World Views
11:32 am
Fri August 29, 2014

'Glee' Actor And OU Alum Iqbal Theba On Diversity, Unexpected Career About-Face

When Iqbal Theba arrived at the University of Oklahoma from Pakistan in the early 1980s, he planned to become a construction manager. Instead, Theba became one of the most prominent South Asian actors in the United States.

Best known for his role as Principal Figgins on the hit series Glee, Theba has appeared in dozens of television shows, commercials, and movies, including Community and ER.

He discovered his love for acting when he went to see an OU friend perform in a play.

“I'd seen a play in Pakistan, but it was nothing like what I saw that day,” Theba says. “It was a mystical experience you know, when the curtains went up and it was dark and then the actors came on stage. … And in the next few months I started to play with idea of become an actor. I said, ‘You know, I don't know how good I am, but this is so fascinating.’”

Theba decided to give up his career in construction management and return to OU to study acting. Then he left for Los Angeles.

“At that time there weren't any prominent South Asian or Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood,” Theba says. “And one of the most surprising things that happened is that I started to book commercials. Now, before I started to do commercials, I was told that no one was going to hire me to sell a hamburger or a bottle of Coke to mid-America, but once that started to happen, you know, people were hiring me. So I thought, you know, this is not as bad as people say. People are willing to take chances.”

Theba’s career has come a long way since he began doing commercials in the early 1990s. He says that the industry has changed, too.

“Right now there are at least six or seven shows I can think of that have South Asian characters, either regular or recurring. You know, Glee was one of them, and then The Good Wife, and Lost had Naveene Andrews,” Theba says. “And that's a huge change from back in 1991 when I arrived on the scene.”

Even through Hollywood is becoming more diverse, Theba says there is still a long way to go.

“I think Hollywood is more sexist than it is racist, especially when it comes to movies,” Theba says. “Look at the newspaper and look at all the movies that are playing. Now, count the number of male roles being played and being offered in those movies, and count the number of female roles, and you will be shocked, absolutely shocked, that it's mostly a male-dominated industry.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On Theba’s construction internship

Since I was a kid I always wanted to do something different, something that I had a passion for. And in your senior year, you know, we were supposed to do an internship outside the school with a construction company, and I ended up, you know, I was with these people that I did not have much in common with. You know, they would talk about steel and cement and concrete and God knows what. And there I was going, “Oh my God, what am I doing?”

On discovering acting

I used to work in this restaurant. And that restaurant had a happy hour. And at that happy hour, all these OU, mostly OU students, would come with their fake IDs, you know, trying to, you know, buy a drink. And among those people was Mary Gregory. And she was a friend of mine. She was in drama school. And she said, “Hey Iqbal, why don't you come and see me in a play?” I'd seen a play in Pakistan, but it was nothing like what I saw that day. And it was a mystical experience you know, when the curtains went up and it was dark and then the actors came on stage. And this whole experience stayed with me. And I said, “God, this is so cool!” So I went back and saw another play at Stone Soup Theater Company and made friends with the actors and started to talk about acting and theater. And in the next few months I started to play with idea of become an actor. I said, “You know, I don't know how good I am, but this is so fascinating.” You can't really rationalize it because it wasn't a rational thing to do to throw away a so-called professional degree where you can easily get a job, but once it got in my head I said, “This is it.”

On breaking into the industry

When I arrived in Los Angeles and I started to look for an agent. Like most actors, I had a hard time finding an agent. You know, it doesn't matter what color you are, whether you're white, black, Latino, Chinese, you know, it's a tough industry. And I was aware of that. But I was told, you know, by many agents that, “I don't know. I don't think we can find anything for you. For your type.” And they were right in a sense, because at that time there weren't any prominent South Asian or Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood. You wouldn't see very many faces like me on television dramas or comedies. And one of the most surprising things that happened is that I started to book commercials. Now, before I started to do commercials, I was told that no one was going to hire me to sell a hamburger or a bottle of Coke to mid-America, but once that started to happen, you know, people were hiring me. So I thought, you know, this is not as bad as people say. People are willing to take chances.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Iqbal Theba, welcome to World Views.

THEBA: Thank you so much.

GRILLOT: So, I have to start from the very beginning. You came to Norman back in the early '80s from Pakistan. Now how did that happen? That's a long way to come for college. So what brought you here?

THEBA: Well, I think it had to do with my dad. He was a big fan of America, and he wanted me to go to America and get an education. And he picked Norman. He said, “You know, this looks like a nice little town, you know, and the tuition is the lowest.” Which was, I think, one of the reasons he picked OU. And there you have it. You know, before I knew it, I was on a plane headed for Oklahoma City.

GRILLOT: Searching for the dream: higher education in the United States. So then you make that big leap, obviously, from home to college, and then you graduate with a degree in construction management. But then you decide to become an actor. You actually come back to the University of Oklahoma, which is so thrilled that you would come back and get a second degree in acting. Now, that seems like it's similar to the big leap from Pakistan to Norman, Oklahoma that you would switch from construction management to acting. How did that happen?

THEBA: Well, since I was a kid I always wanted to do something different, something that I had a passion for. And in your senior year, you know, we were supposed to do an internship outside the school with a construction company, and I ended up, you know, I was with these people that I did not have much in common with. You know, they would talk about steel and cement and concrete and God knows what. And there I was going, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” And then eventually I said, “Maybe I should do something else. You know, it's not that late, I'm still in my 20s, you know.” And while I was struggling with that, I used to work in this restaurant. And that restaurant had a happy hour. And at that happy hour, all these OU, mostly OU students, would come with their fake IDs, you know, trying to, you know, buy a drink. And among those people was Mary Gregory. And she was a friend of mine. She was in drama school. And she said, “Hey Iqbal, why don't you come and see me in a play?” I'd seen a play in Pakistan, but it was nothing like what I saw that day. And it was a mystical experience you know, when the curtains went up and it was dark and then the actors came on stage. And this whole experience stayed with me. And I said, “God, this is so cool!” So I went back and saw another play at Stone Soup Theater Company and made friends with the actors and started to talk about acting and theater. And in the next few months I started to play with idea of become an actor. I said, “You know, I don't know how good I am, but this is so fascinating.” You can't really rationalize it because it wasn't a rational thing to do to throw away a so-called professional degree where you can easily get a job, but once it got in my head I said, “This is it.”

GRILLOT: But it's worked out okay. So, obviously, you've made quite the career for yourself. But, you know, our perception anyway might be that Hollywood isn't the most diverse place. It's not an industry that's very diverse. So what's your experience been as a minority, as somebody from South Asia? You've been described as the most prominent actor in Hollywood from South Asia. I mean, how do you feel about that description, that your background is attached to your prominence? And what has been your experience as somebody from South Asia in that industry?

THEBA: Well, when I arrived in Los Angeles and I started to look for an agent. Like most actors, I had a hard time finding an agent. You know, it doesn't matter what color you are, whether you're white, black, Latino, Chinese, you know, it's a tough industry. And I was aware of that. But I was told, you know, by many agents that, “I don't know. I don't think we can find anything for you. For your type.” And they were right in a sense, because at that time there weren't any prominent South Asian or Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood. You wouldn't see very many faces like me on television dramas or comedies. And one of the most surprising things that happened is that I started to book commercials. Now, before I started to do commercials, I was told that no one was going to hire me to sell a hamburger or a bottle of Coke to mid-America, but once that started to happen, you know, people were hiring me, you know. So I thought, you know, this is not as bad as people say. People are willing to take chances. So that was a pleasant surprise. However, from the acting point of view, there weren't very many roles available, meaty roles that an actor, you know, dreams of playing. That wasn't happening. There weren't as many opportunities. And I did end up doing a pilot for NBC called Death and Taxes. It was not picked up, and the character was this Indian nerd. But it introduced me to a major studio. And any time they had a smaller thing for my type, they would, you know, I would go and read for it and compete with the other actors, and, you know, a lot of times I would book the job. So as I was there, you know, things were changing and they're still changing. For example, like, right now there are at least six or seven shows I can think of that have South Asian characters, either regular or recurring. You know, Glee was one of them, and then The Good Wife, and Lost had Naveene Andrews. So there are several shows. And that's a huge change from back in 1991 when I arrived on the scene. We still have a ways to go. Not just in terms of ethnic variety, but also in terms of gender. I think Hollywood is more sexist than it is racist, especially when it comes to movies. For example, like, today, look at the newspaper and look at all the movies that are playing. Now, count the number of male roles being played and being offered in those movies, and count the number of female roles, and you will be shocked, absolutely shocked, that it's mostly a male-dominated industry when it comes to movies. Television has come a long way. Television has wonderful hit series like Rosanne or Ellen or these wonderful women as leads that people are willing to watch, but it has not happened in the movies.

GRILLOT: Not translated over.

THEBA: No.

GRILLOT: Well, that's an interesting point. I mean, lack of diversity is not just racial indeed. Well, so, before we go, I'd like to ask how are you received back at home? You have family back in Karachi. I assume they're big Glee fans. You know, have you started a whole Glee movement around the world? I mean, music and glee clubs, can't they just unite the world? Have you contributed to that at all?

THEBA: A year ago I went back to Karachi and this friend of mine who's an editor of a magazine – now, when I go back, I try to keep a low profile. I don't do interviews. I've done a few, a very few, in the last several years – and she said, “Oh, you have to have, like, a gathering of all these Gleeks.” And she talked me into having this event. And I went to this event, and they had 200 to 300 young, mostly young people in their teens and twenties, all Pakistanis and all Gleeks, big Glee fans. So there are people who watch everything, including Glee, back home.

GRILLOT: Well, I can only imagine that there are plenty over there and here that really appreciate the work that you do. And we certainly appreciate you being with us today here on World Views, and coming back to Norman to celebrate your alma mater and the international student population that we have here at the university. So, thank you very much, Iqbal Theba, for being with us.

THEBA: Thank you so much.

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