After high school, Tabassi enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he took an improv class with Debra De Listo, who teaches in the school of drama. “I was so struck with his talent, his energy, and passion,” she says. “It’s really cruel to tell people to go into the acting business if you don’t think they have the talent or business sense to do so. But this kid is so disciplined, so passionate, so sharp. I tell him to dream big.”
Both of Tabassi’s parents left Iran to attend college in the United States — Emile at the University of Maryland, Mehr at Montclair State University in New Jersey. They met and married here. In 1979, the shah of Iran was overthrown, Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, and a mob of militant Islamists and students took 52 American Embassy workers hostage.
As a college student, Tabassi’s father hoped to stay in the United States and pursue the American dream. His mother planned to return to Iran upon graduation, but changed her mind after the revolution.
“Argo” details a little-known subplot of the hostage crisis, telling the story of a CIA operative who undertakes a perilous ploy to rescue six others who had avoided capture. Tabassi hopes the film sets the historical record straight for Americans.
“What I love about this movie is that it explains why the 1979 events happened, as a direct result of what had been done to the Iranian people,” he says, adding that the CIA in 1953 helped overthrow the secular, Western-educated, elected prime minister and install the shah largely in order to maintain the West’s control over Iran’s oil.
The soldier Tabassi plays is 18 years old, “and just wants democracy for his country,” he says. Democracy, of course, never arrived.
In the first of his four scenes, Tabassi’s character receives a call that sets in motion the film’s climax: the six American diplomats have escaped the Canadian ambassador’s home. He grabs his gun, runs down some stairs, then sprints through Mehrabad Airport in Tehran — actually Ontario International Airport in California, where all of his scenes were shot.
As he runs, he’s shouting and crashing into people. The scene had to be shot several times. Tabassi was trained by the stunt coordinator so that he and the other stuntmen — airport visitors in the film — would not be injured.
No one was. Still, Tabassi apologized. “I’m a polite person, and I’d give the stunt people a hug and say, ‘I’m sorry, man.’ ”
In Tabassi’s final scene, he makes a dramatic entrance and tells a superior guard: “Sir, the six embassy workers have escaped!” His lines are in Farsi, which he speaks fluently. His two minutes of screen time sets the stage for the nail-biting finale.
Tabassi might not have gotten the part but for his Massachusetts connections. He had snagged a meeting with the head of casting at Warner Brothers, who tested him for “Argo.”
“I’ll tell Ben [Affleck] you’re from Massachusetts,” she promised. A few months later, he got an offer for a one-day role on the set, where he met Affleck. “I thanked him so much for doing this for me, that I had the utmost appreciation for his art and everything he does for people outside of his art.” When Tabassi reported to the wardrobe person, he was told he had been given a larger role.
His first screen role came at age 13 in a short art film, “A Walk in the Dark.” His first professional theater role came at age 17, in an off-off-Broadway play with the youngest sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth.
In the split screen of Tabassi’s life, politics is the other half. A business major on scholarship at USC, he did a summer internship in China and studied at George Washington University for a semester while working as an intern for Kerry.
It was shortly after President Obama’s election. “It was so exciting, because all this new energy was flowing in, all this old energy was flowing out,” says Tabassi.
Mary Tarr was Kerry’s office administrator and coordinated the page and intern programs. She remembers Tabassi as a determined teenager who applied to be a page a few years before he was eligible and checked on his application “about four times a year.”
As a college intern for Kerry, he was well liked by his co-workers. “He’s motivated, driven, and has a heart of gold,” says Tarr.
Tabassi told her that he wanted to run for the Senate from Massachusetts. “He pondered over whether he should run while a young man or after an established career. I remember thinking ‘What a dreamer!’ when he said his career was probably going to be acting in Hollywood.”Continued...