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From Iran to Aladdin: The Sultan's long, hard Hollywood journey

"The first 10 years were very tough," says actor Navid Negahban, but adds that Amazon, YouTube and Netflix are changing Hollywood for the better.

Navid Negahban brings the Sultan to life in Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin.
Dan Smith/Disney

Navid Negahban's journey to playing the Sultan in Aladdin wasn't an easy one.

In 1993, Negahban came to the US knowing hardly any English beyond "Hi, how are you?" and "My name is Navid."

The actor, known for his roles in movies and TV shows like 12 Strong, Legion and Charlie Wilson's War, was born in Mashhad, Iran, and began acting in school plays at age 8. He fled his homeland in 1985 during the Iranian Revolution and went to Turkey, Bulgaria and then Germany, where his career as an actor began.

Navid Negahban

Negahban out of his Sultan garb. 

Bjoern Kommerell

Then he came to the US. "The first 10 years were very tough," Negahban recalled. It can be challenging for minority actors to land roles in Hollywood, particularly ones that don't involve playing a terrorist, as Negahban has done many times in shows like Homeland and 24. But playing the Sultan in Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin, in theaters now, is a departure from all of that.

"The set was incredible and the costumes were amazing," Negahban said by phone from LA. "All these elements came together and made it very easy to be the character."

Negahban discussed his experience playing the Sultan, the challenges he's faced on the road to becoming an actor and the much-needed diversification of Hollywood.

Now playing: Watch this: Disney's Aladdin trailer reveals Will Smith's blue Genie

Q: Was it hard for you to land acting roles in the US?
Negahban: It was very difficult. I was a bit surprised because in Germany, especially at that time when I started, as long as you could create the illusion of the character or the story that you're trying to tell, nobody cared where you came from.

And then I came here and I realized that the roles are very limited and it's very difficult to break into the industry. I've been asked many times to change my name. People told me, "There's no way you're going to be able to succeed here with your name. Nobody can say Negahban. It's difficult. You have an accent. There's no way you're going to be able to get a job with an accent."

It's been OK because I was able to break that mold. I get a variety of roles. It's getting to a point where people don't care where I'm from, and they even change the characters to have a Persian background. It's getting easier.

Aladdin's cast includes actors with Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. How important was that?
Everybody was very cautious to be respectful toward the culture and what was being said, and how it's being said. Each of us tried to honor the heritage of the characters.

What was it like bringing an animated character into live action? What was challenging and exciting about that experience?
That was very scary because [the Sultan] has so many followers. Lots of people grew up with that character, so they have certain expectations. It's not just an animated character. This has become a real personality, a real persona.

I didn't want to watch the animated film again. I didn't want to copy it. I wanted to find his core, his essence, what he's about. ... I just hope I did justice to it.

Would you ever have imagined that you'd play the Sultan?
I knew that this was a role for me. I'm not the type of actor who goes around and takes whatever is being handed to him. If the role isn't right for me, I'm not going to take it, because I'm sure there's an actor who can do a much better job playing the role that I can't play. But if it's something that I feel comfortable with, if it's something where I like the challenge, then I'll go for it.

Being in a Disney movie, and especially something like Aladdin ... maybe it hasn't hit me yet. It was amazing.

Have you felt confined to particular types of roles because of your ethnicity?
At the beginning, yes. It was kind of difficult to play certain roles, even though I felt I was right for a part.

The projects are changing. It's getting better. People are becoming more aware.

Why do you think that is?
Outlets like Netflix and Amazon and YouTube are [incorporating] diversity in their shows. They're proving to the industry that there's a market for diversity.

Now we have shows like Grey's Anatomy and other shows that are opening up and trying to bring different doctors or detectives or police officers from different backgrounds.

The US is a melting pot and there are so many different colors and backgrounds and religions here. We need to embrace it. 

Originally published at 5 a.m. PT.