The Old Man Star Pej Vahdat On His New Series, Meeting Jeff Bridges And Jon Watts, And More - Exclusive Interview
Even though he's approaching his 20th year in Hollywood, it's immediately evident talking with "FX's The Old Man" star Pej Vahdat that he has the same passion and enthusiasm for the work that he's had since the beginning. That's because with nearly 70 roles to his credit, Vahdat's star continues to rise in the business, coming after impressive recurring turns on such hit series as "Shameless," "Bones," "Arrow," and "Empire."
While the COVID-19 pandemic caused a slowdown in the business over the past couple of years, it hasn't prevented Vahdat from embarking on perhaps the most exciting run of his career, working all at once on The CW series "Dynasty" as well as "The Old Man" and the upcoming third season of Showtime's "City on a Hill."
Playing on FX and streaming exclusively on Hulu, "The Old Man" chronicles the harrowing plight of Dan Chase (Jeff Bridges), a former CIA operative who finds himself exposed and in grave danger after living off the grid for 30 years. Once part of an off-the-books operation for the U.S. government to help a group of Afghan rebels fight the Russians after the country invaded Afghanistan, Chase is now being hunted by a former associate, FBI's Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Harold Harper (John Lithgow). If Chase reveals his role in the secret operation, it will not only damage the government but also destroy Harper's career.
Worse yet, the former operative is trying to protect the location and identity of his daughter from Harper and confront his past with Faraz Hamzad (Navid Negahban), an Afghan tribal leader that Chase aided — and ultimately betrayed — 30 years before. Vahdat plays the pivotal role of the young Faraz Hamzad, whose story is played out with the young Dan Chase (Bill Heck) in a separate timeline in the series that is set three decades prior.
In an exclusive interview with Looper, Vahdat discussed in detail his work on "The Old Man" and his first meeting with Bridges, as well as his current work on "Dynasty" and "City on a Hill" — the latter of which pairs him for the first time with another esteemed acting veteran, Kevin Bacon.
Vahdat was unaware he was auditioning for a Bridges series
"The Old Man" is a very elaborate, multi-layered story with in-depth flashbacks to Dan Chase's earlier life, and that's where you come in with Episode 3. What in particular about the script stood out to you when you first read it?
When I first auditioned for it, I was only allowed to see the sides for my character. I'm sure you've noticed these beautifully written monologues that [writer-creator] Jon [Steinberg] and [executive producer] Dan [Shotz] incorporated. The original audition was this monologue that was so beautiful and so well written, especially for a character from that time in that situation. When I read that, I said, "What is this? This is incredible!" I was floored, and thankfully, I didn't know who was involved, because if I did, I would've been extra nervous. I was lucky enough to not know, and I put myself on tape — and apparently, unbeknownst to me, I was the guy, but I hadn't been given the call because COVID hit.
I was doing my thing, trying to get past the craziness of the beginning of the pandemic, and then they called in August. They wanted to see me again, but in a different scene and another beautifully written scene. Again, thankfully, they didn't tell me who was involved, and then boom — I got it. Then, they told me I got an email that said, "Mr. Jeff Bridges approves Pej," and I said, "Whoa, whoa, what?"
As soon as I read that scene, I knew this was special, and that was all I needed. Then I got the scripts, and I was like, "Oh, my God, I can't believe I'm on this show," which I consistently keep doing.
Meeting Bridges at the premiere was a thrilling moment for Vahdat
It's an interesting situation you have with being in a Jeff Bridges series, since it takes place during two different timelines. While you're not acting with him, did you instead work with Jeff directly in his executive producer capacity?
No, unfortunately, because we were shooting in the beginning of COVID, and we were on two separate shows, essentially. The only interaction I had with him was through our producers, our showrunners, and they would mention to me, "Jeff saw yesterday's dailies and said this and that." It was very kind, and that was it. Finally, at the press, when we did the first night's premiere of the show in LA, I finally got to meet him, thank him, and gush over him. He's incredible. He's the best. We didn't have any interaction during the shooting of it. Hopefully, in the future we will, but not during the first season.
