American Dreamz may boast name stars such as Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, and Mandy Moore, but most audiences will leave Paul Weitz's hybrid comedy--which manages to tackle at once the hypocrisy of stardom, the inanity of politics, and the power of reality TV--talking about a pair of unknown actors named Sam Golzari and Tony Yalda. As Omer, an Iraqi would-be terrorist who lands a spot on the hit show American Dreamz (a thinly veiled parody of American Idol), Golzari tackles a tricky role with charisma and confidence. He is complemented in every way by Yalda, playing Omer's cousin Iqbal, a flamboyant and spoiled Orange County rich kid who becomes Omer's manager-choreographer-stylist. The two actors stand out in a terrific ensemble, but perhaps most impressive is that they consistently confound expectations and stereotypes.
Back Stage: How did you land your roles in American Dreamz?
Tony Yalda: I snuck onto the Universal lot because I didn't have an agent at all and my manager was one of those fake managers who didn't do anything. I heard about the part in the breakdowns; I would read them every morning and write up cover letters about "my client." Then I drove a Vespa scooter onto the lot to drop off a headshot, and whenever they would stop me at the gate, I'd give them trouble, saying, "I'm just trying to earn my $7.50 an hour! Can't you just let me through?"
When I went in for the audition, I didn't have the sides. I went in 10 minutes early and skimmed through it. I was actually up for Omer. But after I did the first line, they said, "That's not you. You're Iqbal." I started arguing with the casting director, Joseph Middleton, and it's a good thing he argued back, because he was right.
Sam Golzari: A similar thing happened to me. It was my first feature audition; I had just gotten out of school and been Taft-Hartleyed in a commercial. I had gone out for some small TV spots but never for film. I knew I was going out for Omer, but when I looked at the script, I didn't see an Omer in there. I thought it was some tiny bit part and almost didn't go. Every time I've gone for a Middle Eastern role, everyone else has been 20 years older and with a full beard. I thought, "Here we go again."
I also didn't get any sides, so I showed up early and just sort of skimmed it and went in. I had no idea how big the film was at the time. It wasn't until I got there that they mentioned Hugh Grant and Dennis Quaid were in it. And it's kind of good I didn't know, because I didn't get in my head about it.
Yalda: I thought the same thing. I thought it was a student film. I didn't have a clue. And Joseph Middleton was so young, I figured he was one of the interns. I was just, like, "Hey, what's up!" and slapping him on the back.
Back Stage: Do you think that helped you win the part?
Yalda: Yes. Because if I would have known, I would have been a different person.
Golzari: Since that audition, every time I've had an audition, it's been a positive experience. I'm the kind of actor who, when I get the sides, I say, "Okay, which part is the part I might screw up?" And when you leave the audition, you're surprised you did well. I finally realized I didn't need to set myself up like that. I have just as much of a chance of doing well as doing horribly, so I should go in and just know I deserve this as much as anyone else. Why not me?
Yalda: Getting the film was an amazing confidence booster. At the time, I was desperate. I was working at a porn store on the graveyard shift from 12 to 8, and I would go home, work on the breakdowns, and drop them off to every casting agency. I knew I couldn't do this anymore.
Golzari: It was the first audition I had where it just felt really easy. I finished the audition, and Joseph said, "Great. But you don't look Middle Eastern. Come back tomorrow." My mom had just finished taking a makeup class at Raleigh Studios, and that morning she put the makeup on me.
Yalda: I saw him that day. When he showed up, he was so tan. I was, like, "What the hell is that about?"
Back Stage: Did you have any concerns about being in a film in which many of the Middle Eastern characters are terrorists?
Golzari: It's one thing to hear the film is about a terrorist; it's another to read the script and see who the character is. I fell in love with him. I said, "I would be honored to play that role." I grew up listening to Sinatra and doing Michael Jackson impersonations, and I could relate to this character. It was a great part. And on-set, whenever I saw anyone like Jennifer Coolidge or Marcia Gay Harden, they would say, "Oh, I wanted your role so bad! I love Omer!"
Back Stage: Were you intimidated by your famous co-stars? Did you learn anything from watching them?
Golzari: Something I learned when I was working with Hugh and Dennis: I noticed they were storytellers, first and foremost. There was a scene where Hugh had an idea for Dennis to walk back and start looking at this giant TV screen. It upstaged Hugh, but it made the scene work better. A lot of times as young actors we feel we need to do things to be seen. But you realize that if you can make a scene as strong as it can be, it will make you shine. And that's why those actors have been working for 20 years: They understand that.
Yalda: Shohreh Aghdashloo plays my mother in this film, and I worship her. One of the first things she said to me when I stepped into the makeup trailer was, "Oh, my God, I saw your audition tape; you are so talented. You're going to be a big star. Don't be an asshole."
Golzari: I grew up going to her plays, and now she's become a mentor to me. We're both of Iranian descent, and to look in the opening credits and see the names of two Persian actors up there is just crazy.
Back Stage: What was the hardest part of making your first feature film?
Yalda: Whenever Paul would give me a note, I would think it was the end of the world. I would think he hated me and the movie would flop because of me. I eventually got used to it, but the first three weeks, I was having panic attacks in my trailer.
Golzari: For me it was going on the Internet one night and reading that because of a recent bombing, the studio was rewriting American Dreamz and taking out the Middle Eastern roles. I couldn't sleep. In the morning I called the producers, and they told me it wasn't true. But, for that moment, I realized how quickly things could be taken away.
Back Stage: Is there anything you would advise actors starting out to know about this business?
Yalda: Just be relentless. Don't hurt anybody, still be kind, but go for it nonstop. You can't listen to what other people tell you or get discouraged. I've had several teachers tell me I wasn't going to make it. One of them, in Chicago, I was talking to about my résumé, and she said, "Tony, can I be very honest with you? You're a queeny, manic actor who won't make it in theatre or film. You might as well just give up while you're ahead." And I was paying her for this.
And give your all to everything. When I walked into the audition for American Dreamz, I thought it was a one-liner. But I was, like, "I'm here and it's a movie; I'm doing something. It's better than working at a porn store."
Golzari: If I had listened to that little voice and not gone, who knows where I would be? After working in this industry, you realize not everyone is really working their hardest. A lot of times, people do just enough to get by. And what that tells me is: Working hard does actually make a difference. If you work hard, you will stand out.