In the 1994 Stargate feature film, a team of military and scientific personnel travel to the planet Abydos using an ancient alien-built portal called a Stargate. There they meet a group of villagers, or Abydonians, that worship the god-like Ra, who is, in fact, a member of an omnipotent extraterrestrial race known as the Goa’uld. When Ra and his forces revisit the planet, a battle ensues to not only save the locals, but also stop the Goa’uld from reaching Earth.
Veteran stage, feature film and TV actor Erick Avari plays Kasuf, leader of the Abydonian village. It may have been 16 years ago, but he still vividly remembers his audition for the role, not knowing, of course, at the time, the longevity that his character would enjoy.
“The audition for Stargate was a bit unusual,” notes the actor, “and a little chaotic as well. We weren’t given a great deal of information; they basically told us that it was primarily ad-lib and would be in a foreign language. I arrived at the audition a little early – you always want to get there early to make sure that you’re calm and collected - and walked into this mass of people. There were literally hundreds of actors there of all different colors, sizes, shapes and ages.
“Things were backed up and it was a long wait, but finally I was called into the room after the lunch break. [Movie co-creators, writers and producers] Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were there along with April Webster, the casting director. They also had a reader to read with the actors, but he was there primarily for the English speaking parts, as opposed to doing anything with the Abydonians.
“When I walked in, he was finishing lunch and the last of a candy bar. Dean and Roland were both exhausted; they had been working on this project tirelessly for months and I could see that they were sort of zoning out. So I basically launched right into the candy bar eating scene,” says Avari with a chuckle, “and Dean and Roland perked right up and laughed. At that point I had a feeling that I’d be a part of this movie, and it was quite a magical ride the whole way through. We knew while we were making the film that it was something special, but you can never predict how it will be received by audiences. However, as far as the experience and the work that was going into it, I thought it was pretty special.”
As with most movies, Stargate had various hurdles that needed to be overcome, especially when filming the scenes set on Abydos, in order to bring this Sci-Fi saga to the big screen. For Avari, though, such things were also part of what made the actor’s working experience on the film all the more unforgettable.
“The challenges for everyone were the intense heat and the sand, which somehow managed to find its way into every nook and cranny of one’s being,” he jokes. “There were also the logistical problems of getting 1,500 actors as well as extras, first into wardrobe and make-up, then to the set, and from there, carry out all the blocking, get the action right, put explosions together,etc. It was a monumental task.
“Add to that language issues, both in the script and in real life. We were filming in Yuma, Arizona where it was all Spanish-speaking extras, so we had to have translators, and we had a German director as well. In fact, I have this wonderful photograph of the entire cast and crew with all the flags of the world, and believe it or not we had it pretty much covered. There was a representative for almost every one of those flags. It was pretty amazing.
“Actual roads needed to be built, too, in order to get us to where we needed to be to shoot scenes. They used brand new technology that had just been used with Desert Storm; that was the scale that this film was operating on. So that was the big, broad picture going on behind my head, and what was going on inside my head – as a very small part of this major undertaking - was everything relating to my character [of Kasuf]. Roland Emmerich [who directed the movie] has this great eye and a very subtle way of nudging you in the direction that he would like you to go in. He really shaped that part and carved out something that was not necessarily on the page. So that was, again, very memorable and joyful.
“We worked very hard to stay true to Egyptologists' interpretation of the ancient Egyptian [language] and to try to make it sound like we actually spoke it every day of our lives, with the same ease and with rhythms. It’s what makes language come alive. It’s not just pronouncing the words phonetically, but rather how you put them together and what musicality you give to them. On top of that, a number of us were playing ancient Egyptians who had no concept of today’s technology, and are now confronted with that. As a result, there are all these discoveries that my character gets to make that you’d never be able to make, for example, in a contemporary play or movie.
“There are so many things about that experience that just made it absolutely delightful, charming, and, again, one that certainly stands out in my memory as something very special.”
Three years later, following the success of the Stargate movie, a TV series, Stargate SG-1, was born. In the first season episode Secrets, Colonel Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and his SG-1 team pay another visit to Abydos, where they meet up for a second time with Kasuf. When the show’s producers were casting for this particular character, they wound up, not surprisingly, casting Avari.
‘When the casting breakdowns came out for this episode, I was in Morocco shooting The Mummy,” recalls the actor, “and on the breakdown for Kasuf it read, ‘Looking for an Erick Avari-type to play the role.’ My agent called the casting people and said, ‘How would you like Erick Avari? In fact, he’s flying back within days.’ I’d done my first stint for The Mummy and was coming back to Los Angeles. They said, ‘You can fly directly to Vancouver, shoot Stargate, and then go to London and finish up The Mummy.'
