charity organization that did spiritual activities. The love I felt In Meher Baba’s spiritual ashram was incomparable with anything else so I stayed there for a few years. That Ashram was mostly managed by Americans. The life in that ashram is a whole another story but I got to do many artistic activities such as daily plays, song writing singing and artistic programs within Ashrams rules.
I ended up getting married with an American follower of Meher Baba’s in India and came to Chicago for the first time. I was still working in India so I didn’t live in the USA yet. In 2009 I finally had to stay in America for my green card. In October 2009, I came to Los Angeles to visit a friend of mine. In L.A. I got approached on the street while walking in Beverly Hills for acting and the director told me to right away register for acting school. It was for the first time I thought now I can start a career I would always dream of. I was staying six months in the U.S. and six Months in India. I had to return to India after I started studying acting and modeling. Shortly after starting acting school I would to go to auditions. There are so many funny stories of my learning about the industry and all. I did go back and forth between India and the U.S. until the end of 2013. In my head I was thinking of myself as an actress, yet I mostly was doing modeling and not acting. I joined the Miss Asia USAPageant in 2012 and won two awards and became 2nd runner up. At the end of the pageant I went back to India for the most of 2013 and stayed with Bhau Kalchury (the last deciple of Meher Baba) during his last months of his life at the Meher Baba ashram.
When I returned To Los Angeles in 2014 after a couple of months of debating to pursue a career in singing and songwriting, I finally decided to move forward with acting and start my way to auditions again. After three months I booked principle roles in two independent feature films. Eventually, I participated in different Independent featured American films as supporting or principle roles and built up the resume I have now.
IS : What were some of your earliest influences to pursue a career in entertainment ?
Toktam Abouzary : When I was young reading that character of Scarlett O’hara in Gone With The Wind was very inspiring to me. I fell in love with that character and later on watching that film was my ultimate inspiration for Hollywood. Also when I was a kid my grandfather on my Mom’s side was keeping old Iranian magazines from the Shah’s period in their basement. I would sneak in the basement to look at those magazines and obviously all those classic glamorous actresses in Hollywood such as Marilyn Monroe, Sofia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and actors such as Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and mostly classic actors in Hollywood were my deep inspiration. That of course changed to more modern film actors later on when I grew up however my favorite type of movie star inspirations stayed classic.
IS : What were some of your favorite films growing up – influences that led you to pursue film ?
Toktam Abouzary : Gone with the Wind was the very significant film which was very inspiring for me wanting to become an actress. I loved Scarlett O’hara. The classic European writers’ novel’s i would read in childhood and movies based on those were my very source of my interest in film industry. I loved the motion picture when I would see the characters I read in books comes and they alive very similar to what I imagined them. So it was a world of internal imagination mix with information based on reading and watching films was always the inspiration for me.
IS : Can you describe some of your earliest work ? Highlights / challenges from these projects ?
Toktam Abouzary : The most interesting character close to my heart so far is portraying Forough Farokhzad in the featured film Silver Carnation directed by Roy Sartipi. Its the biography of the life of Fereydoon Farokhzad. As Forough I had a few supporting scenes in it. However even though I was super excited to be the first actress to portrait Forough Farokhzad but the film didn’t get finished and still is looking for investors for completion. It’s a beautiful movie and I hope it can get done at some point. Very small part of the film has remained and I hope it gets its funding at some point.
It’s very risky as an actor even when we get cast to be part of films until you see the movie on the screen you never know how things unfold. The hard process of getting casted in a film sometimes get minimized in editing room and minimal budget issues and all and again by the time a film is made almost a lot of miraculous thing should happen with many people putting time and effort for a film to be deliverable to the audience.
I have worked with action film actors like Dolph Landgren in the movie Larceny, about a Spanish American drug cartel movie and I had the role of the captain’s wife who was a major Mafia boss. Certainly its different when you act with bigger actors on the set. However, my experience has been much better doing a scene with bigger and more professional actors than the new or non-seasoned actors.
I have been playing with Michael Jai White as a supporting role on the movie called Cops & Robbers and again I loved working with him on a few scenes we had together.
I remember back then I was always worried about how I look and surprisingly each time something wrong would happen changing my look to something unexpected.
I had my hair straight and i had to walk quite a distance towards Michael Jai White and I had to slap him on the face. Now it was a windy day and was blowing my hair all over my face so after a couple of takes they thought I have to pull back my hair. So they took me to the make up room and did a pony tail and I became so grumpy cause I did not want to have that important scene with my hair pulled back. He noticed my grumpy face and I had tears in my eyes while shooting the scene cause I was hating why always something like this happens to me. The funny thing was the director and Michael thought what a great actress I am to be able to shed a few tears thinking I did it for the scene. Sometimes unwanted things happens in your advantage.
In the movie Baja directed by Tony Vidal shot in Mexico, I tapes an audition as a news reporter but they cast me for a role of a Madame in brothel house. It was a light comedy but it was totally unexpected last minute.
