For actor Shaun Toub, living out the lives of characters on the big and small screen has been a life-time goal. After years honing his craft in the world of television, he’s become a major part of the biggest movies today with roles in the award-winning drama Crash and The Kite Runner as well genre films like Iron Man and the upcoming movie The Last Airbender.For Newsarama readers, he’s probably best known as Dr. Yinsen, Tony Stark’s fellow captive in the desert caves and the man who helped Tony build the first iteration of the Iron Man armor. In 2004 film Crash, he played an Iranian shopkeeper dealing with racial harassment from fellow American citizens. And in the upcoming film The Last Airbender, he plays the retired general Iroh – a father figure to Prince Zuko, the film’s primary antagonist. But Toub’s career can be traced back many years, from his first minor role in the 80s television series Hunter to more substantial parts on recent TV series such as The Mentalist and Chuck.
With the second Iron Man film just hours away from its American release and his next film The Last Airbender causing waves with its most recent special-effects laden trailer, we talked with the actor by phone about his recent work.
Newsarama:It’s good to finally talk to you, Shaun. We’ve been watching you on screen for years, and recently you’ve really become a regular in genre movies like Iron Man and now The Last Airbender. What was it like filming The Last Airbender with director M. Night Shyamalan?
Shaun Toub: It was actually pretty awesome. It was very interesting – basically we were entering the world of imagination. Although this is based on a popular television series, we had to really come up with our own interpretation of what the characters were – and for me, who Uncle Iroh was. Early on with I spoke to M. Night, we decided that it would be best for me not to watch the animated series but instead focus on what was in the movie’s script because it was much darker. Although we want to pay homage to the original animated series, when you make a movie it’s very different than a cartoon. I’ve done animated series and even video games, but when doing a live-action movie the human aspect doesn’t work the same, and neither does the dialogue. It was pretty interesting to come up with the look and tone of my character, which is very different from Uncle Iroh in the animated series. Although the movie he doesn’t look the same as he did in the television series, he has the same energy and philosophy.
Nrama: So just how did you dig into the character of General Iroh for the film? What would you say are his core attributes that you tried to personify?
Toub: Well, Iroh is basically the wise man in the movie. He’s the powerful, experienced one – and the only one who can create fire from no source. He’s a retired war veteran, and a very spiritual man; right now he’s in a place where he’s trying to bring peace to the world. In the movie he’s trying his best to keep an eye on Prince Zuko, who he’s taken under his wing. He’s trying to protect him as best as he can.
Overall, he’s a very complicated character with a lifetime of experiences and history to draw upon.
Nrama: You came into this movie shortly after filming the first Iron Man movie – going from one movie with a lot of built-in fans to another. Can you tell us about the nature of working on these kinds of movies and the interaction with fans?
Toub: These kinds of projects come with a lot of possibilities to explore. There are a lot of fans out there who love the characters, and as someone participating in a big screen adaptation of that you want to be respectful and mindful of that. There’s some hardcore fans out there who really really love the characters, with Uncle Iroh being right up there at the top. But as an actor, I can’t let that give me too much pressure; I try to be mindful of it, and do my best to bring the same energy and tone that the character had in the animated series, but it’s not possible to translate every detail of the character over.
I had a similar experience when doing the movie The Kite Runner -- in that case, we were taking a very popular book and putting it on the screen. When people read a book, they create a vision for the characters and the story that’s hard to completely replicate in the movie. What you have to do with any project like this is bring the personality, attributes and characters as best you can, and if you do that successfully then fans will forgive you a bit if you don’t look exactly like the character they originally expected.
From the advance screenings of The Last Airbender that we’ve done, I’ve heard very positive things about our adaptation of the movie. Yes, I don’t look like the animated version of Uncle Iroh but I have the same energy. I think I’ve kept him alive.
Like I said earlier, there is a little bit of pressure but I can’t allow that kind of thinking consume me. My task is to stay in tune with what the scriptwriter has written and what the director is telling me. I take all that, and interpret that into what I feel the character should be like. It’s a little bit of a dance – and lot of difference when you’re working on something like The Last Airbender or Iron Man which has such a history.
Nrama: For your role as Dr. Yinsen in the Iron Man movie, the character was updated quite a bit from the original version portrayed in the 60s comics. Formerly Chinese, in the movie the character was Afghani – one of several things done to modernize Iron Man and his origin to the modern landscape.
