It generally takes several roles, a few flops and some ass-kissing before an actor gets a shot at a part in an Oscar-winning picture. But for Bahar Soomekh, it happened on the first try — not bad for a woman who learned English by watching Mötley Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls" video.
The Iranian-born actress, 30, played a shopkeeper's daughter in "Crash," her first major film and the year's surprise Best Picture winner.
"The whole thing was so surreal," she admitted. "I'm still trying to digest it all. It's just mind-blowing."
Bahar landed the role of Dorri two months after quitting her job as an instructor to telemarketers. She had heard the Hollywood buzz about writer/director Paul Haggis' film but was unable to score an audition. When a friend got her hands on the script, Bahar spotted a character that struck a deep personal chord — an Iranian immigrant growing up in Los Angeles.
"Then I got a call from some other actress who wanted to hire me to teach her Farsi for a film. I thought, 'There's no way. This is my film!' " she laughed. And it was.
Bahar and Dorri differ significantly in only one key trait: nationality. Her "Crash" character is a first-generation American; Bahar was born in Tehran and moved to the U.S. when she was three. To escape the Iranian revolution, her parents traded their luxury leather store in Tehran for jobs in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse, stamping brand names like Bugle Boy and Guess? on leather belts. They battled hour-long commutes from the factory to Beverly Hills where, after classes, Bahar and her sister would wait (with the school security guards) for their parents to take them home.
"My parents were hard-working, but they never neglected their children," she said. "That's why I want to make them proud."
|Check out Bahar Soomekh alongside Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the latest "Mission: Impossible III" trailer, on Overdrive.|
"I thought I was rebelling by not acting," she said. After college, she returned to Los Angeles for a desk job, but the self-proclaimed Deadhead (she saw Jerry Garcia and company play 26 times) was soon jaded after climbing a few rungs on the corporate ladder. Bahar found herself leaning toward the career that she'd fought to avoid: acting.
"I thought, 'Everyone does it. How do I have a chance?' "
She kept her job for the stability and took acting classes on the side, leaving work at 8 p.m., practicing until 2 in the morning and repeating the routine the next day. Bahar thought her training paid off when AT&T cast her in a 2002 Super Bowl commercial.
"I thought this was it, my big break, so I got all my friends and family to watch it — and they cut me from the ad!" she said. "All you could see was my shoe in the middle of the street." Surprised but undeterred, Bahar quit her job in motivational sales and put all her energy into acting. Two months later, she was cast in "Crash."
" 'Crash' gave me the opportunity to say, 'You can be Middle Eastern American — no accent — a first-generation American.' Not an FOB [fresh off the boat], as I would call it," she said.
Meanwhile, Soomekh's career has been building since 2004, when "Crash" was shot. She played a Harvard professor named Yassi in Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" (she'll appear on the director's cut DVD) and will share the screen with Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Cruise in May's "Mission: Impossible III" (see " 'Mission: Impossible 3' Back On Track, Set For 2006 Debut").
That's not to say she hasn't had her share of "playing the Middle Eastern wife who watches her husband blow himself up" on crime dramas like "J.A.G." and "Bones."
"The challenge," says her manager, Stacy Abrams, "comes in getting people to be ethnicity-blind. Bahar can be Italian, Turkish, Spanish. She can be anything."
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