Pity the poor actresses up against Shiva Negar for the role of Annika, a mysterious CIA operative in the new spy thriller “American Assassin.” She heard the producers were looking for someone Iranian or Turkish and, as luck would have it, she’s both. Almost.
Born in Tehran and raised in Istanbul, until around age 12 when her family moved to Toronto, the young actress speaks Farsi, Turkish and English. In “Assassin,” she teams up with Mitch (Dylan O’Brien, of the “Maze Runner” films and TV’s “Teen Wolf”), a bad-boy agent-in-training who seeks vengeance for a tragedy in his past, and his aloof mentor, Stan (Michael Keaton), who’s looking to prevent a nuclear war. The film, directed by Dix Hills native Michael Cuesta, opens Sept. 15.
Negar, whose name is pronounced “SHEE-vah neh-GAR,” has been seen on Canadian TV, but Annika will serve as her breakout role for international audiences.
Your character is the quintessential spy film heroine — tough, seductive, with a secret all her own.
That’s what I really liked about Annika — she’s complex. In a world dominated by men, she’s right there with them, doing all the dirty work. But there’s more to her.
What sort of training did you get for the fight sequences — or did you already know how to hold a gun and stab a guy in the foot?
Yes! [She bursts out laughing.] I’ve taken boxing and Thai boxing — I’m pretty active at the gym. But that’s nothing compared to the kind of training they had for us on set. For the first two weeks, we didn’t go on camera — we met with the stunt team. They were amazing. And we had ex-Navy SEALs and military people, to make sure I looked like a professional CIA agent. So I learned how to hold a gun, how to aim, how to shoot.
What was that like?
Oh, my god. I liked it a little too much, to be honest. We were in this huge warehouse, where they set up a long hallway with different rooms on each side, and we’d hide behind the wall . . . then enter the rooms, shooting the first target you see. Like a laser game. Then we got into choreographing the fight scenes. The film moves really fast, and it’s hard to catch everything, but it’s like a dance — you have to get every move right. You’d be surprised how many times we had to try stabbing that foot.
There are a lot of teen girls out there who are going to be mighty jealous of your getting to hang out with Dylan O’Brien.
When we were shooting in London and Rome . . . I got a few death letters, I’m not gonna lie.
Well, just warning me. [She playfully imitates.] “Stay away from Dylan, he’s mine!” Dylan is great. The director, Michael Cuesta, made sure we rehearsed every scene. So Dylan and I got to spend a lot of time off-camera talking about our characters, the back story, how we’d connect. By the time we were on camera, every scene together felt so natural.
It must’ve been interesting to be in a film depicting Middle East intrigue, when you come from that part of the world. Do you remember much of your childhood in Tehran?
I was really young. I do remember . . . how women have to be covered up there. I was too young to be covered up, but I looked older, and that kind of became a problem. People would ask, “Why isn’t she covered?” And my mom’s like, “No she’s not at that age yet.” So my mom — and I think this is hilarious — cut my hair . . . super short . . . so when we walked down the street people just thought I was a boy.
Why did your family move?
For a better life, like many families do. It’s hard . . . I can’t even imagine, with two girls, trying to migrate between different countries . . . twice. My mom is a strong woman. I still look up to her to this day.
How’d Mom feel about your wanting to be an actress?
It took a lot of persistence on my part. I understand. Parents think if you become a doctor or lawyer you’re set. My poor mom — she was trying to be supportive, but I used to get, “When are you going to snap out of this and get a real job?” And I’d be like, “Mom, this IS a job.” The breakthrough came when I was able to bring her to the “American Assassin” set in London to see what I do. They were so sweet to her. She sat with the director, watched me do my thing. Now she understands . . . and she’s happy for me. It’s great to have my family on my side.