Experiencing the aura surrounding Bridges
I've seen a lot of pictures of you guys together at that premiere, which is cool. I'm sure that you've found seeing him in person — and before that, watching episodes of the series — that he looms over everything. He's larger than life, so it must be cool to feel that presence throughout the series, even though he might not even be on screen with you.
Exactly. Watching the series, I'm sitting there, forgetting I'm on it. I don't even know how to put it. I've been blessed enough to work with a lot of amazing actors, and he's got this aura about him on screen that pulls you in, no matter what he's doing. He may not say a thing, even when he's doing the cooking scene. If you remember, he's cooking an egg and you're like, "Oh, my God, I could watch this guy do anything!" [laughs]
Him and Mr. Lithgow together, forget about naming them, the whole cast is amazing. But Jeff in particular ... As a kid from Iran whose parents gave up their life to come to this country, for me to be able to do this and have my father's last name on the screen next to Jeff Bridges — it's goosebumps just talking about it.
It's pretty cool on IMDb, where under the title you see Jeff Bridges and then your name, Pej, and then John Lithgow. You're listed in between these two guys!
You know how many friends of mine have sent me that picture? I went, "Did someone superimpose it? What is this? This is amazing!" I've been at it for 19 years and it's still like, "Whoa, I can't believe it." It's very cool. My aunt from Iran messaged me today — she goes, "This show is great." I'm like, "Wait, what? How the hell are you watching it?" But somehow, they are, and she goes, "[Jeff is] my favorite actor." I go, "Wait, well, what about me?"
But she says, "Forget about you." [laughs] You forget what a gigantic movie star he is, and he's world-renowned. Because he's such a great dude, he doesn't act like the movie star — he's just Jeff. Maybe that's why, but he's incredible, and it's a dream.
The Old Man allowed Vahdat to disappear into the character
We get some big twists in "The Old Man" in Episode 3. I'm not going to reveal them, but one of them does involve your character and the young Dan Chase. That must be satisfying as an actor, having done nearly 70 projects in the 19 years, that you're working on projects that still feel so original and fresh.
It's truly something that keeps you going. Sometimes, you do this stuff — and you're grateful for all the work, of course — but then sometimes something like this comes along and you're like, "Oh, this is why you're doing this. This is why you started doing this. This was the dream." You get to sink your teeth into a character like this who's nothing like me. I don't speak the language; I don't have the accent; I had to work my ass off to make sure it sounded right and I sounded right.
Also, I don't look necessarily like the character right now, and it's exactly what you want. You want to disappear into something, and for this character, I disappeared for a while. I was constantly trying to push myself to figure out different things about him as a person that I could connect to. It was one of the most challenging roles I've ever had, and I'm so grateful for it.
Vahdat learned the Dari language to respect the culture
With "The Old Man," you did indeed learn some of the Afghan language in Dari –
Oh, I learned all of it.
That's amazing to me. That's commitment, man, and I love that. Plus, you can maybe use it in a future role too.
It's like, "Well, this is the gift that keeps on giving, but still." But talk about working your tail off — that's one of the most committed things an actor can do, learning an entirely new language in order to get it right on screen. I commend you for that.
Thank you. We were rehearsing that for ... Every day, me, Bill [Heck], and Leem [Lubany, who plays young Faraz's wife] would sit there with our amazing dialect coach, Hameed, and we would drill it over and over and over again. Then I would be walking my dogs with [my character reciting his lines] in my ears, doing it over, because I didn't want just to get it phonetically right — I wanted to know what I was saying, and you'll see in later episodes why that was important. I don't want people to even question that I don't speak that language. I wanted people from that region to go, "Whoa, that guy is from this region?"
It was very important to me to respect the culture, and respect the language, as it was for Bill. For Bill, it was extra hard. He doesn't speak anything other than English, and the fact that he killed it like that ... You should have seen the dedication. It was amazing — he's incredible.
