Exclusive Interview with Actor, Director, Writer & Producer
By Dr. Farzad Farahmand:
Published in the September 2012 issue of the Calabasas Times Magazine:
Actor, director, writer and producer Vahik Pirhamzei has come a long way from the time he was 10 years old with his early talent of writing stories and performing them for friends and family to leaving his birth country of Iran for the United States to pursue his lifelong dream of acting, to producing music videos for such world class vocalists as the most popular Persian icon, the female singer Googoosh, to finally breaking into Hollywood with his latest film, “My Uncle Rafael”, released in theaters on September 21st.
In 1989 he settled as an immigrant in Los Angeles, California and began auditioning for acting roles in taped Farsi TV programs. He eventually found his way to acting in over 25 stage productions, performing in various cities in North America and the UK.
He attributes his success to a phrase that he came up with many years ago and followed persistently while continuously believing in himself. And the phrase was, “Every castle has a back door. If you want to enter the castle, you need to find that back door”. Apparently, he has found that back door and has entered the castle we call Hollywood with his latest comedy movie just released in theaters on September 21st called “My Uncle Rafael”.
I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Vahik:
Farzad: Hello Vahik, welcome to the Calabasas Times Magazine.
I understand that acting and finding your way to Hollywood has been your life long dream since childhood. You were born in Iran. Could you please tell us a little bit about some of your childhood dreams as you were growing up?
Vahik: First of all I’d like to say thank you for having me and it is my pleasure to have an interview with you in the Calabasas Times Magazine. Well, finding myself here having done a movie which is in theaters would tell the whole story that when I was a child I always liked acting. I kind of liked art I would say, I started to draw and paint at an early age. In school I remember as I was on stage helping my art teacher doing painting for a stage design for an upcoming play, I was looking down to the empty seats. And while I was watching that play at the age of 10 I was mesmerized and somehow deep inside I felt like I could do this. That this was something I liked and I wanted to do it.
Then I went onto high school trying to get into high school plays!! I liked movies and stories. I watched so many movies as a child. I particularly liked the TV series, Colombo if you can remember.
Farzad: Yes of course!
Vahik: When I was growing up I enjoyed watching such actors as Al Pachino, Dustin Hoffman, Deniro. I remember Kramer vs. Kramer was one on my favorite movies. For me it was all about character actors. Now in Hollywood because of technology, action movies, animations and special affects some of those are kind of gone.
Farzad: And you didn’t just watch the actors but you felt like you could be them.
Vahik: Actually the truth is that I was feeling like how could someone put himself in different emotional situation like crying, being sad, angry and then happy. That was something that was always interesting to me and I was interested to understand how they do it. And that appealed to me because I like facing challenges.
Farzad: How old were you when you came to the United States?
Vahik: I came in 1989, I was 21 years old.
Farzad: Let’s do the math!
Vahik: Let’s see, I was born November 6th, 1968 so that makes me 43.
Farzad: When you came to the United States, what were you trying to pursue? Acting?
Vahik: That was my dream. That’s why I came to the United States. But in order to get to my dream, I started working in many different jobs to pay for my expenses. My first job was in a print shop and on weekends rehearsing Persian plays mostly comedy plays. Eventually I started traveling all over the country performing plays. I started with the famous screenwriter and director Mr. Parviz Khatibi whose daughter Firoozeh Khatibi, is a great actress and a famous journalist. So I became a professional doing that and got paid.
What I did was that I created this production company doing advertising and I was writing TV commercials. I produced so many TV comedy sketches in Persian TV.
Farzad: And of course you are also a music video producer.
Vahik: Yes! That’s something I was always asked to do but never really pursued it myself. But with every great artist that I worked with, such as Googoosh, the most popular Persian female singer, or Daryoosh, my music videos always told a story.
Farzad: Yes, Googoosh is truly a legend. And she is a perfectionist. In order for her to be pleased with your work, must be quite an honor.
Vahik: Yes, I think what she appreciates from me is the fact that I am very precise. Just like she is. That’s why she understands me.
I did 2 music videos for her about 8 years ago. And just 6 months ago the management contacted me again asking to talk about a new project. And although I was busy with the movie that is coming out I did 2 videos for songs from her new album, Ejaz.
Farzad: It must have been an honor hearing back from them after 8 years!!
Vahik: Yes! I have great respect for her, and she mutually respects me as well.
I get to spend many hours with her going over the story board and the drawings of the scenes. Somewhere around 78 scenes per video.
There are over 11 actors acting in these music videos, and in the same day we were shooting for both music videos together simultaneously. More that 10 days of shooting, 9 to 10 hours a day, and everyday we shot scenes for both music video in the same day. So basically she starts singing pieces from each one at different times. And the crew I was working with was over 25 people, plus there were extras making over 40 people on the set everyday.
Farzad: And you were calling the shots!
Vahik: Of course! I was the producer, the director and the writer of the story. And I also did the auditioning for the parts.
Farzad: You were more interested in dramatic acting in the beginning!
Vahik: I still am. I’ve done drama too. But the reason I’ve done more comedy was because it was called for at the time especially with the frustration of the Persian people after the revolution. The only way to attract them was through comedy.
