Maz Jobrani Talks Terrorist Typecasting, '24' and the Grueling Task of Mocking Trump

The Iranian-American comedian, star of CBS freshman comedy 'Superior Donuts,' reflects on the early roles he really didn't like.
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

As countless immigrants from the seven Muslim-majority countries deemed a threat by U.S. President and Apprentice producer Donald Trump find themselves unable to enter America, even with visas, much of Sunday's massive Super Bowl audience tuned in to an unfortunately timed piece of pop culture. The reboot of former Fox hit 24 opened on a white American family being killed by an ostensibly Middle Eastern man.

Maz Jobrani is no stranger to how Muslims are so frequently portrayed on TV and film. The comedian, currently starring in CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, wrote the book on it. I'm Not a Terrorist but I've Played One on TV came out almost two years ago this month, but the subject of Muslim depictions in American media and entertainment feels as timely as ever.

But Jobrani, 44, hasn't actually played a terrorist in 15 years. He turned his back on the typecasting after an unsettling experience on a Chuck Norris TV movie and a small part in the original 24. Fresh off the promising premiere ratings for his new comedy, Jobrani caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the lack of good roles available to Middle Eastern actors and actors of Middle Eastern descent — and how his comedy is changing under the Trump presidency.

What were your first roles when you started acting?

It hit me early that I didn't want to do it, so I got out pretty fast of doing the terrorist parts. The first acting part I ever got was a guest spot on Chicago Hope playing a security guard. I thought, oh, this is going to be cool. But a little bit later I got a vague part on this short-lived show called Marshall Law with Arsenio Hall and Sammo Hung. It was a poor man's Rush Hour. I was in one scene where all of these terrorists from around the world had gathered in a conference room. They're plotting, but then they're poisoned by the most evil terrorist. I was one of the guys who died. That was vague terrorist No. 1.

What was the tipping point?

I did a Chuck Norris movie of the week. That was the one that put a really bad taste in my mouth. It was called The President's Man: A Line in the Sand. I believe we shot it in 2001, just before Sept. 11. I took it because I figured I had to take what I could get for my career. It was an Afghan terrorist who was going to blow up a building in Chicago. I lied to myself and thought that, through my acting, I could show why this guy was so angry at America. I was going to humanize this guy. What led to him becoming a terrorist?

In a Chuck Norris TV movie?

Exactly. That's how hard I was selling myself on this. Then I got down to Dallas, where we filmed it, and the wardrobe lady says, "Here's your shirt, your pants and your turban." Afghans in America don't wear turbans. And this poor wardrobe lady was like, "The producers want you to wear the turban." I actually put the turban on, and I was on set. Chuck Norris' brother was the producer, and his son, Eric, was the director. I tell Eric that I don't think my character would wear a turban. He goes, "You know what, man? I agree with you, but my uncle wants the turban." I wore the turban, I felt like an idiot, and that's when I came back to L.A. and told my agents that I didn't want any more terrorist parts.

But you did 24 first.

24 was secretive about their plot lines. I got a call for an audition, and I said, "Well, is it a terrorist?" They wouldn't tell us. So I auditioned, and I did not get that part. Then I got a call saying they wanted me to play a terrorist — but one that changes his mind halfway through the mission. Oh, the ambivalent terrorist! That could be interesting. So in the second season of 24, I play this guy who's driving around with two other terrorists and a bomb in the back of the truck. As we're going along, my character sees these kids playing outside and has a change of heart. I turn to the ringleader and say, "I don't want to do this anymore. " And he shoots me. And that was the last time I played a terrorist or even auditioned for one.

Have there been offers since then?

I'm lucky because my manager, Ray, is also Iranian-American. He used to be my agent, and he has the same sensibility that I do. Quite often, they'll call to say they're passing on an audition for me just to make sure I'm cool with it. They did that with United 93. I was like, "Enough said." And I said, "Are there any FBI parts in there?" No they're all white guys.

Anything really offensive?

