Creative inspiration can sometimes feel like zaps, little sparks of energy that sporadically buzz you. For Eman Esfandi, it feels like a lightning strike, over and over—the kind that pulses through your body and makes your hair stand on your neck. Esfandi channels this electricity through acting in roles like King Richard, directing in shorts Pepito and 120, writing poetry, and releasing rap music under DragonWulf. His most recent acting project, The Inspection, takes place in a Marines boot camp in 2005, where the characters navigate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Esfandi portrays Ismail, a Muslim American man who grapples with serving a country filled with the Islamophobia and xenophobia that infiltrated post-9/11 American culture.
We talked to Esfandi about creativity and inspiration, working on The Inspection, portraying such dark truths, and upcoming projects.
How did you first get into acting/directing?
I first started acting while I was getting my Economics degree from the University of Texas at Austin (hook ‘em horns). A friend of mine recommended an acting workshop by Brad & Kim Burton and as I thanked them afterward, they asked why I’d never been sent in to audition for them before. I explained I didn’t act or have an agent and they mentioned they thought I could do well as an actor. So I decided "screw it"—I’ve always thought I could act, so why not give it a try? The first role I auditioned for was to be in a thesis film for UT MFA grad Erica Robert Pallo. I booked that, which was beginner’s luck I’m sure, and we shot for a week in Marble Falls, TX at these underground caverns while staying in a cabin by the lake. I thought “ya know what, if this is acting, then this is the life for me.” The Burtons cast me in a commercial not long after so I was off to the races. Small town kid in big city game! Although it was in Austin, TX at the time, which is a much smaller film market. As for directing, after a year or so of being in any short film that would cast me, I was asked to help a friend with his short film script. After I gave my notes on some of the writing, he asked if I would direct it for him! I put all my recent short film knowledge from the last year to use and crash coursed “how to make a movie” on YouTube during the three months of pre-production. That’s how Pepito, which was licensed to HBO from 2020-2022, became my first short film as a director.
When did you know this was something you were fated to do? What makes the trials and tribulations of a career in Hollywood worth it to you?
I get really good signs from the Universe. I always have in a way, but I wasn’t as aware of them when I was younger. I do, however, remember that when I fell into the acting, I was noticing a lot more synchronicities and it felt like everything was being guided into place. For which I’m very grateful. As for the trials and tribulations of a career in Hollywood, aside from moving out here and not booking anything the first few years, which was pretty brutal, my career is really just getting started. Maybe I’ll revisit this question in 20 years to answer it again.
Can you talk about your experience on the set of The Inspection? What was fun, what was hard, what did you learn?
The Inspection was one of the most healing, inspiring, and powerful experiences I’ve had on a project, while simultaneously being one of the most painful. Learning the dynamics of Marine recruitment was a fascinating and at times grueling experience. Choosing and being fitted for my character Ismail’s looks was a really enjoyable collaboration. Certain scenes were painful to experience, but because of their service to the story, were worth going through. I learned a lot about forgiveness while shooting. It was a very deep practice in not holding grudges or resentments for things that people have done in the past. I learned to let go of old ideas about myself that don’t serve my highest good. Learned to surrender to my intuition more. It was overall very growth-inspiring.
The Inspection is a story that reflects the harsher realities of the world. Tell us about your character, and how you prepared to put yourself in his shoes.
My character, Ismail, is Muslim-American who joins the marines in hopes to assimilate into the country he was born and raised in. However, since this movie is set in 2005, the incidents on 9/11 had already shaken up public opinion of anyone Middle-Eastern in America. Islamophobia was only on the rise, so during his recruitment, Ismail is treated with racism and xenophobia about his beliefs and race. I was raised in Texas and grew up with the repercussions of 9/11 all throughout my childhood. When I was younger it wasn’t as noticeable, but by the time I was in high school, I could better see the micro-aggressions that my being half-Persian, or my father being from Iran, would incite. That experience was my first connection to Ismail when getting into character. From there it was a process of discovery as I learned more about Islam in order to better connect to the prayers he does in the film and consequently feel deeper the micro-aggressions that the other characters inflict upon him through this training. Aside from that and learning the lines, the one last thing I did was to drink only juice for the two weeks before we started filming. Ismail isn’t physically the most able recruit, whereas I’ve been an athlete for most of my life, so I felt like slimming down would help and the feeling of running out energy quickly would resonate more with his experience in training.
You’re an all-around creative person, interested in acting, directing, poetry, and music. What inspires you, and what about the world fascinates you? What do you feel compelled to explore through creativity?
I feel like a lightning rod that keeps on being struck by lightning again and again. Everything inspires me in some way and it feels like the amount of things that fascinate me is never-ending. The way light enters a room, silhouettes of people watching sunsets, how sometimes the song you’re listening to lines up with life you’re witnessing, and you feel like—for just a second—you’re swimming in the same ocean or current as everything and everyone around you. I like movies. Actually, I love movies. I feel compelled to explore the human experience by not only capturing it or expressing it through words and melody but to live the fullest life I could ever imagine. Then pass along any tips I discover along the way!
What is something you are looking forward to, and what can we look forward from you?
I’m really looking forward to seeing The Inspection in one my favorite movie theaters in LA with my mom and sister tonight on November 17! I wanted to mention that so when I read the article later, I’ll time travel back to this feeling again for a second. We used to go to the movies a lot together, so being able to see a film that I’m in at a public theater as part of the public catalogue of films is a major milestone for me. I’m excited for the world to witness Elegance Bratton’s inspiring story, one about resilience and self-love that is so beautifully portrayed by Jeremy Pope. Looking forward to people watching this film and leaving with a more open heart because of it. As for what you can look forward to from me, I’m releasing new music as DragonWulf early in 2023 that I’m really excited about. I’m also in development for a lot of really, really sick projects that I’m sure everyone is going to love. Until then, I wanted to say to those of you who are reading this that have been following/supporting my journey for a while now, thank you from the bottom of my heart and I love you. Y’all know who you are!
Photographed by Jonny Marlow
Styled by Avo Yermagyan
Groomer: Colleen Dominique