Six years ago, Anthony Azizi acted in a play called Beneath the Veil, the story of ten women who face oppression in the Middle East, especially in Iran. “There were also ten men in the play,” Azizi told me the other day, before an evening performance of Oslo, in which he plays the Palestinian Ahmed Qurie. “And I played all ten.” Beneath the Veil, written by Mary Apick and Ginger Perkins, had a one-night engagement at Alice Tully Hall. “We stayed across the street,” Azizi said, “at the Empire Hotel, looking out over Lincoln Center. And now I’m back here for a much longer stay. I’m so grateful.”
Stories of oppression have a personal resonance for Azizi. “I was born in Tehran, into a Baha’i family. Members of my family were jailed, we had our property taken, there was a lot of suffering.” Azizi said he is able to use some of his own experience to portray a Palestinian in Oslo. Doing the play has made him think harder about the positions of both Palestinians and Israelis. “I can understand both sides,” Azizi said.
Azizi’s family didn’t stay in the Middle East. “We moved to the U.S. when I was a child. I come from a family of doctors, engineers, and scientists. My father was a physician with an artistic side. We lived in Brooklyn for a while, but my mother found New York too much to deal with, so we moved to Pennsylvania.” There, Azizi attended Freedom High School, in Bethlehem. One of his classmates was Daniel Dae Kim, who starred in The King and I at LCT in May and June of this year. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” Azizi said, “and it was great to be in the same building with him while we were rehearsing and doing previews of Oslo.” The two men also had a chance to spend time together eight years ago shooting the TV show “Lost,” in which Kim starred and Azizi appeared on several episodes.
Azizi lived in New York for a few years after college, waiting tables and doing theater. He was especially affected by working at Ensemble Studio Theater, under Curt Dempster. EST is on far west 52nd street, and in those pre-gentrified days, Azizi said, “Hell’s Kitchen was still hell. But I learned a lot working at that place.”
Azizi’s career has been based in TV and movies for several years, mostly in Los Angeles. During the 2003-2004 season, he did “Threat Matrix,” in which he played a character called Mohammad ‘Mo’ Hassain. “I was the first Iranian-American to be a series regular on a major-network TV show,” Azizi said. “On that series and on many others, I’ve worked with a lot of terrific people.”
One actor elicits particularly generous praise: Tony Shalhoub. Azizi’s acting coach, Jamie Donnelly, is a close friend of Brooke Adams, an actor and Shalhoub’s wife. In 2008, Azizi and Shalhoub did a movie called AmericanEast. Earlier this year, Shalhoub, who had worked with director Bartlett Sher on the LCT production of Golden Boy, recommended Azizi to Sher for Oslo. When Azizi talks about Shalhoub and Sher, the emotion is palpable. “I’ve never worked with an actor as humble and gifted as Tony. And I’ve never worked with a director as brilliant as Bart.”
Azizi doesn’t minimize the challenges of doing Oslo. “Vocally, my part is demanding,” he said. “And I’m having to learn the discipline of managing my energy. I hadn’t done theater for a while, and two-show days are draining.” He continued: “My character in real-life is described as quick to anger but also very sweet and loving, especially toward his children.” Azizi added: “I’ve spent time over the past five years dealing with anger management in my own life. And this play requires me to tap back into that. It can be intense.”
Azizi shares a real-life parallel with Ahmed Qurie’s loving side as well. “I have twin sons, 9 years old, Campbell and Smith. They came to see Oslo, and talked to Bart. They said, ‘Thank you for believing in our dad.’ It was the most humbling experience of my life.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.