Local man has small but pivotal role in ‘Argo’

Brandon Tabassi in Los Angeles on October 25, 2012. Tabassi, a Massachuset native, has a small but important role in the movie Argo. (Eric Grigorian for The Boston Globe)
North Andover native Brandon Tabassi in Los Angeles, where he lives and works as an actor.

Near the end of “Argo” — Ben Affleck’s new docudrama thriller — an Iranian soldier pursues a handful of escaping American diplomats who have been hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence during the 1979 hostage crisis. The scene is a chair-gripper, and you’ll likely find yourself cursing the soldier while rooting for the fleeing hostages.

That gung-ho guard is played by Brandon Tabassi, a polite young man who grew up in North Andover acting in school plays and now has a small but significant role in the hit film. A Persian soldier, he screams in Farsi, knocking people out of the way at the Tehran airport as the escapees race to catch a flight out of the country. The entire cast of “Argo” recently won the ensemble acting prize at the Hollywood Film Awards, which kick off the Oscar season.

It’s a long way from Tabassi’s days at St. Augustine School in Andover, where in the first grade, Sister Cathleen cast him as the wicked witch in a play because, he says, he was such a naughty kid.

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“They painted me green,” Tabassi recalls. “I had so much fun.” Even at age 6, he prepared diligently for the role, watching “The Wizard of Oz” countless times, and having his father videotape him so he could improve his performance.

That first stage role would eventually lead him to “Argo,” and life, for the time being, in Los Angeles, where he is pursuing an acting career.

But Tabassi’s roots are dug deep into Massachusetts soil. “I live, breathe, and eat Massachusetts,” he says. An only child, he spends major holidays with his parents in North Andover, and visits regularly throughout the year. His most recent return was in October.

“I went to Salem to see all the Halloween fun, stopped at the Topsfield Fair, went to the Museum of Fine Arts, got cider and doughnuts at a local farm and took a walk around Walden Pond,” he says.

Shortly after Tabassi was born in Chicago, his parents moved to Boston for his father’s job in corporate sales. Emile Tabassi now works for MGI Digital Graphic Technology as director of sales and marketing communications for the United States and Canada. His wife, Mehr, is a realtor in the Boston area.

Brandon, now 23, graduated from the Brooks School, a prep school in North Andover where students wore suits and ties and boarding students had to attend Tuesday and Thursday night dinners with their teachers. “Luckily,” he notes, “I was a day student.”

Throughout high school, Tabassi continued to act, but he discovered another passion: politics. And he had a flair for it.

When Senator John Kerry was running for president in 2004, Tabassi, then 14, learned he was appearing at a local restaurant. Reporters were firing questions when the teen tapped the senator on the shoulder. “He told them, ‘Let me talk to the kid.’ I think he was thankful he didn’t have to talk to them anymore,” Tabassi says. Tabassi asked about being a Senate page, and Kerry told him to call.

At 16, with Kerry’s help, Tabassi headed to Washington. It was 2005, “a crazy time,” he says. “Hurricane Katrina had just happened; we were in the middle of the Iraq War and in Afghanistan. Sandra Day O’Connor said she was stepping down from the Supreme Court; Chief Justice William Rehnquist died; and then the whole thing with Harriet Miers.” Miers was President Bush’s pick for the court, but she withdrew her nomination after criticism from fellow Republicans.

Early on, Tabassi met Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “He was always the first one there in the morning, and he was really into what he was doing,” he says. Tabassi recalls Kennedy’s push for raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour.

“Every Democrat voted for it, and every Republican blocked it,” he says. The next day, he approached Kennedy and thanked him for his efforts. “I told him if not for things like the minimum wage, my family would not have made it here. My father arrived here with nothing,” he says.

Kennedy gave him a hug, he says, and wrote a letter to Tabassi’s mother, telling her he hoped her boy would go into politics. She still has the letter.

Kennedy had also taught the teenager about the Judiciary Committee’s work and introduced him to nephews Joe and Matt, who cochaired Kennedy’s 2006 reelection campaign. Tabassi signed on as a volunteer.

“I’d stand on street corners at stores, schools, and say, ‘I’m only 16 years old. I can’t vote but if I could, I’d vote for Senator Kennedy because he embodies what I envision the future to be,’ ” he says. Tabassi garnered about 1,000 nomination signatures, more than any other volunteer or staffer, and was honored by Kennedy at a breakfast at Anthony’s Pier 4.

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.”

Tabassi’s parents know that for now, Hollywood has captured his heart, but they hope he’ll return to Massachusetts and run for office.

He says he still plans to do that: “I’ve been given so many incredible opportunities being from Massachusetts, and I want to make sure every person from my state has the opportunity to be all they can be.”

But for the time being, he is happy looking for roles and working on projects with friends from the USC film school. He lives in the small guest cottage behind a house that belonged to a silent film actor. It’s quiet and has a lush garden, and he loves it.

“I feel like Henry David Thoreau living on Walden Pond,” he says.