Faran Tahir breaks barriers as a new starship captain in Star Trek

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Faran Tahir, a Pakistani-American actor, has the distinction of playing Captain Robau, the first Federation starship captain of Middle Eastern (well, South Asian) ethnicity to play a major role, in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek, and he told SCI FI Wire the honor isn't lost on him.

In this, Tahir is the latest in a long line of ethnic actors who have taken on color-blind roles in Trek, which has had a tradition going back to the original series and creator Gene Roddenberry of imagining a future where every person lives up to his or her fullest potential, regardless of race or ethnicity. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

"[It's] a great thing," Tahir said in an exclusive interview. "I have had conversations with J.J. about this, ... because I knew the other people who were being considered for this role, and they were not [cast]. So one day over dinner I was, 'So what was it, why?' You know, just to get a window into it. And I think he—and I have to commend him on this—what he was trying to do was find a certain quality in the actor and just to set up the story, you know? And to me, that is refreshing, and it's great to hear. ... The biggest compliment is that he was looking for a certain quality. He could have found that in me, he could have found that in [anyone else]. And it just happened to be me, and ... the added ... layer to that is that, yeah, I happen to be of a certain descent, and ... the casting was [in] the spirit of what Star Trek is about."

Robau is the captain of the Kelvin, the starship on which James T. Kirk's father, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), is first officer and is serving with his wife, Winona Kirk (Jennifer Morrison), who is pregnant with James, as the ship comes under attack by the villainous Romulan Nero (Eric Bana).

"I am on the ship," Tahir said. "That's how the story goes. And then, of course I have to go deal with Nero. So that's the premise of it. ... It sets up this entire saga of [Star Trek]. People who understand Star Trek, it kind of takes us back to a time when ... the story began."

Tahir (Iron Man) spoke in a phone interview on Thursday from San Francisco, where he was wrapping production on another film. Following is an edited version of the rest of our interview. Star Trek opens May 8.

It must be very exciting to be in this first installment of what is envisioned to be a long series of films.

Tahir: It is as exciting as it can be. I mean, I have been a Star Trek fan for ... a very long time. So just on the basis of that, it was awesome. You feel like you're 10 years old again. ... You go out there, and the first time I walked on the set, onto the set of the ship, ... after a moment I was like, "Wow. I am captain of a Federation ship."

It does kind of transport you to ... your younger days. ... And they you go, "OK, well, wait a minute, I have a job to do here, and let's do that now." [But,] yeah, it was very thrilling.

What kind of uniform do you wear?

Tahir: A very tight one. So eating was out of the question, basically. ... I think it follows the same look as other Star Trek movies have had. I think, very close to what Next Generation and all that had. So it is that kind of a look, very clean, very form-fitting. ...

J.J. Abrams is a very, very smart man. I think he realizes that there is a generation that has not grown up with Star Trek. ... There haven't been any movies out for a while. The TV franchise is done. So he is smart enough to respect that and find the bridges which will keep the spirit of the original and yet freshen it up enough so that this new generation, who hasn't grown up with it, can own it. A piece of it. And not have to deal with it as if it were their father's or their brother's or their uncle's passion. ...

And part of it is, look, part of it is how the story goes. Part of it is the acting style. I think it's grittier. It's real, yeah. I think it's done well. I think it puts all of those things into play, and I think it succeeds in pretty much all of those tasks. ...

Have people talked to you about your casting?

Tahir: People have. I remember a couple of my friends who are big Trekkies sent me forwards to all of these blogs. Blogs were lighting up with this whole idea, you know, and pretty much all positive. ... The other thing people had been saying was that, usually, in most of the movies, the other captains have been slightly softer-looking. Like didn't seem like they were, compared to Captain Kirk. ... And this time they've found people who actually, for some reason—I mean, I'm hoping that people can see that they're--this is, it's a competent world, which is not just about Captain Kirk. Of course the story revolves around that story, but as a universe, it's a competent universe.