‘Elysium’ star talks death, villainy and stereotypes

Faran Tahir is perhaps best known as the villainous Raza, the middle-eastern mercenary who held Tony Stark hostage in the first Iron Man. As is typical of big screen villains, his character came to a grisly end. His turn as Captain Robau in the rebooted Star Trek film ended with a similarly unhappy demise, and his character on Dallas recently kicked the bucket as well. However, big roles in the just-released Elysium and upcoming Escape Plan show that an actor’s career can be alive and kicking, even if his roles are all dying.

“The joke in my house always has been if there’s a way somebody can die onscreen, I’ve done it,” said Tahir.

Though he comes from a family of actors, Tahir’s decision to become one surprised not only his parents but himself. It also necessitated a move from his home in Pakistan to Los Angeles when he was only a teenager.

“In the beginning it was hard, I have to say, because you come here and you have no one,” Tahir said. “It can be daunting, and it can be freeing. It can catapult you into this state of mind where you think, ‘Since I have nothing, I have nothing to lose.’”

Tahir has built up an impressive resume over the years, appearing in dozens of movies and TV shows, but his biggest role yet may be as Minister Patel, leader of a space colony in director Neil Blomkamp’s sci-fi thriller Elysium. In this film, Max (Matt Damon) realizes he only has five days left to live, and leaves the slums of Earth to carry out a last-ditch mission on the space colony Elysium, where the well-to-do of society live unfettered by the pollution and social unrest on Earth.

Tahir has played his fair share of heroes and villains, and he thinks that his character in Elysium falls somewhere in the middle.

“The thing that I really liked about the script is that, with the exception of a few characters, everyone is working in shades of grey. No one is a complete criminal, and nobody is completely a saint. What that does is give you the freedom to live the character and let people decide what they think this guy is.”

Despite featuring aliens, robots, and classic sci-fi trappings, Blomkamp’s District 9 was a commentary on real-world social issues, and Tahir says that Elysium follows in the same vein.

“Neil is smart because he takes a hot topic—a current issue—and he sets it in a slightly fictional world,” Tahir said. “But he doesn’t remove it so much from reality that we get detached from it. He did it with District 9” with racism and apartheid. In this one, he tackles elitism and immigration and all of those issues.”

What Tahir’s other film, Escape Plan, may lack in social commentary, it makes up for with star power and sheer fun. Tahir plays Javed, an inmate in a high-tech prison in which Ray (Sylvester Stallone) and Swan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) must work together to escape.

“It’s an extremely testosterone-filled movie, but I think the script is smart,” Tahir said. “It has a great pace. There are some great actors in it. Plus, you have for the first time really, Stallone and Schwarzenegger sharing a screen for the entirety of a movie. I think it’s going to be quite a treat.”

As one of the most prominent Pakistani actors in Hollywood, Tahir acknowledges that he has to be aware of the types of roles he plays.

“There has to be a balance. If I do a few bad guys, I like to change it up and do something a little different. Sometimes that takes me to the stage, sometimes that takes me to television, sometimes that takes me to film. Yes, there is...a responsibility to not get stereotyped. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Despite this added responsibility, Tahir says that by following his instincts he will do justice to future generations of Pakistani actors who may be watching him onscreen today.

“I don’t take it as an agenda that I must be some role model,” Tahir said. “What I have to do is be true to my work and show as much variance and variety as I can, so that if there are kids or younger actors following in my footsteps, they get to have the freedom to express themselves not in a stereotypical way, but in as many different ways as they can.”

Elysium hits theaters Friday and Escape Plan premieres Oct. 18. In addition, Tahir stars alongside Ray Park in the independent supernatural thriller Jinn, which is scheduled for a winter release.