The first feature film I did was a super low budget film called Condo, a very funny script which I did audition for it back in 2010. However I was living in India back then and didn’t do the film. After 5 yrs in 2014 when I officially started acting in a serious way they called me based on the original cast and head shots they had in the files. I got to know they didn’t shoot the film in 2010. I was very sad back in 2010 thinking I couldn’t do that film and my career wont go anywhere. Back then I was under impression that if an actor does a lead role in a feature film that’s it. He or she become a working actor. I didn’t know acting is an on going thing and doesn’t have a end to it.
I did the feature film Closure right after the Condo written and directed by Joseph Hovsepian, Iranian-Armenian filmmaker who did his first feature based on a true story.
Many good lessons while I was shooting an episodic TV series for Gem TV back in 2015 but after shooting 3 episodes the production moved to Turkey. Our work never aired but it was a great experience, we worked for month on it.
I worked in a Spanish language feature film called Los Patriotas directed by Oscar Lopez in Tijuana and was it my first action film. It was so much fun doing that film in some sketchy bars in downtown Tijuana.
For the movie Antidote I traveled to Playa Del Carmen, Cancun and my part was very small but so much fun shooting a film there among some well known actors and actresses.
In July 2019 I traveled to Turkey for the humanitarian film Aylan Baby a heart-touching story of Syrian refugees crossing the borders of Turkey to Greece. It was a totally different experience shooting there. Actors were from different part of the world and it was a project put together by love and support of the people.
One of the characters I loved to play was in a pilot called Breath Control portraying a cult member .The pilot was done with very small budget but the networks thought the topic will create a lot of controversy and so it didn’t go any further. But I liked the mysteriousness of the character and the story. I have done a few comedy plays with Iranian directors as well. I have done other projects mostly independent films also.
IS : If you can play in a biopic a historical figure / woman of influence / past or present – who would you play and why ?
Totkam Abouzari : I very much like to play the role of Mary Magdalena and her life story either separately or in her biography attached to the Jesus story. It’s cause I’m very interested in historical stories which shows the struggling and challenges of a human finding her or his way to find love and truth. I think the character and story of Mary is a great example to show the struggling of a woman to face her deepest fear and lower desires and rise to her higher consciousness by breaking through the fear of facing her true nature and ultimately experiencing the universal love.
I guess following the journey from lower consciousness to super consciousness or super humanity is very much my kind of story and topics portrait by a female hero. Mary is an example of living a life opposite of society’s norm yet able to listen to her inner voice and eventuality able to rise to accompany and love the ultimate version of love and truth the God in human form of that era called Jesus. Also the fact that Mary Magdalena was a Middle Eastern woman certainly makes me feel closer to her character even though she lived in a different era.
IS : What are the keys to memorizing lines and dialogue ?
Toktam Abouzari : When It comes to memorizing lines it’s different when the script is in Farsi or English. When it’s in Farsi I read the story and paragraph but in performance I can make it more conversational according to what makes it more real fluent natural conversation and I can change the words minimally and do some improvisation as long as doesn’t hurt the purpose of the paragraph. It’s easy for me. However when the script is in English then it become more challenging. I certainly can’t just review the script and then come up with new made up lines on the set. I have to memorize my lines until I kill it and that is by over and over reading and memorizing it.
However, I found out I can get relaxed when I record myself on camera at home to say my lines off paper and when each words of paragraph registered in my mind then perhaps i can change small words here and there on the set when I’m shooting. Also even most of directors saying lines are not important but as long as they don’t see a very creative authentic performance better than the original lines then they become picky about improvisation. Also for editing and interaction with other actors the lines as written is important however this can change totally in different films and different directors and which level of an actor you are can determine the range of improvising or staying true to the lines.
IS : Imagine you are 100 years old and writing your Wikipedia profile – what career highlights and milestones would you like to see on there ?
Totkam Abouzary : I am obsessed with the Academy Awards. Even though some believe there is a lot of politics empowering its decision however for me that achievement is an extraordinary thing and I would not be happy if I don’t achieve it once in my career. Now that sounds very cliche and perhaps cheesy these days but I believe that achievement as an artist we get the great recognition to work in projects that can portray the truth or any message in a much wider range of publicity vs if we act in a great film or a play in some small town where nobody sees the film. That very recognition puts us in a new platform to be an ambassador for many humanitarian works in the future through excellency in art.
And somehow the Oscars still have kept its prestigious place among people in the world. I see it as a great platform to use its publicity to do greater things in life. There are other ways to do great things too, however when you get awarded for Oscars you prove to yourself that you are one of the best in your field and that you can help others using that platform and its power for greater works for society and the world. I might be wrong in describing it but I pretty much expect myself to win the Oscars one day and for sure using its publicity for doing humanitarian works either in form of arts, being in films showcasing the truth or other fields.
Follow Toktam Abouzary on social media @Toktam_Aboozary