“I have to say that it felt a little, strange because I was essentially reprising the role, but speaking in English. Talk about mind games,” says Avari with a laugh. “It felt somewhat surreal, too. It was a whole other take on the part, and Michael Shanks [SG-1’s Dr. Daniel Jackson} is so close [in appearance] to James Spader [who played Jackson in the Stargate film] and combined with jet-lag, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, where I am? What am I working on?’”
When reprising the Kasuf role for Secrets, did Avari’s approach to playing the character differ from that of the Stargate film? “I think it had to, just by its very nature,” he explains. “The interesting thing is that it was a continuation, much like Jack O’Neill [Kurt Russell] in the movie. That character essentially grew or arced, if you want to say, and by the end of the movie is a completely different man from the one we’re introduced to at the start. That's also true of James Spader’s character and the relationship between Daniel Jackson and Kasuf by the end of the movie.
“So it’s all a progression, and that’s how I had to look at things coming into SG-1. Time had passed and relationships had changed and developed, and it was interesting to take that leap. There was a decision made to also make that leap in terms of the language. If my character was learning English from these soldiers, would it then not be logical that his accent would sort of be similar to theirs. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? If you were to take someone from wherever and teach them English for the very first time, but you have a Spanish accent, or an English accent, or an American accent, then they would probably speak using whatever accent the person teaching them has.”
The actor went on to appear in two more SG-1 episodes: Forever in a Day and Absolute Power, while his character of Kasuf is also spoken of in Full Circle. While these stories were all told using the basic Stargate premise, he found the creative process of the TV series differed from that of the original movie.
“One of the big differences as an actor with the film and playing that character is that it felt like I was part of this collaborative process,” he says. “We were building that film together, all of us. It was a fairly big cast and everyone was right there, shoulder to shoulder with the next guy, and it was wonderful. When, however, you’re coming into a TV situation as a guest-star, you’re a guest, and the collaborative part of creating this has sort of been done, you know?
“So it’s a totally different experience. The thing is, though, that 15 or 16 years later, and I think certainly thanks to the various conventions I’ve been to, my relationships with Michael Shanks, Chris Judge [Teal’c], Amanda Tapping [Colonel Samantha Carter] and Teryl Rothery [Dr. Janet Fraiser] have grown. I don’t do that many conventions, but once a year or so I’ll run into them at one and our relationships have actually spanned a number of years, so that’s been a very interesting progression as well, more so than the film.
“With a movie it’s a very intense thing, and then you go off and do your own thing again. I mean, I’ve worked a couple of times with people like Brendan Fraser and Will Smith – I did his TV show [The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air] and then the film Independence Day – and you sort of rekindle old relationships, but then you go your separate ways. However, what has essentially happened with Stargate SG-1 is that it’s become an extended family now, and I feel very much a part of that family.”
Born in Darjeeling, India, Avari was educated in various European boarding schools, and it was during his schooling that he was introduced to acting. “I was drafted to be an apprentice for a traveling Shakespeare troop that visited from England every year to tour the schools and perform a compilation of scenes from three plays,” says the actor. “Hamlet was usually one of the plays, and Julius Caesar was another. In fact, my big break in life came when I was 19 and played Marc Anthony in a production on the London stage.
“So I just fell into this [acting] family and that was it for me. It was, I think, the lifestyle more than anything that attracted me. I found the idea of working with a family, because it is a family, very appealing. I never imagined, though, that I’d come to Hollywood. I was a New York actor, I did plays, and yes, I’d done a couple of movies, but those were the rarity. I did mainly classical theatre; that was my training, and my passion. As an actor, there’s nothing quite like being onstage.”
The actor’s first experience in front of (and behind) the camera came a year after he finished his apprenticeship with the Shakespeare troop. “A very famous Bengali film director named Satyajit Ray came to Darjeeling to shoot a movie called Kanchenjungha,” says Avari. “My father owned some movie theatres, and essentially being a distributor of this gentleman’s movies, they were acquaintances.
“One day he came to our house for tea and there was something very impressive about this man. He was tall, soft-spoken and incredibly charismatic, without doing anything. I was compelled to ask him what he did for work, and he told me that he made movies. Then I asked him, 'How do you do that,’ and he invited me to sit with him during shooting after school. So I would go, much to my mother’s chagrin, and hang out with this very famous man. I was behind the camera more than in front of it, but I was included in the background of a scene. I was completely nonchalant about it, though. It wasn’t a big thing to me. I was far more intrigued by him and the whole process of what he was doing.”
In addition to his many stage credits, Avari has appeared in a variety of films including The 13th Warrior, Planet of the Apes, Mr. Deeds, Daredevil and The Beast, which was an especially memorable working experience for the actor. “That was thrilling because it was very much like theatre in the sense of commitment and character development,” he says. “It was originally a play, and Kevin Reynolds, the director, took it and made it like another Das Boat, only in a tank. To this day I still get people coming up to me and saying it’s their favorite war film ever, and I take pride in that.”
