Actor Brandon Tabassi, 23 and raised in Massachusetts, won his first break playing a minor role in Ben Affleck’s critically acclaimed “Argo,” about the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis. At a recent Shabbat dinner, Tabassi revealed that he has Iranian-Jewish roots and a snazzy resume in politics. In a subsequent interview, he talked about the importance of empathy, what acting and politics have in common, and what puzzles him most about his former governor, Mitt Romney.
Jewish Journal: “Argo” tells the story of a CIA rescue of six Americans hiding out at the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis; in the movie you play a young Iranian soldier who carries out orders from the mullahs. In real life, you are a born-and-bred American with Iranian-Jewish roots. As an actor, how do you empathize with a character who probably would have caused you harm?
Brandon Tabassi: I imagined my character was a secular 18-year-old kid who returned from boarding school in Europe and wanted to join the cause of freedom for Iran. When the ayatollah came, he duped everyone — he very specifically said he would not have a hand in government. It was a time of mass chaos and mass confusion, and I imagined my character had gotten himself into something he thought was a movement for democracy and freedom, then found himself in the middle of something he didn’t understand.
JJ: So, in your view, a young Iranian at that time might have had the best of intentions, but out of naiveté wound up executing the agenda of very brutal Islamic leaders?
BT: I have to play the humanity of a character. He was looking to make Iran a better place and probably didn’t know that for the next 33 years his country was going to take a dramatic step backward.
JJ: At 23, you’re just starting your acting career. How did it feel to work on a film so early on that is also so closely tied to your family history?
BT: It was mind blowing to me — being on set at the Mehrabad airport in 1980 [filmed at L.A./Ontario International Airport], and in Hancock Park, where they filmed the Canadian ambassador’s home scenes, I got to experience a Persian home in 1970s Iran that was styled very authentically with Persian things: Persian carpet, Persian paintings, Persian chinaware. What I love about acting is that you get to live many different lifetimes in one lifetime. When I left on my last day [of shooting], I wrote Ben [Affleck] a thank-you note that said, “Words can’t convey what this experience has meant to me,” because I have feelings about it, but right now I can’t explain them in words.
JJ: The opportunity to work with Ben Affleck is a pretty coveted position for an industry newcomer. What kind of director is he?
BT: Ben is all about performance. He’s a perfectionist. And he treats everybody like gold; when he refers to somebody, he says, ‘This gentlemen’ or ‘this lady.’ He is a class act, and the experience of working with him reaffirmed what I had been brought up being taught — that those things really do matter.
JJ: Before you came to Hollywood, you started a career in politics. At 16, you worked as a page for Sen. John Kerry and later served as his aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). What was that like?
BT: As Kerry’s page, I spent 11th grade living in Washington. If I wasn’t with a group of people, I had to have security on me at all times; at night, I’d be walking down the street with Capitol police escorting me. I woke at 5 a.m. every day, went to school from 6 to 8 a.m. in the basement of a government building and went to bed at midnight. When Kerry was in charge of the SFRC, I would greet high-profile visitors. I did that for Leon Panetta, [then]-director of the CIA, and the foreign minister from Afghanistan. He said to me, “The future for both of our countries is going to be very bright.”
JJ: You also formed a relationship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who served as a mentor to you.
BT: Kennedy wasn’t the friendliest person, but he was the kindest human being I ever met in my life. He’d always come over to me on the Senate floor and explain what was going on: He explained the Supreme Court justice system, the importance of not overturning Roe v. Wade, because, you know, there were two vacant seats at the time.
JJ: If you could teach people one lesson about American political culture, what would it be?
BT: What I learned from politics and government is that the world is run by human beings. People equate politicians with robots; they talk like they’re these big entities, big machines, but [government is made of] organizations run by people for people.
JJ: Hollywood and Washington have an unusual long-distance relationship, sort of like distant cousins. Having seen the inside of both, what do they have in common?
BT: Politics is one of the only mediums that allows a person to stand up for another person who can’t stand up for themselves. But because of the level of visibility of acting, if you become successful, you can get behind a cause. Acting is also an opportunity to empathize with different human beings, and once you understand how [people] make the decisions they do, you become a better leader.
JJ: Is that why you ultimately ditched politics for performing?
BT: This blessing of acting allows me to get in other people’s hearts and souls. To be good in public service, you have to understand how other people think and how other people love.
JJ: Since you’re from Massachusetts, I wonder if you have any thoughts about your former governor, Mitt Romney.
BT: Mitt Romney is a good family man. He’s been pretty successful in life, but I think that what he forgets is that his father started with very humble roots, and his father was able to become what he became through the help of many people and through God’s blessing. Also, it was during his term as governor that the universal health-care law passed in Massachusetts, so for him to come back and criticize Obama’s health-care initiative, to me, was a little bit questionable.
JJ: “Argo” is already getting Oscar buzz. On the hypothetical chance you get to attend, what will you wear, and who will you take?
BT: If they’re nice enough to invite me — and that’s a big if — I am somebody who lives in a small studio [apartment] the size of [Henry David Thoreau's] cabin on Walden Pond; I own five shirts, five shorts and two pairs of jeans. I’ll probably go out and rent a tuxedo that doesn’t cost more than my rent, and of course I’ll take my mother, because if it wasn’t for her, not only would I not have gotten the film, I would not even be alive.