From Tehran to Tinseltown
Bahar Soomekh is not easily deterred. Case in point? Earning a role in the controversial Oscar-winner Crash. Longing to play the part of Dorri-the daughter of Iranian immigrants struggling to assimilate to life in America- Soomekh took matters into her own hands when a former agent failed to land her an audition.
“One day I get a phone call from a girl who wanted me to teach her Farsi for a film that she was auditioning for,” the 31-year-old Iranian Jewish actress told World Jewish Digest in a phone interview from her hotel room in Toronto, where she is currently filming the third installment in the Saw franchise. “She said it was for a film called Crash. I was like there is no way I am teaching you Farsi for a film that I am destined to do. I have to do this film, this is my part-Dorri is me!”
Like Dorri, Soomekh is the daughter of Persian parents who brought their oldworld ways to their new life in America. Born in Tehran, Bahar (“springtime” in Farsi) and her sister Saba (“a light, springtime breeze”) were young girls in the early 80’s when their parents fled the Iranian revolution and moved them to Minneapolis, Chicago and San Francisco, before finally settling the family in Los Angeles. There the Soomekhs created a manufacturing business and sent their girls to Conservative Jewish day school at Sinai Akiba Academy, where they learned English, Hebrew and Talmud. For Bahar, whose parents worked often and hard, her teachers also became mentors.
It was within this nurturing environment that Bahar got the itch to act. “It was always something I wanted to do,” she says. “Everyone I grew up with was [the child of] a struggling actor. It was almost like I was rebelling if I didn’t act.” While Bahar did a lot of theater work as a kid, a career in acting was not something her traditional parents supported-at least not initially. Like many immigrant parents, Soomekh’s mother and father preferred that she pursue a profession in which her next paycheck was guaranteed.
And so, for a while, Soomekh stayed on the straight and narrow. She believed that her theater experience wouldn’t get her anywhere in a movieand- television town like Los Angeles, and she refused to move away from her family to pursue her stage dreams.
Instead, Soomekh graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1993 and went on to earn a degree in environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara. After college, she spent time backpacking through Europe, and upon her return to L.A., took a job in sales to pay off the debt from her trip.
But while she thrived professionally, working her way up the corporate ladder to a managerial position, Soomekh longed to return to acting, her real passion. She enrolled in night classes, where she worked on her acting skills until the early hours of the morning. When she finally decided to quit her day job-a decision she calls “the scariest thing” she’s ever done-it was only a couple of months until she found Dorri.
“So I find out that this girl, the one who was asking me to teach her Farsi, was going to get offered the part,” Soomekh says, the intensity in her voice all but giving away her palpably ambitious heart. “I flipped out. I called everyone I knew in the industry, and I had a cousin at a big agency who said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll call and get you an audition’ So I went into the audition and gave them my heart, my soul-I gave everything I had. And then I walked out and went in my car and sobbed for an hour … I was so emotionally involved in this character, and I was so sad that they were giving the part to somebody else.”
Two days later, though, Soomekh got the call that she had booked the role. Since then she has earned a number of coveted credentials, including a scene alongside Tom Cruise in the recently released Mission: Impossible III (still in theaters), a spot in the director’s cut of Syriana (set for release later this year) and a place in People magazine’s recent “100 Most Beautiful” issue. Soomekh has also made episodic appearances on Without a Trace, JAG and 24.
Still, it’s her upcoming role in Saw III, set for release around Halloween, that makes Soomekh realize she is closer than ever to achieving celebrity status. Before Crash, most of Soomekh’s work was on TV, where she was frustrated to find herself constantly typecast as an Arab woman.
“A lot of the stuff I had gotten was the husband blowing himself up and the devastation of the wife in understanding why her husband did it,” Soomekh says, recalling the frequent auditions she spent bawling her eyes out for casting directors. “But I knew it was a stepping stone in building my resume. And luckily, after Crash, I don’t have to do that anymore. In Saw, my ethnicity is not a factor, not even a discussion-?I’m just a woman.”
Soomekh’s background does, however, factor into her personal life. Extremely proud of her Jewish heritage, she married avid surfer and fellow member of the tribe, Clayton, in 2001. “Marriage is difficult enough and then once you have a family, if you have people from significantly different belief systems and backgrounds, it’s even harder … We really dove down deep to figure out our values and how we wanted to manifest that in our home.”
Soomekh and her husband celebrate Shabbat every Friday night with her extended family, attend synagogue frequently and celebrate as many Jewish holidays as her hectic schedule will allow. But it is the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam– healing the world-that most guides Soomekh’s life. She firmly believes that all people, not only Jews, have an obligation to contribute what they can toward making this world a better place, and she does her part by working for environmental and children’s causes.
“I have the ability to use my name and be involved with such phenomenal organizations like the Green Cross … and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which was an organization I started raising money for when I was a kid, and then here I am coming back and I’m working with them now,” Soomkeh says. “But also a huge issue for me has become limb deficiency for kids around the world. Kids that are neglected because of some sort of disability-you see that a lot in China and you see that in Africa-I think that’s a very important thing.”
Soomekh spends her few spare moments relaxing at the beach with her husband, getting in the playtime she considers essential. Despite the distractions of Hollywood and her blossoming film career, she remains both rooted and worldly, seamlessly flowing between topics personal and political, yet always managing to find her way home again.
“When I was on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, at one point I said to Isaac Mizrahi that I’m Persian,” she recalls saying to the fashiondesigner- turned-Oscar-correspondent, who is also Jewish. “Just because I’m in Hollywood doesn’t mean that I forget that I’m Persian or that I’m Jewish. Judaism is not only my religion-it’s my identity.”