“My parents are Iranian immigrants. They fled from a war. My father was a very intelligent man. He was a lead engineer in the Iranian navy for the king – the Shah,” explains Aria.
“After the revolution, they had to leave because my father would have been persecuted. So they fled to Australia with absolutely nothing.”
When his family arrived in Australia, they lived in government housing in Mount Colah (an outer suburb of northern Sydney) . “It was pretty intense,” he says. “There wasn’t really many Middle Eastern people there.”
Aria’s early childhood was marked by a memory of a violent home invasion. His family were
threatened with firearms and robbed. “It created a lot of panic for my family in the area. It triggered their trauma back home and made them increasingly paranoid about their place in Australia,” says Aria.
Throughout his youth, Aria looked up to his older brother who was struggling to fit in. And, after watching his brother fall through the cracks, Aria’s mother desperately wanted to create a different environment for him.
“My preschool teacher told my mother that I was imitating the other school kids. The teacher was once an actress, and she told my mother to put me in a drama class.”
It was inside those weekend classrooms that Aria felt free to express himself.
A few years later, Aria’s parents separated. “My father had a really hard time fitting into Australian culture. He was used to people saluting him as a man of rank [and being seen as] highly intelligent and, all of a sudden, he comes to this new place where he’s frowned upon and people made fun of for his accent.”
Aria’s father decided to leave them. “[My father] told us that even though Iran is not really his country any more, and under a dictatorship that he completely hates, at least it’s still his country … And he went back. I haven’t seen him since.”
By age 13, Aria was auditioning for feature films. “In my first role, I had to play a kid who just lost his father and was hanging around street kids. I saw myself more in their shoes. But I wasn’t playing myself, I was playing an Aussie-Anglo kid.”
Then, suddenly the twin towers fell and Aria’s life in Australia changed forever. “It made my school experience really bad. I was savagely bullied,” says Aria.
Aria, like many first-generation immigrants was caught in a cultural limbo. He says it felt like loving a country that hated him.
“The racial tension was a big part of my life because I connected to the white-Anglo world through acting, which I strived for but wasn’t accepted in,” he asserts. “And then in the Middle-Eastern world, it was all about being proud of family and culture which I loved.”
He also spent his youth watching a lot of movies. “The thing about having immigrant parents, working all the time, is that they’re never home. I’ve never had a babysitter in my life. I had this VHS collection, Video Ezy and Blockbuster,” says Aria.
“I was watching these movies, not as entertainment, but to learn how to deal with the problems of life, how to deal with relationships, how to deal with people.
I really wanted Don Corleone to be my dad. He seemed like he could take care of anything.
“Classic immigrant family. I watched a lot of The Godfather at home,” he explains with a laugh. “I really wanted Don Corleone to be my dad. He seemed like he could take care of anything. I really wanted to be Michael [Corleone]. I really wanted to prove myself, to show that I could follow in this great man’s footsteps.”
Aria decided he wanted to be an actor and attended The McDonald College of performing arts. His classmates were offered roles in Neighbours and opportunities to work at the Sydney Theatre Company. He auditioned and sought work wherever he could, but had no luck. He believes there was no appetite for him because he didn’t fit the mould.
“It was made very clear to me that none of that was ever going to be possible for me.”
To test his theory, Aria decided to take the risk and travel to Los Angeles. He caught his first big break when he was offered the role to play a young Jake LaMotta in the sequel to Raging Bull. In 2017, he won the prestigious Heath Ledger Scholarship, awarded to him by Gary Oldman, and his Hollywood career has taken off from there.
“Everyone gets into acting to escape themselves,” Aria says. But, in fact, he thinks acting has strengthened who he really is: “Every time I take on a new character, I can see why I am the way I am.”
In light of protests emanating from Iran, actors and activists around the world have come together to voice the concerns of oppressed people. He says he has never been more proud of who he is.
In an effort to share the stage with people who share his experiences, in 2020 Aria launched the first-ever scholarship at the Australian Institute for the Performing Arts for young Middle Eastern, North African actors.
“After everything I’ve been through, I’m not going to stop,” he says. “I’ll keep bringing our community together and celebrating the many stories of Australia, especially those stories and faces Australia doesn’t recognise as its own.“
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