It is not often a young person from our community appears in a major motion picture and regularly in a popular national network television series, but 16-year-old Jonathan Ahdout has achieved these unique feats and more. Three years ago Ahdout, a Brentwood resident, made his acting debut playing a young Iranian man opposite Oscar winning actors Sir Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly in the acclaimed film âHouse of Sand and Fogâ. His genuine performance in the film caught the attention of producers of the hit Fox television series â24â who soon cast him to play the controversial young Iranian character of âBehrooz Arazâ on the program last season.
Ahdout is one of only a handful of young people in our community that have recently achieved substantial success working in the entertainment industry in the last few years. Even though he is still in high school, Jonathanâs acting ability has recently earned him a place in the soon to be released film âAmerican Gunâ, playing along side actor Forrest Whittaker. Recently I had a chance to chat with Jonathan and was impressed to discover that this well-spoken young man is also musically talented and possesses a true love of Judaism.
Can you share with us some background on yourself and where you grew up?
Well Iâm 16 years old and parents came to America in 1982 from Iran. I was born in 1989 and I grew up in the area around Beverly Glen. I went to Sinai Akiba and for seventh grade I switched schools to Harvard Westlake. Iâve always been very interested in music and the arts, thatâs something Iâve been involved with since I was very little. I started piano lessons with Sheila Hekmat when I was in first grade and Iâm still doing that. Sheâs definitely been a big influence in my life, helped me out. Iâve done a lot of compositions with piano, won some contests which is great, and just recently wrote the score for my school play this Fall. I really love writing music and I got into acting when I was around 13 when I was in âHouse of Sand and Fogâ.
How did you land your first role in the film House of Sand and Fog?
I was never interested in acting when I was younger. I did a few school plays with my friends. When I was 13 one of my momâs friends got a fax from DreamWorks that said they needed a Persian boy to play the son of Ben Kingsley in âHouse of Sand and Fogâ and it was just an open audition. So I went in thinking it would be cool to audition for a movie, I didnât have any high hopes or anything. Even the fact that I got a call back was surprising to me and I didnât hear back from them for three weeks until one day I had messages at home and on my cell phone that I had to go in and audition that night. So I went in with a whole bunch of kids, we all auditioned. The next day was my first rehearsal and two weeks later was the first day of shooting.
What motivated you to enter the acting profession? Is it going to be your career in the future?
Iâm not making too many decisions right now about the rest of my life, I think Iâm way too young to be deciding what is best and right. As of now what I can do is to take advantage of everything is in front of me. Doing the movie obviously opened a lot of doors for me and I really enjoyed acting. I think it would make for a great career right now. Itâs not necessarily a sustainable career or something practical because the entertainment industry is very very shaky, especially for actors because you never know if youâre going to be with a job or out of a job. Itâs not like being a businessman or owning a business were you know youâre going to have a steady income or salary. My plans as of now are to go to college, Iâm hoping to double major in something in film industry and business. Hopefully one day start my own business, look into producing, look into directing—definitely continue acting. Eventually if I have the time for it, film scoring is something Iâve always been interested in and would definitely love to pursue.
What has the experience of working on a popular TV show like â24â been like for you?
Itâs surreal for me. I donât think Iâm at that point where itâs hit me that Iâm on millions of TV sets and millions of people around the entire world are watching me. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland in August with my school for three weeks, we were performing a bunch of different plays. There was a stand-up comedy routine there called â26â, it was about this guy who was 26 years old and making fun of his life. As soon as I found about that I told my friends that we should go see it. Right at the middle of his routine, he called me up, he had me sign his whole DVD set and thereâs an action card with my face on it that he had me sign. So the whole thing is so unreal to me and the fact that I was recognized there was amazing. I just got a call the other day from someone in Brazil about a fan club I have in Brazil. Working on â24â was such a solid experience, from the second I walked on people welcomed with open arms. No matter how big or small my role was I could tell that everyone there was working together on such a great project. I felt like I was a part of such a great team of people who were so professional, knew what they were doing and had such great personalities. It was definitely a more versatile experience for me, I learned how to deal with more people and be more professional in the entertainment industry.
Youâve played young Middle Eastern men on TV and film, are you afraid of being type-cast in these roles? Do you want to continue playing these roles or do you want something different?
