BONES, Fox Mondays at 8 PM, now in its eighth season, is as much or more about its characters as it is about the crimes solved by forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and her life/work partner FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). However, there have been few characters on the show as consistently surprising as lab assistant Arastoo Viziri, played by Pej Vahdat. Arastoo is Iranian and speaks with an Iranian accent – until in one episode he lets it lapse and his fellow scientists learn he actually has an American accent and was just playing along because of their preconceptions about him.
Now Aristoo has an even bigger secret – it turns out that he and his boss, lab supervisor Dr. Camille Saroyan, played by series regular Tamara Taylor – are having an affair.
In a telephone interview, the Iranian-born, San Jose-raised Vahdat tells us all about playing Arastoo, plus some surprising details of his own life – like the fact that his original career path was as a professional tennis player.
AX: Have there been any developments with Aristoo that you did see coming?
PEJ VAHDAT: You know, honestly, no, I don’t [laughs], because Hart and Stephen always surprise me with these turns and I can’t thank them enough, because being a Middle Eastern actor, you don’t get that open-mindedness that they have. As often as I’ve been blessed with in my career, a lot of my friends are always playing the terrorist or just a bad guy. I’ve been lucky enough to – this show and SHAMELESS and other stuff I’ve done – to really just play a character and they surprise me constantly. I did not see this coming, I did not see the poetry coming, I didn’t see this coming – I’m a quote-unquote “leading guy.” And I also didn’t know they were going to drop the accent like they did. It’s just really interesting, and also important, how they show Muslims in a good light. That’s one thing I’ve been most proud of to share with people – there are a select few that show Muslims in a bad light, and unfortunately, that’s what is prevalent in the news, and thankfully, through this popular television show, people see that’s not necessarily how it is. So that’s one thing I really enjoy, and they constantly surprise me. I can’t wait ‘til the next episode – I’m not sure what’s happening, and they won’t let me know [laughs].
AX: I told somebody about the episode where it came out that Arastoo was faking his Iranian accent, and the other person said, “Oh, man, I should be watching that show.”
VAHDAT: That’s good. [Series creator/show runner] Hart Hanson is one of the best writers I’ve ever met in my life. I couldn’t believe he came up with that idea [laughs] – it was amazing.
AX: Did you know when you started on BONES that Arastoo really had an American accent?
VAHDAT: No. I thought I was going to be a foreigner. The [fourth-season] finale, there was a dream sequence where [Hanson] wanted me to drop the accent, and he looked at me in one of the takes and said, “Come over here. I have an idea. What do you think of this?” I said, “Oh! Whatever you want, obviously, but that sounds awesome!” And the way he did it, I was blown away by his genius. I couldn’t believe it. I hope I did it justice.
AX: Did you ever fake an Iranian accent in real life?
VAHDAT: Yes, I have done it in real life – just as a joke, I would sometimes talk to people I meet or whatever as a joke with an accent to see if I could pull it off. Actually, when I first got here, I was living in L.A., trying to be an actor, I thought, “I’m going to need to perfect this accent,” so I went back to see if they’d believe me, and it looks like it worked.
AX: When we found out that Arastoo’s real accent was American, was it established then that he is Iranian?
VAHDAT: I think it was always established that he was Iranian. In Iran, you study English as well as Farsi, and a lot of the students that come over here have no accent by the time they get here. That might be slight, but then years down the road, it’s gone. My brother, for instance, is an example. He was born there, studied there, and when he was about fifteen or sixteen, he came, and he has zero accent at this point, because English is so important to learn over there.
AX: Are you from Iran initially?
VAHDAT: I was born there, and then when I was three months old, I moved to the U.S. Actually, I moved toGermany for about eight months, and then I moved to theU.S. What happened was, my dad was one of the Shah of Iran’s physicians. Anyone involved with the Shah’s regime was deemed anti-Khomeini [who deposed the Shah]. “You’ve got to get out of here.” My brother was twelve, and at that time, twelve years old, you’re going to the army. So we left as soon as that happened. My brother and my dad snuck out in the middle of the night and came to theU.S.
AX: Do you speak Farsi?
VAHDAT: I do.
AX: So you don’t have to do Arastoo’s Farsi dialogue phonetically?
VAHDAT: No. But that poem [that Arastoo writes forCam] is extremely hard for me, because it’s proper Farsi – it’s like Shakespearean English, it’s not a normal conversation. In fact, when you watch Persian news, or Iranian news, I have zero idea of what they’re saying, because it’s just so proper and sped-up. It sounds very pretty. [The poem is] beautiful. My dad was in town, thankfully, because I was [reciting the poem] a lot prior to filming, and he said it was really pretty, really beautifully written. And then they had a language expert there on set, who also thought it was quite beautiful. My dad had to translate some of the words for me, and they had to translate it as well, but it totally made sense, what you got a grasp of, “Oh, that means that, so it’s like saying this in plain Farsi.” It made sense after my dad explained it to me [laughs].
AX: Did you know that Arastoo was going to have a secret romance with Tamara Taylor’s character Camille Saroyan before you got the script for that?
VAHDAT: I got the script maybe two weeks prior, and I read it and I thought, “Oh, my God, this is crazy” [laughs], so I kind of had an idea in my own head, because there were some hints that were being thrown at me – it was just my speculation, I turned out to be right – but I didn’t think I was going to have Cam [as a love interest]. I just thought maybe they’d have me get a girlfriend, but nothing like that. As far as me and [Taylor] personally, I love her. We get along great, but I never thought [the characters would have a romance]. It was just never in my mind that that would be a possibility, because [Arastoo] was always focused on science. I personally felt really good chemistry with her, because we get along so well off-camera, and I have such great respect for her as an actress and as a person, and we really got along quite well and I thought it came off onscreen.
AX: Is this your first big romantic lead on camera?
VAHDAT: No. Again, I’ve been pretty lucky [laughs]. I did a show called SINGLE LADIES in the summer where I’m one of the girls’ new love interests, and that was my first romantic lead, I think. [The romance on BONES] is a little bit more, because I have a bigger role, so [SINGLE LADIES] isn’t quite as large as this one.
AX: Does Arastoo have any concerns about the fact that Cam’s his boss?
VAHDAT: I don’t have any concerns, because I feel like Arastoo is so in love with her, he says, “Do you want me to quit?” That’s how important this relationship is to him. But as far as the other characters go, I’m not sure if they have any concerns. I’m sure they might [laughs].
AX: Did you do any training or preparation for the lab scenes?
VAHDAT: My dad’s a doctor, so I had a lot of conversations with him. But they actually have a fantastic adviser on set, who helps us with all the dialogue and everything to make sure it’s to the T, it’s real.
AX: Do you ever get grossed out by the lab scenes?
VAHDAT: Yes. The first day, I was so excited, and then there was this cadaver on the table and I had to take pictures and send it to my friends, because it was so gross [laughs]. Those bodies always gross me out. They’re so gooey and real, it’s amazing. I always take a picture, as if it’s my first time seeing it. I show them to my little niece and she freaks out. By the third or fourth day, it’s like another guy just sitting there, it’s no big deal [laughs]. But they constantly gross me out, those bodies. Especially the first time I see them when I’m back. But I love those scenes with the lab, especially with Hodgins [played by TJ Thyne]. We have so much fun, me and TJ. I think he is so talented, incredible how good he is. Everybody’s great, but I have a lot more scenes with him – like a bromance [laughs].
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Article: Exclusive Interview: BONES’ Pej Vahdat talks season 8