The Dude is up there, but Vahdat has a different Bridges favorite
You mentioned that you didn't know Jeff personally before starting the project. As a fan, did you have a favorite project that you admired him for? Would it be "The Big Lebowski" as The Dude, or was it "Crazy Heart" or "Iron Man" or "Starman"?
"Crazy Heart" [is] my favorite, personally, and everyone loves The Dude. Look, right now it's Dan Chase [in "The Old Man"], but "Crazy Heart" is my favorite for sure. He's the best. I'm a huge Howard Stern fan, and he was on Howard a couple years ago, and that interview ... I never really saw him in any interviews that I clocked. You really got to learn about him; he's such a genuine person that it's hard not to love everything he's in.
He's a brilliant actor, but "Crazy Heart" is what got me going ... But then you watch him as The Dude and you're like, "Man, this guy, he's everywhere! He's so good."
Vahdat immersed himself in both stories of The Old Man
You started "The Old Man" with the sides, and eventually, you do get the material. But I'm sure you wanted to probably know the whole story, even though you're filming your timeline. Did you have access at some point to the scripts for both timelines, and did you read the original source material by Thomas Perry?
I did both. I read the book as soon as I got the job. Thomas Perry is a legend, and I was happy to be able to say that's part of my job to read a Thomas Perry book. But thankfully to Jon [Steinberg] and Dan [Shotz], they gave me all the scripts right away, and I got to go through it and make sure I knew the through-line, what they wanted, what was happening. Then we had long discussions about [my character]. "Where was he? What's he like ..." I wanted everything, and they were so open, and Jon told me the whole thing. He's such a brilliant writer [that] it was easy for me to capture everything he was saying, so that part was no problem.
It was really important to get [my character's] walk, to get his mannerisms: "What makes this guy tick?" I can't give away too much, but I wanted to know what drove him. I did everything you do as an actor, but I was lucky enough to have the time, and usually, you don't. [In] television, especially, you don't have the time to do that, and they gave me the time, thank God, so I had the time to delve into it. Learning a different language took away from some of that, but actually, I'm grateful for the language. I wish more of it was in that language because it gives a lot to the show.
Vahdat was inspired by Bridges' cancer fight
You mentioned how the series was interrupted by the pandemic, and then came the devastating news of Jeff Bridges' non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis. How did that change the dynamic of the series for the people involved?
When it first came to light to us that he had been diagnosed, even though I didn't know him personally, I felt a connection to him for whatever reason, and I started praying for him every day. I was so worried about his life. Forget this show — I was so worried. Every time something like this happens, immediately, you start thinking about what matters in life is your health, and your family's health, your friends' health. Immediately, the show was like, "Whatever." I was going, "God, I hope this beautiful man is healthy and can be with his family and live a life." That was my immediate thought, and then as time went on, we learned more.
Thankfully — because I would've been a nervous wreck — I didn't know how bad it had gotten. I found out from one of our producers, and that was after the news came out that he was on the mend. I can't imagine what I would've been feeling [had I known more details earlier]. I would've been worried sick, but what I realized was, "Wow, this is a special project, this guy is a special human, and this is one of those lightning in a bottle type of situations."
This whole story [is remarkable] — everything revolving around it, including his illness and his battle and his comeback. He's actually Dan Chase. He's a superhero. The guy, nothing can take him down, and it's remarkable. The more you think about it, it's baffling. If you sit there and think about everything that he went through, it's crazy.
Vahdat is thrilled about the strides in Middle Eastern representation
You have a lot going on right now with "The Old Man," "City on a Hill," and "Dynasty." You must be excited to see how representation in the industry — including Middle Eastern representation — is on the upswing. It's so wonderful to see, and you must be enormously proud to be part of it.