My biggest fear is becoming type-cast as the Muslim Middle Easterner because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East and itâs become a much bigger part of American culture. I donât want to necessarily fuel anytime of stereotype that could be created. My roles on â24â and âHouse of Sand and Fogâ were very character driven, character specific roles, there was not that much stereotype involved which is why I took the roles. I wanted to make sure it wasnât anything too general and something that people could get the wrong idea from. Apparently people did get the wrong idea for it. I know there was a lot of hate coming from the Muslim community towards me and Shohreh Agadashloo and to Fox as well for portraying Middle Easterners as terrorists on â24â. But at the same time youâre dealing with â24â which is a show that has portrayed Germans, Russians, even Americans as terrorists. I have had to turn down roles that I thought were way too stereotypical and that I thought would negatively affect my career. I donât want to close off any opportunities for myself by taking these roles. Iâve actually filmed another independent film called âAmerican Gunâ where I just played a normal American kid named Ike. It was a smaller role but it was such a great task and opportunity for me, but more importantly I have it on my resume that Iâve played non-Middle Eastern roles.
Iranian Jewish parents seem to want their children to join professional occupations, what was your familyâs reaction when you told them you wanted to act?
We come from a very conservative culture where people like things that are practical and reasonable. Becoming an actor at the age of 13 is definitely not practical or reasonable. People just feel safe in our community sticking to stability. My parents from the start came to this country to give us a better life and give us opportunities and education. Their biggest concern for me was that I have to stay in school, I have to keep my head in school, and not go into this industry for money. It was about me pursuing something I loved, something I that I was good at, something that could be a good opportunity for me. I was actually one of the more hesitant people in my family about taking this role, it wasnât necessarily just my decision it was basically between me, my parents, and my older sister. So went for it, my parents supported me every step of the way, my mom came with me to work every single day and made sure that I was on top of my work and school. So many Persian people and young people in our community havenât gone toward acting, itâs completely understandable for parents to have the same reaction as I had and think that this is crazy.
What type of response or feedback have you received from the Iranian Jewish community since youâve achieved success in landing roles on â24â and âHouse of San and Fogâ?
Iâve gotten a lot of admiration. When I go to Sinai for temple, or Nessah for temple, or go to extended family dinners, or weddings where people that Iâve never met know me and really appreciate what Iâm doing. Itâs so fulfilling. I think Iâm showing them and itâs ok not to be so uptight and to be more relaxed and embrace what this country has to offer. The fact that they are admiring me to begin with is an honor for me and to have my community behind me. I definitely feel that itâs not just the Muslims that are against me, I hate to say that, they have admired me as well just because of the fact that I am Persian. Iâve gotten a lot negative reaction all across the board from all religions and all Middle Easterners. When I was doing my interview on K.I.R.N. and I also had an interview on the Iranian satellite radio channel, I was getting phone calls from these mothers and fathers ranting so angry that they couldnât believe that I could portray a terrorist on TV. There was this one guy that told me his son was named âBehroozâ and how he was going to school and everyone would call him âBehrooz terroristâ. I knew going into this that I would get a lot of negative reactions and I even expected more that I got. Itâs about the acting and itâs the craftâ¦Iâm not a terrorist. My job was to act and that is what I did.
How important is Judaism in your life now and how are you involved in the Jewish community?
Judaism is a very very big part of my life and identity. Itâs one of the reasons why I am so close to my family and there is such a good relationship between us. Every Friday night Iâm excited to go to my grandmaâs house and see my 20 cousins. Itâs such a great thing. Being Jewish has brought a lot of goodness to my life and I think itâs very important for someone to have a strong religion and relationship with G-d to hold onto. Iâm not the most religious or Orthodox, but in my opinion one of the biggest components of the Jewish religion is the idea of family and in my opinion that is why we have Shabbat to be with your family.
What projects do you have coming up? Are you going to continue acting?
Right now itâs a pretty tough year in school. I just missed out on a good amount of time, I kept up but I definitely think this is the time I can get a lot out of being in school. Iâm not trying to stop my career but Iâm not making any decisions for the future. Iâm not going to say Iâm not going to act tomorrow when I donât have an offer. Iâm still auditioning, if something comes up thatâs when Iâm going to make the decision of whether I should take the role or stay in school. Right now my top priority is school and it always will be. If anything, that is what will take me farthest in life.
What advice do you have for other young Iranian Jews looking to enter the entertainment industry as an actor?
First comes first, donât get your hopes up because if you do youâre destined to fail. There are no guarantees in this business, just because you go on a couple of auditions doesnât mean youâre going to be a movie star the next day. You might not get a job for a couple of years. After âHouse of Sand and Fogâ I didnât audition for a year and then I auditioned for a year until I got the next two roles. Donât rush into things, donât get your hopes too high, and donât ever ever give up because if itâs something you enjoy and love, you have every right to pursue it.
This article was originally published by the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine: