Ali: I think the reason was because it’s such a specific role. We auditioned a lot of Middle Eastern – and Middle Eastern is not like European- Greek guys like George. We were trying to get somebody originally that spoke Iraqi, a real Iranian actor. We auditioned my cousins and wrestlers and people that we didn’t know, but then George walked in. It was like what happens in a lot of castings, he changed our minds. We’re like, “Oh look at this kid. He’s awesome.” He’s much more handsome than me,. he is much more physically fit, but he’s just such a nice guy that we were like okay. He opened our eyes to it. So it took us a little bit of massaging, going back and forth. He did the table read with us. It was like “ok, this is the guy” but he’s Greek/American. So he’s not Iranian but he killed it. Which is what Aladdin should have done, and hired him
Jill: What made you decide to tell this particular story from this specific point in your life? Because, really there’s so many fascinating aspects of your life that you could have focused on?
Ali: Well, that’s a great question. I had done a couple of race car movies that deal with our racing history and stuff, but this one I had written years ago. It wasn’t really written at this time to be done. The opportunity kind of came where we had a little bit of space in our production schedule to do one. So I shared it with my executive financier Forrest Lucas, and he liked it because it was this good American story that somebody comes to America, even with all the headaches putting his head down and working hard, and making it. That’s really why, but it became so much more relevant because of the current time. Kind of a combination of things that made me do this.
Jill: With it being so timely, how did you let your family know that you were going to be telling the story? What was their reaction to it?
Ali: My mom is no longer with us. I told my uncles they were like “Uh, okay.” They weren’t too happy with it. But the one who was really most unhappy with it was my dad. Funny enough because in the original movie, we had to use pictures. A lot of the family pictures had my real family in it, but my dad still lives in Iran. So after he saw it, he said “Please don’t use my pictures. You have to go in there and see if any of your friends can take it out of there and replace it with somebody else.” So he was a little touchy because it’s not the best Iran government there could be. But just to protect him, we removed them from the pictures so he wouldn’t be directly responsible. I think the rest of the extended family really liked it. They said it is a good little story.
Jill: Is it difficult working on a project that you are personally involved in? You’re producing, you’re acting in it. You’re supervising someone that is playing yourself. How did you handle all of those different things?
Ali: It wasn’t that hard, just a little overwhelming [laughs] but the team gelled so well. I mean George knocked it out of the park easily. He’s like a little brother. He’s like my nephew. He kind of did his own thing. I had an acting coach on set. She was helping me out, one of my prior acting coaches. She would then help anybody that needed help and we were all a family. We have all done a lot of movies together and then with the talent of Jon Voight and George, William Fichtner, Gabriel Basso, Kevin Schmidt, Lia Marie Johnson and everybody that came in. I mean, it was just really, really cool. But being in my hometown, since we use the same homes, streets, houses, places that I grew up in, high school, it was very surreal.
Jill: In these times, what type of message do you hope people walk away from, after viewing this and the upcoming American Fighter? How do you want them to feel?
Ali: You know what I think it’s part of what Jon Voight says in a scene, “Nobody’s special. Everybody hurts, suck it up, do your job, put your head down, work hard and you’ll make it in any career, anything in life is yours, take advantage of it.
Yeah, a lot of people take what this country has to offer for granted, even if they are from here. When you’re not from here – that’s why you see so many immigrants coming and taking jobs for lower pay – because its for the advantage. They’re still busy, right? They don’t judge an opportunity. The idea that is America perfect? No. But is it the best place? In my opinion, yes. That is why everybody comes here. I want people to get is that it is really a unique place. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t take anything for granted. Whatever you can do, don’t take one second of this life for granted.
George added, “it’s more than wrestling, it’s more like an underdog, there’s a metaphor were people say they are wrestling with their issues. It’s like wrestling with your problems face to face with something that’s trying to take you down. That’s something that people are going through in every aspect, every walk of life. You’re walking into something that is new, or maybe you’re scared of and you have to face your fears and try to take them down and overcome them
For more information on American Wrestler and the upcoming sequel American Fighter, head over to ESXProductions.com or follow them on social media at @esxentertainment.
photos via ESX productions.