Oh, yes, I'm extremely proud. The facts show that Middle Eastern actors are less than 1% of Hollywood — that's the facts, and that's sad — and I'm grateful that it's changing slowly but surely. I'm extremely grateful to be one of those people, and especially not playing stereotypical roles. That's the key. Right now on "Dynasty," I play Dex Dexter, who is — if you ever watched the original — that's a leading man who's in love with the lead woman, and they get married, the whole thing. That has nothing to do with my ethnicity and everything to do with my ethnicity at the same time. It's a beautiful thing. I'm very blessed.
On "City on a Hill," I'm playing opposite Kevin Bacon, and without giving too much away, [I play] the new FBI hotshot guy who comes in. This is what we need more, and I'm grateful to be a part of it. The more people see it, and the more they won't bat an eye and question it — the more they'll go, "Oh, okay, whatever." The more normalized we make this, then it's going to be an "it is what it is" kind of thing where you're not even talking about it. It's going to be "the best actor got the part and [it] doesn't matter where they're from," and that's it.
Bacon is the latest actor Vahdat is proud to work with
Since you mentioned Kevin Bacon ... Guys like him and Jeff Bridges — it seems the longer they're around, the nicer guys they are. Would that be true?
I would say the better actor they are, because they're not insecure about their talent. Kevin is incredible. I remember getting the job and then being nervous actually, because every scene I have is with him, and I was like, "Oh, God, please don't ruin my fandom, please!" Then the moment I get there, this guy is the kindest, most open actor. We start working, and then I'm like, "Whoa, he still is [the kindest and most open].'" It's baffling to me, because how is he not in the conversation as one of the greatest American actors? If you look back at his credits or his roles, he's a chameleon and it's constant, and he couldn't be a nicer man.
Then, I also did a show with Bryan Cranston ["Sneaky Pete"], who is — no offense to anybody else — but he's my favorite actor who's alive. Phil Hoffman is my favorite ever. But again, Bryan, another one who is ... I wish every actor [could] work with all three of these men [including Bridges and Bacon], but Bryan especially, because as good an actor as he is, he's a better person. Personally, I've noticed the better actor you are — or at least the more confident you are in your acting — the nicer you are.
Vahdat has more superhero aspirations
You've appeared in a variety of roles, including the comic book superhero genre with a guest role on "Lucifer," and you had recurring turns on "Arrow" as Sam Armand. Do you have a particular affinity for DC or Marvel? Are you going to take on any DC or Marvel that comes along?
That's every little kid's dream, to be a superhero, so I would absolutely love to. I'm not partial to either one, I guess more Marvel ... but I'm a Batman guy, that's DC.
I would absolutely welcome any opportunity. It's time for a Middle Eastern actor to be a superhero. That would be cool, and I would welcome it, and I'd be all in. I'd get ripped! Let's go!
You do have "Ms. Marvel" on Disney+, which is wonderful.
Oh, that's right. "Ms. Marvel," that's right. Oh, thank God, that's amazing.
Season 2, Pej. Season 2 — let's get you in there!
Yes, let's do it!
Oddly enough, Jon Watts directed Episodes 1 and 2 of "The Old Man" coming off of "Spider-Man: No Way Home." Even though you don't appear until Episode 3, did you still have any sort of interactions with Jon at all?
I just met him for the first time, so I didn't, unfortunately. He's a legend, and he's so young, but I was geeking out. I was like, "Hey, I'm on the show, too!" But since I didn't start until Episode 3, I just met him at the premiere. He was so nice, and I was geeking out a little bit. I got a little nervous. But he's a great guy, super nice ...
People are saying [about his work on "The Old Man"] that, "It's some of his best work, these first two episodes." That first scene he did ... in the first episode, where Jeff is at the doctor's office ... That's a normal scene, but he made it so powerful with the way he shot that. I was like, "Wow, you're a genius."
Let's hope that meeting him was enough to get you on his radar. I know he's got a "Star Wars" project coming out. Apart from Marvel and DC, you have to be interested in "Star Wars," too, don't you?
Yes! "Star Trek," "Star Wars" — I'll take it all.
"The Old Man" is airing on FX and streaming exclusively on Hulu, with new episodes premiering every Thursday through July 21.
This interview was edited for clarity.