From what I’ve read, a lot of what we saw in the film of you – how you look and the mannerisms – were something you developed on the set just days before filming. Can you tell us about your thought processes in developing Yinsen’s visuals, and in general this process for you as an actor?
Toub: Yinsen was a blessing. Actors can work in many different ways and methods – my way starts when I first read the script. If it speaks to me and connects with me, I’m safe. If I feel nothing after than initial reading, then I’m in trouble and I don’t usually take the job. For example, when I read the script for the movie Crash, I immediately pictured how I would play him --- his hunchback, his unkempt mustache and the general tired look he carries with him.
For Yinsen, I already had the energy down when I got to the set, but I still wasn’t comfortable with the original plans for his wardrobe and body language. We had him in a very conservative garb like the other prisoners, but I thought he was different than them. And two days before we started filming those scenes, I was sitting with Robert Downey Jr. somewhere when someone mentioned the possibility of a tie and suddenly it all clicked. That’s what was bothering me – Yinsen should stand out; he should be wearing a suit. To the wardrobe department’s credit, they agreed to get me the clothes to try it. As soon as they saw me in the suit, they agreed with me – Yinsen should be in a 3-piece suit.
As far as Uncle Iroh went for The Last Airbender, that was interesting as well. Before we had even convened on the set, the head of Hair & Makeup called me from Greenland and she wanted to talk about the character I’d be portraying. She had some ideas, and when she shared them I felt a relief because I had been having those same visual thoughts. We both knew that we didn’t want to change my body type with prosthetics or something to mimic Iroh from the television series, so we took our queues from the personality he presented on the page. So when we both expressed the ideas of long hair and a beard, we got excited because it’s not often that you immediately get on the same page with someone like this.
Now that I think about it, I stopped shaving after I read the script because I knew Iroh should have a beard and long hair. The wardrobe department for The Last Airbender was great in coming up with the wardrobe to match.
Nrama: Going back to the origins of these movies, I’ve read that you had actually read Iron Man comics as a child. Were comics a significant part of your life back then?
Toub: You know, as a child, comics are part of most kids’ lives. You have your mainstays like Superman and Batman especially; for me, it was Batman. That was a big series for me back in the day – I remember particularly watching the television series with Adam West. Speaking about actual comics, I remember coming across the Iron Man character in some books back then. I didn’t really follow the character to any degree, but when you’re a child superheroes are really attractive because of the immense power they have and the hope they carry.
The beauty of acting is you get to go into that same imaginary world, while still being able to connect it to everyday life, family and the connection people have with other people. There’s also that struggle with good and evil, and with comics you have clearly defined sides with the heroes on one side and villains on the other.
Taking those ideas, and translating them to film has been a really interesting experience – we loved doing it, and hope that kids and adults both will as well.
Have you seen the new trailer?
Nrama: Yes, yes I did – I wanted to ask about that – and acting with all those special effects that you can’t actually see on the set.
Toub:: It’s pretty complicated. There are a lot of things to consider, but nowadays the film crew are better equipped to provide queues to the actors about what to imagine and where look.
You can see in the most recent trailer the powers Uncle Iroh has – and the descriptions M. Night and the crew gave me on the set gave me a really good preview of what’s in the trailer.
Nrama: Talking about the more difficult aspects of acting here, I have to ask – have you always wanted to do this?
Toub: From an early age. Back in my youth my parents were always hoping me to forget about it, but I’ve had the bug since I was five years old. I originally when to USC for film, but they made me change my major. They wanted me to enter a profession that was more reliable like medicine, law or engineering. But the bug never let me, and now that I’ve been doing it successfully for so many years my mom’s very happy now.
You know, before I had a solid foothold in the acting business, my friends thought I was crazy. But now when they talk about it, they say it makes total sense. “You were always fascinated by movies,” they say. They’d tell me stories of us going to the movie theatre together and how I would analyze every little thing, from composition to framing sequences, and giving critiques of the acting involved.
My mother told me a funny story about me watching television as a young child; she said that when I was in front of the TV, she could feed me whatever she wanted and I would eat it up. I was a very finicky eater at the time, but when I was watching TV I’d eat anything.
Nrama: [laughs] Do you remember any specific programs you watched back then that directly impacted your ideas about acting that took you to where you are now?
Toub: Around that age of five years old, I remember watching an Oscar party and seeing the camaraderie they had in the field. Generally, I was very fascinated with the filmmaking process, and what it takes to portray and embody a character like that. I really believe that acting is in your blood; you can improve by continually doing acting and studying it, but to truly do it right you have to have it in your blood.