The X-Files, L.A. Law, Mad About You, Lie to Me and Human Target are among the actor’s numerous TV credits. He also guest-starred in three of the five Star Trek series – Star Trek: The Next Generation (Unification 1), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Destiny) and Star Trek: Enterprise (Terra Nova).
“Next Generation was one of my first gigs here in LA,” says Avari. “I used to watch Star Trek and it was always one show that I thought I could see myself doing, primarily because of the prosthetics. No one cared what you looked like, they’d just cover it up.,” jokes the actor. “It was very Shakespearean, too, and they tended to go with actors who had stage training, so I instinctively had a feeling that if I had a shot at getting a part anywhere in Hollywood, that would be it.
“I think it took me about a year before I got cast, and I was extremely excited. I played a Klingon – I was the shortest Klingon they ever hired. I spent four-and-a-half hours in make-up, and then I went to the set and I was really looking forward to meeting everyone. Leonard Nimoy [Spock] was in the episode and it was a two-parter. Well, I walked onto the set and I was the only actor there. They said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, the stage manager will read the other characters’ lines, You’ll be in front of a green screen, so just sit on this stool and go for it.’ I was done in one take and that was that.
“In contrast, my next Star Trek appearance on Deep Space Nine was a very talky piece and I played a very serious character. We worked 12 to 16-hour days, which Star Trek was famous for. So it was a grind, and I tend to get really giggly when I’m really tired, and if I get the giggles I’m in deep trouble and I know it. Tears start running down your face, your make-up starts to smear and then you can’t get through your lines. No one thinks it’s funny and you know that.
“Nina Craft was my makeup woman for this episode, and she got me going in-between takes. At one point it was one o’clock in the morning and the two of us were just laughing like silly schoolgirls. The director then said, “Places everyone,’ and I thought to myself, ‘OK, I’ve got to straighten up.’ I had this long, wordy scene that I was supposed to be very serious in. It was about doom and gloom and prophecies to come, and all I remember is just praying that I would keep a straight face through the take. So that was a fun episode.
As for Enterprise, I was so sure that that series would run forever. I was in a first season episode, which LeVar Burton directed, and it was, again, terrific. I had worked with Scott Bakula [Captain Jonathan Archer] before and I’ve always admired his work. In fact, at the time I was negotiating to do a series in New York, but then Enterprise was offered to me, and it helped me make the decision of, ‘You know what, I’m staying here and doing this because it’s really exciting.’ Sometimes you’ll look at something on paper, and you look at the cast along with everything else and think, ‘This is going to fly forever.’ Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case here, which was such a disappointment.”
Heroes fans will also remember Avari from his recurring role of Chandra Suresh in the show’s first season. “When Heroes came along I was also scheduled to do [the 2007 movie] Charlie Wilson’s War,” he says. “It was just one scene, but I was so thrilled to be in that. As a New Yorker, I really wanted to work with [director] Michael Nichols, who is like a god. On top of that there was Tom Hanks and everything else that went along with that project.
“Then, however, I received a call about Heroes telling me, ‘We need you for three episodes and it’s going to conflict with Charlie Wilson’s War.’ I thought, ‘No, don’t tell me this. I’m not giving up Charlie Wilson’s War. I fought really hard for that and it’s something I really want to do.’ Fortunately, they were able to work it out, and I was really pleased about that because Heroes turned out to be such a great experience. What a phenomenon to be involved with. It took off right out of the gate and that was very exciting and fun.”
Currently, Avari can be seen as Mr. Quaisum in Three Veils, which is making the film festival rounds, and he plays Dadi in the upcoming movie When the Road Meets the Sun. An avid dog lover, the actor is also in the process of finishing up working on I Am You, a documentary about cruelty to animals. With a long and distinguished career in the entertainment industry, the actor has a very simple answer when asked what continues to make this type of work rewarding for him.
“Touching people, and making a difference,” says Avari. “I remember Father McGuire, who was my class teacher and a mentor in many ways to me, talking one day about artists. He said that they hold a mirror up to society, and when they stop doing that, typically and traditionally, that society has crumbled. That sort of gave me this purpose for something [acting] that is incredibly narcissistic and all of those things, but, again, it gave me purpose for it, which is to make a difference.
“It’s a very powerful tool we have, as artists, as storytellers, as entertainers, and, I think, it’s a responsibility,too. One gets an awful lot out of the business; the rewards are plentiful if you’re successful, so by that very token, it’s incumbent on people who get so much from it, to give back a little bit, or at least behave responsibly and tell responsible stories. Coming full circle, that’s what’s so great about Stargate. It’s a family story about people overcoming evil, and while it may be corny and all of that, it’s told in a wonderfully fanciful way. And it was also a story about, to me at least, peoples’ dignity. An oppressor tends to take your dignity away from you, and I think that’s the worst thing one can do to a fellow human being.”
As noted above, photo courtesy of Erick Avari, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!