Close-Up: An Interview With Safa Tarifi

Actor Safa Tarifi joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss her background, her incredible performance in Are You Still There?, and much more.

Can you tell us about your background and what drew you to acting?

I’m Lebanese, born and raised in Southern California. I come from a fairly big family, three brothers and two sisters. As a kid, I always had big dreams of becoming a doctor. I don’t know if I ever truly wanted to be a doctor or it was just me trying to be my parents’ golden child. There’s a sort of craving for approval from your mother and father that I think most children of immigrants feel. My whole existence before acting was dedicated to being a good student, getting good grades, etc.. It worked until it didn’t.

I decided one day in my senior year of high school that I wanted to be a film director. I went to community college and was planning on transferring to USC for film school. During my last semester of community college (2018) I felt lost and no longer connected to the idea of going to film school. I honestly had no clue what I was going to do.

While I was going through my crisis, my older brother was taking an acting class at our community college. I’m not sure what came over me but I decided to join the class. I’ve never acted a day in my life and always hated being on camera but I thought “why not?”. I can be shy and introverted so it was really a shock to everyone that I did it. My brother told me he thought I’d drop out in a week because of my anxiety. I surprised myself when I decided to stick with it. It was truly terrifying but it felt good.

I loved that there wasn’t really a “right” way to do things. You have so much creative freedom and are given the opportunity to feel empathy for these characters and truly start understanding people on a deeper level. I had a great teacher, Neil Weiss, he helped break me out of my shell and motivated me to continue my acting journey.

What has your acting journey been like so far, particularly in terms of the biggest challenges and learning curves you’d had?

I won’t lie, it was really tough at times. I was 19 years old and I felt like I was so behind compared to other actors my age who grew up with the craft. It was hard not to feel like an imposter but it made me work harder.

The first year I started acting I got the chance to work with these great student filmmakers, I filmed a ton of shorts/scenes and learned as I went. I realized I needed to fall flat on my face if I wanted to learn anything. Failing is a beautiful thing and I think we should all welcome it more. Getting my body and mind connected was something I struggled with a lot. I had to teach myself to get out of my own way, out of my own head and just be present.

You play the lead in Are You Still There?, one of the best short films of the year. How did the opportunity to be a part of this project, and work with award winning filmmakers Sam Davis and Rayka Zehtabchi, come about?

First I want to say I love Sam and Rayka and will forever be grateful to them for trusting me with this film.

It was November, 2019, and I remember seeing a casting call on Backstage for Sam and Rayka’s film. I had seen Period. End of Sentence. earlier that year so I got really excited when I thought I had a chance to audition. The excitement was short lived when I soon realized that the role required an actress that was fluent in Farsi. I decided to let it go and move on.

Days later I get an invitation from Rayka to apply which I think was a total accident. Of course I still accept the invitation. I told them I speak Arabic not Farsi and asked if it was still okay to audition. They gracefully let me send in a tape. There was no script, no lines to memorize for the audition, I just had to be myself and tell a story. It was the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever sent to a couple of strangers but I felt like I could trust them, that they would understand me.

I got an email from Sam and Rayka later that night saying they loved my tape. Reading that email was the moment everything really clicked and fell into place for me.

I understand the film was based on director Rayka Zehtabchi’s own experiences. How did you tap into your character and her experience for this film?

I was intimidated by this role at first. It’s a scary thing, telling someone’s truth right in front of them. It felt so personal and precious, I wanted to do right by her. Rayka is such a loving and welcoming person so I was comfortable around her almost immediately. I truly just listened to her speak about her experience and began to understand the weight of the story.

The loneliness of it all is what struck me the most, the moment it hits you that you can no longer go to the one person that you would turn to in your moment of need. I had to understand what got my character up to this point, why is today the day she breaks, what has she lost, what does she still have and is she strong enough to push through? Being empathetic towards the character you created inside you plays a huge part in figuring out why they do certain things, why they choose to lash out or breakdown or laugh or hide. I had to find reason and motivation for everything I did.

I never attempted to mimic Rayka in anyway, I simply listened and told her story in the most human way possible.

Your performance terrific and has rightly won awards on the festival circuit. What will be your biggest takeaway from this role?

Allowing myself to trust my instincts and the power I hold.

What do you value most as a performer and what type of roles do you hope to take on?

I value the emotional connections I make with the people around me when performing. There’s something really special about getting lost in a scene with another actor, you’re just tuned into one another, it feels really intense and it’s always exciting.

I would love to take on a role that requires me to learn an accent, the way accents can change your body always intrigued me. Also, I’m not a big fighter in my day to day life but a role that would require me to learn some kind of stage combat/stunts would be a lot of fun.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?

I hope I have the privilege to do this for the rest of my life. I plan on continuing to dive deeper into the craft, I feel there is still so much I don’t know and as an actor you’re never really done learning. My biggest dream is to work with Greta Gerwig, I hope I have the honor to do that one day.

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