Once you’ve beaten up Iron Man and Jack Bauer, what do you do for an encore?
That’s the question I pose to actor Fahim Fazli. We’re at a café on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He pauses to sip his chai tea, oblivious to how hot it is outside.
“Well for me the answer is simple,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I stopped playing bad guys and became a good guy.”
With one of the widest smiles, Fahim goes on to tell me a story that didn’t start very happy, even if it has turned out like a movie.
He was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, fleeing Soviet occupation with his family in the 1980s.
The Fazlis arrived in Southern California and began to put together a new life. He explains he did what everyone else around him was doing: he joined the entertainment industry.
Knowing that every waiter in LA is a writer and every cab driver is an actor, I raise an eyebrow skeptically. What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?
He gives me a partial list that includes Iron Man, 24, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, and NCIS. I meekly lower my eyebrow.
“Working in Hollywood has been a dream come true,” Fahim explains. “I know it’s a cliché to say that, but there’s a reason clichés exist. The thing I realized after a while though, is that it wasn’t Hollywood that was my dream. It was America, and the freedom and prosperity we have here. And I knew I had to give something back.”
After working as a cultural adviser on the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, Fahim got the idea of providing the same service to the US military effort to help rebuild his home country after so many years of war. And the No. 1 name in cultural and linguists support to the US government was, and is, Mission Essential. He looked them up online and applied.
“The people at Mission Essential treated me like a hero,” he says. “Instructors and administrative staff made it a point to introduce themselves to me and shake my hand. One secretary hugged me and cried before I deployed.”
He spent two years in Afghanistan serving among military units as a liaison to native groups they came in contact with.
“My experience in Afghanistan with the US Marines and Mission Essential employees was almost perfect,” Fahim tells me. “I was blessed to be able to bring the Marines closer to the Afghan people and Afghans closer to the Marines. When it was my time to leave, to thank me for my service, my Marines pulled down the American flag that was flying over Camp Leatherneck and gave it to me. It was one of the greatest moments in my life. You could give me an Oscar and it wouldn’t mean as much to me as that flag does.”
“The thing I realized after a while though, is that it wasn’t Hollywood that was my dream. It was America, and the freedom and prosperity we have here. And I knew I had to give something back”
He says his experience as a cultural adviser strengthened his performance as an actor.
“When I came back, I brought a lot of experience back with me to Hollywood,” Fahim said. “My next film is about Afghanistan. The next one is about Iraq. I’m only as good an actor as the Marines and soldiers I worked with… so in other words, I am great!”
There aren’t a lot of people with stories from both the front lines of a war and a red carpet Hollywood premiere. I ask Fahim who’s the most interesting celebrity is he’s met.
“Easy question,” Fahim says, leaning forward. “My mother.”
He explains that his mother, Fahima, was a midwife who saved many mothers and newborns in Afghanistan. When the family moved to California, she became a nurse and continued to save lives.
It’s to her that Fahim dedicated his autobiography, Fahim Speaks: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back, which won an award from the Military Writers Society of America in 2012.
Quite a way to honor her, I tell him.
“I honor her every day,” Fahim smiles. “I was named after her!”
We share a laugh. His phone goes off. He has to meet with a producer on one of his upcoming films. He feels bad about leaving so soon and insists on picking up the check.
As he walks away, I think how lucky people in Afghanistan were that someone put his dreams on hold for a couple years to help them out. Fahim’s got one foot in America, one foot in Asia, and his eyes on a future in movies… but you can tell a big chunk of his heart will always be with Mission Essential.