Another offer I had was a show from one of the 24 producers. [Creator] Joel Surnow is known to be conservative. He had created a conservative Daily Show [Fox News Channel's short-lived The 1/2 Hour News Hour]. My agent, knowing I didn't want to do any of these parts, got me the sides because it was so ridiculous. They wanted to do a sketch where three architects go in to pitch their ideas for the new Twin Towers — a French guy, an American guy and an Arab guy. The Arab guy goes, "I just want to build a building and put a bull's-eye on it." So ridiculous and so unfunny. Just knowing those things are out there, it's crazy that they exist.

Do you feel Middle Eastern actors are being included in Hollywood's new push for diversity and inclusion?

Iranians and Arabs aren't considered diversity because we still don't have minority status in America. There was a group of Middle Eastern actors trying to get SAG to recognize us as part of the diversity they should look out for, because we do represent a different point of view. When OscarsSoWhite happened, I felt part of that. But I also can't imagine a studio saying, "We've got this next big comedy and we want an Iranian-American to play that part." I think they feel the audience of America would rather see someone they relate to more. It feels like there is a movement of sorts happening, but it's baby steps at this point.

On Superior Donuts, you play an Iraqi immigrant. Was there a conversation about your character having an accent?

When they gave me the part, they told me how they came up with the part — and that it was based on an Iraqi immigrant. I know a lot of Iranian-Americans and Iraqi-Americans who came to this country later in life and have that accent. Given that this guy makes several references to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the dating of it was that this guy came to America in his 20s or 30s — not when he was six, like me. I don't have an accent. We talked briefly about changing him from Iraqi to Iranian, but the writers really wanted to have somebody who came from a war-torn country so he could speak about the difference between his life back then and where he is now. It just seems like Iraq is much better known as a country Americans went to war with. To the credit of the writers, as we started writing, I went with them on a couple of articles about the lack of positive representation of Middle Easterners in American film and TV. There's an episode where we deal with some racism against my character, so I'm happy with what they've been able to do. At the end of the day, it's a show that's on a major network and not known for its controversial takes, and yet they're trying to deal with some controversial topics. At one point, I'd like to not have an accent. But that fact that he's not a terrorist and a successful businessman is a step in the right direction.

How have you been digesting the Muslim ban?

I'm an immigrant. I came from Iran in 1978, just as the revolution was happening. If I had landed at LAX with this ban in effect, I would have not have been allowed in this country. I would have been put on my plane and returned to my country. That would be devastating for anybody — but even more so for a kid fleeing a bad situation. When I see someone like Kellyanne Conway on TV saying that she didn't mind the extra screening after September 11, I just want to reach in and shake her and tell her, "Hey lady, this isn't just extra screening. It's affecting people's lives." People comment on my stuff going, "It's just temporary." Well, it's not temporary for some of the people who've been affected. And a lot these people saying it's temporary are the same ones who said Trump's talk of a Muslim ban was just rhetoric. And now here we are, and these things are happening. A lot of Americans are hearing that this is good for our national security, they're not hearing the real stories about people not being able to get their families here or having their kid stuck in another country. I think if more Americans knew of these stories, they may begin to change their minds. They think it's just a bunch of liberals bitching. It's the gas station guy who says "Hi" when I go in. It's the doctor. It's the lady with restaurant. It's the guy with the bodega.

How has your stand-up changed with everything that's happened?

Trump is good for comedy, but bad for the world. I started in 1998 and pretty quickly there was the whole [George W.] Bush thing. I felt I was doing a good amount of politics during Bush. The last eight years, I didn't talk much about politics because Obama didn't give us a lot of material. I started talking about my kids, and I thought I had evolved to comedy about family stuff that everybody could relate to. I was surprised by how quickly I turned back to political material when this guy came about. What's fatiguing about this is that stand-up comedy takes time to develop. But this guy fires off new ridicule potential so fast that it's hard to develop any of your material. When you work on one thing, all of a sudden he's yelling at the prime minister of Australia. I just wish he would stop, but he doesn't. As long as he doesn't, we have to keep talking about it.