Maboud Ebrahimzadeh was on a California-bound road trip a decade ago, traversing the Rocky Mountains, when those snow-capped peaks triggered what he describes as a “mini-breakdown.”
He thought about how he was just 9 months old when, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, his parents fled Iran on horseback in the dead of the night. Over four days, the 20-something couple and their child managed a perilous trek through the frigid Zagros Mountains, eventually crossing the border into Turkey.
“Where my parents were on horseback going through the mountains, I was in a car in air conditioning going through the mountains,” the Maryland-based actor says. “When they were hearing the sounds of a revolution, and gunfire and explosions, I had ‘Radiolab’ playing. Where they were worrying about being seen, the scariest thing for me was walking down to the Colorado River and [worrying] my shoes were going to get wet.
“I still think about it, and it crushes me. I don’t understand how they did it.”
Ebrahimzadeh, now 37, is a staple of D.C.’s theater scene, with dozens of stage credits spanning local and regional productions. He can next be seen in Round House Theatre’s production of the political thriller “Oslo,” which opens Wednesday at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.
He understands it’s a career he owes to his parents, even if he strayed far from the path they imagined for him.
“It’s a very convoluted, weird story, my life,” he says.
After leaving Iran, Mahmood and Jaleh Ebrahimzadeh spent five years with Maboud in Germany, then relocated to the United States when their son was 6. Growing up in Westminster, Md., Ebrahimzadeh spent most of his youth following in the footsteps of his father, a soccer coach and former professional player who represented Iran at the 1978 World Cup.
At age 17, after playing in elite youth tournaments across Europe, Ebrahimzadeh was offered a slot in the academy of Italian powerhouse AC Milan. But his mother was particularly apprehensive about the idea, having seen Mahmood’s career cut short by injuries, and encouraged Maboud to pursue a medical education instead.
“It’s not only family culture, but our culture coming from Iran,” Jaleh says. “We were always pushing him into becoming a physician — ‘be more stable financially,’ ‘have a job for the rest of your life,’ all of that.”
Ebrahimzadeh ultimately decided to hang up his cleats and enroll in medical school at Howard University, where his mother had earned her Ph.D. While the studies made sense to him, he grappled with his motivations for pursuing them.
“The first 18 years of my life, I was following my dad’s path for me,” he says. “Then the next chapter of my life was about doing what my mom wanted me to do. I didn’t know who I was.”
A few semesters in, Ebrahimzadeh dropped out of medical school and transferred to Howard Community College. There, he continued to take some medical classes while dabbling in various electives — including an entry-level acting course.
Ebrahimzadeh had always possessed an affinity for pop culture; as a child raised speaking Persian and German, he credits Indiana Jones, James Bond and Marty McFly with helping teach him English. But it was in that class, taught by local theater veteran Bill Largess, that Ebrahimzadeh found acting to be an ideal avenue through which to embrace his layered identity — as a son stepping out of his parents’ shadow, and as an immigrant embracing the duality of his Iranian-American upbringing.
“All of my life I’ve been told I needed to assimilate,” Ebrahimzadeh says. “I believe assimilation is a dirty word, but I’ve been always putting on personas. And [Largess] was asking me to do that — but not. He was asking me to present a truth and put that on myself. It didn’t really make sense to me, but something about it felt very natural.”
Reflecting on that class, Largess says Ebrahimzadeh displayed “a willingness to open up, and a willingness to do things that were maybe not comfortable. That is a fairly unusual thing to find in somebody in a beginning acting class.”
Eventually leaving school without a degree, Ebrahimzadeh found work at a cardiology clinic. His heart, however, was in the community theater he performed on the side. By age 25, he was booking enough roles to quit that job and pursue acting full time.
Ebrahimzadeh remembers his parents being “justifiably angry” by the decision to leave behind his studies. “If I went through what they went through to put me here and had my kid say, ‘I want to go play pretend and potentially have no life or means of income,’ I’d be angry as all hell,” he says.
Jaleh and Mahmood acknowledge the initial shock. Yet once they saw their son onstage, disappearing into role after role, their perspective changed. And they took further pride in Maboud’s conscious effort to craft characters that combat tired Middle Eastern tropes.
“As parents, we always wanted to see what we wanted him to be,” Jaleh says. “But this was totally deleting whatever we had in mind for him and then seeing something totally new — seeing a new Maboud, and seeing the talent that we had never thought about. … When he’s onstage, he’s exactly who he wants to be.”
Mahmood adds: “The most important thing is to see what he can do to have some effect in the society or in the life of some people. Maboud has that personality to do it, with his heart and his technique and his brain. I’m proud of that.”
As a resident artist at Round House, Ebrahimzadeh is slated to follow up “Oslo” with roles in upcoming productions including “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” “Big Love” and “Hatef---.”
When he’s not onstage, Ebrahimzadeh is writing a pair of plays: an autobiographical one-man show, and a traditionally staged play that tells his parents’ story.
“If this is what I’m going to do, I have to be willing to put the equivalent of marching through mountains to make it a reality,” Ebrahimzadeh says. “They’re the story — I was just along for the ride, and I’m just trying to do right by them.”