A new film from Pixar is always something to be excited for. It's a studio of wit and imagination that few can copy let alone replicate. So naturally it's latest release the high-concept Elemental is one to look out, and as such, it was time to sit down with Shila Ommi, the Iranian-American actress known for TV's Tehran, who plays Cinder Lumen, the fire elemental mother of protagonist Ember.
Your character in the film is a matchmaker and can sense when people are in love. In real life how good are you at picking up on signs?
I'm a matchmaker in real life! I'm just very bad at it, that's the problem. It's like I love this person, and I love this person, why can't you two love each other? Then they yell at me, for having tried to fix them up. Thankfully Cinder has a a far better track record than me.
You would hope so! When you're acting with just your voice, you can't depend on your face, or gestures, how do you adjust. Is it a different discipline or do you treat it exactly the same?
It is a different discipline since there are no cameras involved. I get a chance to be really big with my facial expressions and hand gestures, and it really helps with your voice and how you want it to sound.
Elemental, as much as it is a romantic comedy it's also a racial allegory, how important do you feel that family films address issues such as race, especially in this climate?
It's really more a story of connection than it is a romantic comedy. A connection of two elements that are completely opposite and becoming better. But it's also about the connection between a father and daughter. Yes, it definitely features immigration.
As far as race, I studied biological anthropology as UCLA, scientifically there's no such thing as race. But, I know what you mean, people of different backgrounds – different religions, different backgrounds, different physical backgrounds, and it definitely features that. It has a beautiful message about how when we decide to mix with and connect with people who we think are different from us, we become better. We become more sophisticated.
Having worked on a series as intense as Tehran, voicing as character in a family film must be quite a change of pace for you, is having that variety in your work important to you?
It really put a pep in my step being able to do this funny, fun, stunningly beautiful cartoon. As you know the character I play in Tehran, a lot of awful traumas happen to her. To act that out you have to get into your own trauma. You know, for me as an actor, it's not those few minutes you're in front of a camera. I do a lot of preparation months before. So it's months of swimming, almost drowning, in my own trauma to hopefully do a decent portrayal. So, yes, Elemental was a breath of fresh air for me.
When you record your voice roles, are you with the other people or do it in a bubble?
It's in a bubble, and that speaks to the brilliance of Peter Sohn, the director, who was always the writer. He so beautiful choreographed so that it could be just one person in a booth and orchestrates it so well. He knows what he wants and intonations so it feels like these characters are speaking to each other.
Now, sometimes or maybe all the time, I know the two main characters [Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie], I've seen they were in the same booth together. But I certainly haven't, and I know others haven't either.
How difficult do you find that as a performer? Actors like to be around other actors and bounce ideas off of. It must be quite difficult?
It is very difficult, but it's in the preparation. For me, when I'm acting, it's 98% preparation, and it's just that 2% for the camera. So 98% it's very much alone work, so I don't get much time to be around other actors. It's beautiful when you do get to act off of other actors. But, you know with film, we are acting to a dot on some side of that camera – not to take the mystique away. But as actors we have to learn to use your imagination, and same with voice over work.
I imagine a lot of modern filmmaking, because of schedules lining up, it is acting against where someone would be and matching performances in post-production.
Editing is so important, as is writing by the way. I'm so supportive of the writers who are going on strike. Where would we actors be without writers?
I was going to mention the writers strike. Do you think there will be a swift resolution soon? The industry is dependent on the writers writing things for you to say!
I really hope that there is a swift resolution, and that the writers are going to get compensated for the incredible and important work that they do. Most actors – we can't improvise! If we did you would hate the show. I really hope there is a resolution. And what is going on with A.I.?!
It is terrifying. I mean I know the best thing we can do is accept and go with the flow, as Wade in Elemental does, but we also have to protect people. A friend of mine, my filmmaking partner Hitoshi [Inoue] had shown me how A.I. had created a trailer and it was brilliant, and it boggles the mind. It's like most of the human mind.
It should be a tool and not a method.
I agree, and it doesn't have soul. Even if it's bad writing, at least you're connecting to something. Whereas with A.I. it's just mental acrobatics without soul.
As an actress who is from Iran, has it been difficult to find roles that aren't stereotypical or don't play to western fears?
It's been so so difficult. Really Tehran— no, actually it was Little America. It was another Apple TV show I was in, and I was again playing Shaun Toub's wife, on episode seven, and that was really the first time I felt lovely playing an Iranian character. There are these stereotypes that are so far from the truth unfortunately. What most people see, and what these writers see about Iran, is whatever they see on the news, and it's these grey, half-baked, bad people. Behaving badly, and behaving badly to their own countrymen, and the truth is Iranians are so funny, and thousands of years of history and culture and art. They're really fabulous people.
There are some actors who refuse to play terrorist roles, or extremist roles.
I was one of them.
The reality is that you then don't work.
Yes! You don't work. The downside is you don't work.
Do you feel, and with the writer's strike, there needs to be an increase in writers who are from more diverse backgrounds so you get stories about Iranians that aren't terrorist stories, or stories that pander to those fears?
Absolutely, and the more writers that you get that are from different backgrounds, all backgrounds, not just culturally, but physically, gender-wise. The more sophisticated humanity becomes, you know it's rare to find people that sit and read books and read novels. The easiest thing, and the most mainstream thing, is to sit and watch movies and TV shows, and streaming. I wish more people would go to the theatres, you know with Elemental the film is so beautiful and dazzling and it's made for a theatre experience. I miss the theatre experience. But regardless it's important to have people of different backgrounds putting their stories up on the screen, and then we all learn from it. We all benefit, and learn more about who we are.
Is there a chance there could be another Elemental, is there more story to tell?
I don't know. I wish you could tell me! If you hear anything tell me! But I'm so proud of this first one, that if that's it, that's enough for me.
Elemental releases in UK cinemas on July 7.