When he broke his leg during his freshman year at University High School in Irvine, Omid Abtahi’s professional soccer aspirations ended, so he signed up for theater “just for fun.” Now he’s featured in the STARZ series “American Gods,” based on the award-winning fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. At 39, the actor has tallied more than 70 credits, including “Argo,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2,” “Homeland,” and “Better Call Saul.” Here are a few things to know about his path to Hollywood.
Channeling his anger
Abtahi’s first acting class at Cal State Fullerton coincided with his brother enlisting in the military. Feeling helpless, angry, and worried, Abtahi yelled throughout his first scenes. His teacher pulled him aside to suggest he not yell so much but saw that Abtahi had talent and raw emotion and encouraged him to pursue acting.
Roles for an Iranian-American
He graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2002. After the attacks of 9/11, there were more parts for Middle Eastern actors. Abtahi went from playing Italians, Mexicans, and Greeks to playing terrorists, translators, and CIA agents. His fourth audition landed him a part in the FX series “Over There.” Rather than feeling typecast, he was glad for the work. “That was my ticket to getting on the train. Once you’re on the train, you can move from compartment to compartment. But you first need to get on the train.”
Learning from the best
Abtahi says he learned to act in college but learned to audition and become an actor by interning with noted casting director Mali Finn. He watched actors come through and audition, and he observed what worked and what didn’t. As well as having a great agent, he says: “I am where I am today because of the time I spent observing in the casting office.”
The 2014 film “The Boys of Abu Ghraib” took an emotional toll on him “in the most rewarding way,” Abtahi says. He played a suffering inmate in an Iraqi prison, so Abtahi wouldn’t eat lunch or even taste his own birthday cake, choosing to remain miserable and stay in character. “It’s still one of my favorite roles,” he says.
Making art out of life
Abtahi’s son, Miles, suffered severe complications after birth, and during the first year of his life, Abtahi “was in a complete daze.” His baby was 6 months old and not quite out of the woods when Abtahi began filming the first season of “American Gods.” He says if he hadn’t had acting to deal with his emotions, “I would’ve lost my mind even more than I did. It was one way of taking something really awful and turning it into art.” Miles is now 3 and doing well.