Persian Jewish actress Bahar Soomekh earned some serious attention last year when she played a young Iranian in “Crash,” the Academy Award winner for best picture. She’s about to star in an even bigger role — playing alongside Tom Cruise in the thriller “Mission: Impossible III.” On the eve of the film’s debut, the Shmooze caught up with Soomekh to chat about growing up Persian Jewish in Los Angeles and about her road to becoming a star.
Can you share with us a little about your background?
I was born in Tehran. My father is a poet. We moved from Iran in 1979, but before the revolution. I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles and learned English by watching TV. I went to the Sinai Akiba Academy and later to Beverly Hills High School.
What sort of training have you had as an actor?
I played the violin for 13 years, but acting was always what I yearned to do. I went to U.C. Santa Barbara. There were no Persians or Jews there, and I was just able to lose myself and enjoy the college life. I studied environmental studies and did theater for fun — never thinking I could pursue it as a career. I later came back to Los Angeles, got a corporate job and I was just miserable. I did sales during the day and took acting classes at night. I did that for a couple of years to get myself trained and get a better understanding of the world beyond theater. The scariest thing I ever did was quit my job to pursue acting full time. That was two-and-half years ago. I quit my job, started pursing acting seriously and not even three months later I booked “Crash.”
How did you manage that?
I fought very hard to get the part. My agent at the time wasn’t very good. I read the script and I was dying, my heart was aching to be a part of it. I loved my character, Dorri, so much and really related to her. I kept calling my agent and he wouldn’t even try. I heard through the grapevine that they were going to offer another woman the part. So in desperation I called the one Hollywood person I knew, another Jewish Persian girl at William Morris named Ashley Daneshrad. She called them and said don’t give the part to this other woman until you give Bahar Soomekh a chance. I went in there and gave them my heart and soul. I went into my car and cried for about 40 minutes. And then two days later I got the call that I booked it.
What was it like working opposite a major Hollywood actor like Tom Cruise?
It’s so surreal. Tom Cruise was my childhood crush. I was obsessed with him since “Top Gun.” I can recite every single line of that film, and here I am I getting to meet him and work with him.
What was your family’s reaction when you told them you wanted to be an actress?
My parents were not encouraging in the beginning. Who wants to see their daughter out of work all the time? Every parent wants their child be a doctor or lawyer. At first they were definitely hesitant, but now they’re so proud and excited.
How important is Judaism in your life now, and how are you involved in the community?
I think Judaism has enriched my life and developed who I am. I hope to instill in my family a belief in tikkun olam. One of my dreams is to bring attention to environmental and children’s issues.
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning Iranian Jewish journalist, activist and attorney based in Southern California.