Farzad: And speaking of comedy, there is a movie that just came out, a Hollywood film, your dream come true to break into the world of Hollywood. It’s a comedy movie titled, “My Uncle Rafael” which you co-wrote, co-produced and also acted in the movie. I’ll let you talk a little more about it. First of all how did you get this role?
Vahik: Well, I first wrote a play in the Armenian language and the Uncle Rafael character was born in that play. This character was so loved and so popular that I did more plays using his character. He was a big hit in all the plays and I received many suggestions to work on this character and bring it to the big screen.
Then I got introduced to this great Hollywood writer Scott Yagermann who asked me to write about Rafael’s character in English in about 30 or 40 pages and describe what kind a of character Rafael is. After that they got interested in seeing the recording of the play and then began loving the character. Rafael’s character is very universal and people of all types are able to relate to having a Rafael in their family.
It took us a year to complete this script. The comedy kicks in when you put Uncle Rafael who is an Iranian, Armenian old man and have him live with an American family for a week, and there you go, the comedy starts right here.
Farzad: When you say co-wrote, you wrote it with someone else?
Vahik: Yes! I wrote it with Scott Yagemann, and the reason I worked with him was because I created the character and the family and so I had to work with him to be able to bring out the right elements of the family characters, because it wasn’t only Rafael but also Rafael’s son Hammel, the daughter and the daughter in law.
At first nobody in the family likes him, but eventually everybody starts liking Rafael.
Farzad: I love movies like this where characters and people that are so different come together and then at the end they get to understand each other. For example movies like Plain, Trains & Automobiles.
Vahik: Rafael tells it like it is. Very honest and pure! And what we did is that we had Rafael go to an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. And that is when the audience realizes that this 71 year old man is learning English in order to communicate.
Farzad: So does he already know some English before going to the ESL class?
Vahik: Well, I don’t want to give it away. I let people find out for themselves. The reason he goes to learn English is very funny to the audience. That’s the fun part.
Farzad: As I understand in the movie you play 2 different roles. 2 characters at the same time. First of all could you please summarize what the movies is all about?
Vahik: Uncle Rafael is a 71 year old Iranian Armenian who lives in Glendale and works at his son’s coffee shop. His son Hammel has a coffee shop and he has a sort of an opportunistic character. He drives a Ferrari that doesn’t belong to him. But he has a good heart and he is very passionate. The relationship between father and son is a little shaky.
An American TV producer who is producing a reality show goes to the coffee shop and realizes how popular Rafael is with the costumers and how everyone is calling him an uncle. She realizes that Rafael is an uncle giving advice to everyone. So she offers Rafael to be on the reality show.
In the show Uncle Rafael has one week to save this modern American dysfunctional family from falling apart, but under one condition that he has to do it his way.
Farzad: Explain the 2 characters that you play.
Vahik: I play Uncle Rafael’s character and also play his son Hammel. For the play I actually had to gain weight. But for the movie I wore special outfits and changed my posture and the way I walked accordingly. An illusion is created for the audience. The young and the old. For the movie you need to be thin so that they can do make up, cast for your face to make you old, make you fat with body suits and more... And so I lost 68 pounds for the part, with diet, exercise, swimming, personal trainer, etc….. When I was done with the Rafael character during the day in the afternoon, it took more than an hour and a half to clean my face, the glues and everything else and then take a shower in order to go do his son Hammel’s part.
It is very difficult but if you love what you do you don’t think that way.
Farzad: So in the same day you play Uncle Rafael and his son Hammel, just like you shot music videos of 2 different songs by Googoosh in the same day! Wow!! That is wonderful!!
So this is your first Hollywood featured film!
Vahik: Yes! It’s an independent movie that is being released in selected theaters such as AMC theaters, in New York, Los Angeles and also in Toronto and many other cities. And I am proud of it because as an Iranian this can open up doors for the young generation.
The director Marc Fusco has worked with Steven Spielberg, he was his assistant. And everybody believed in the project.
There are so many rejections in this business, but that will make you stronger.
Farzad: Wonderful! We’re proud to have an artist of your stature and of all traits, from producing music videos to movies and live theater to directing, writing and acting in several roles in the same movie!
Vahik: I love what I do and I love challenges! And I don’t sleep much.
Farzad: Do you have a message or any words of advice to not just the people who want to get into the business but everyone in general who wants to succeed in life?
Vahik: I would say, dream big, don’t lose hope. If you think small, you’re not going to get that big. And if we don’t love and believe in what we do we will be just like a robot going through our day. You also need to be logical, and in order to be logical and dream big at the same time you need to go to bed late at night and you need to wake up early in the morning. This way you have a dream and you are also a logical person.
If you want to be successful in any business, if you can say no, more than yes in your life, you will get there. If you learn how to say no and pass on some things, you can get there. And never be afraid of rejections. Only learn from them and get stronger.
I always told myself, you know what Vahik, every palace has a back door. It might take a long time but try to find a back door to enter the castle while you’re working on your acting. And that’s what I did.
Farzad: Well, thank you so much Vahik for sharing all your words of wisdom with us. I am sure all of our readers and myself can benefit from all your valuable advice. It’s been my pleasure speaking with you and I wish you the best of luck in your new movie ‘My Uncle Rafael” and I wish you a bright future in Hollywood. You will go very far!
Vahik: You’re welcome Farzad! Thanks for having me! And a special thanks to the Calabasas Times Magazine! All the Best!