From the Earth to the Moon
"For me, From the Earth to the Moon is about pursuing passion," says actor Isa Totah, who plays scientist Farouk El-Baz in the acclaimed HBO miniseries. "The moon is kind of a symbol of whatever faraway dream we all pursue. For me personally, I have a business degree and left that world to go into acting - a long shot. I don't want to get too symbolic here, but there's a parallel between dreaming something and going after it."
Totah makes his first appearance this week in the Part 10 of the miniseries, entitled "Galileo Was Right," which focuses on the Apollo 15 mission. The highly acclaimed production, based on Andrew Chaikin's book A Man on the Moon, explores the milestones of the Apollo space program through a series of independent episodes, each written and directed by different people. With Tom Hanks as executive producer, the shows are receiving acclaim even from people who worked with the actual Apollo program - like Farouk El-Baz, whom Totah met during his research into the part.
"I found Farouk on the internet," recalls Totah, who completed an M.B.A. before forsaking the business world to become an actor. "He's a scientist, a geologist, who was very young when he got involved in the Apollo program - a self-starter, a very passionate guy. I think that when the astronauts were approached - 'Listen, you guys, we want to teach you some geology' - they weren't very excited about it as you can imagine, but Farouk just has that ability to excite people about the subject."
The story goes that one of the astronauts who was on the Apollo 13 mission reluctantly agreed to a meeting with El-Baz, who got to the conference room ahead of time, took pictures from the previous missions and put them on all four walls, creating a mini-moon room. The one-hour meeting went on for five hours.
"They got all excited. Apollo 15 was the most scientific mission, and that's why they focused on Farouk's role on that particular mission," Totah explains. "He actually was a trainer of the astronauts from at least Apollo 13 on. Basically, when the astronauts got up there - in Apollo 11 - they just wanted them to land and get home safely. But after that, they wanted to find out a little more about this rock that's been floating around with us for who knows how long."
So El-Baz was brought in to explain which rocks to look for, and how to look underneath boulders to uncover lunar material which had not been touched by the sun for millions of years. "I don't know the details of it, I'm just an actor, but I spent two hours on the phone with him working on the script," says Totah. "I'd say 'Let me read you a line from the script here - what the hell does this mean?' It was kind of an ignorant game, pretending I didn't know just to see how he'd respond to it, so I could hear his cadence and voice and to see what kind of reality he had on that moment."
"I asked him if he ever wanted to go to the moon himself, and he said - " Totah imitates El-Baz's accent - "'Of course!' He talked about how many years as a pilot you had to have before you could be considered for the track. But you could tell that he lived vicariously through the episode, as a lot of us did - there's a line in the episode, 'It will be as if I'm going to the moon myself.' That was very key to me understanding the role - he is on the moon, when the astronauts get there."
Totah believes that El-Baz and some of the other Apollo mission scientists were a little trepidatious about the way the science would be handled on the popular entertainment series, "but he thinks it's excellent, very realistic. Tom Hanks was extremely passionate about the whole thing, [so] it was a really good project to work on - the producers and actors and directors all were caught up in the idea that this is an important show, and when that happens, people kind of rally together."
The actor suggests parallels between the Apollo astronauts and the people who made the series. "When you live by passion, like the Apollo missions, you find a way to make it work. I mean, these guys were crazy! They put these men on top of a ballistic missile and shot them at the moon! It takes a little craziness to say yes to doing this."
Sort of like the craziness is takes to walk away from a promising career in business to start over as an actor, maybe. Totah, a Palestinian Christian born in Jerusalem ("Isa" means "Jesus," he explains), emigrated to the U.S. in early childhood and attended San Francisco State University. "I was transported by my first movie in a movie theater - because we were an immigrant family, they didn't take us to movies when we were five and six," he recalls. "I was eleven when I first saw a movie in a movie theater, and I remember being blown away - I had no idea the impact it had. I got into business because it was the right thing to do, to earn a living; the notion of acting was as remote as joining the circus. Give up all that education? I didn't think about it. Maybe producing, more on the business end."
What made him change his mind? "I don't want to sound cliched, but money doesn't do it," he admits. "I started acting in 1987 - I took it as a course for fun. I had a real sense that I was listening to everyone else's opinions all my life, and the hell with that, I was going to listen to my own impulses for once. So I decided to try it." He was quickly successful onstage in the Bay Area, performing with the Tony Award-winning Mime Troupe in San Francisco in two highly-acclaimed international productions, Back To Normal and Seeing Double. The latter, a play about Israelis and Palestinians, hit particularly close to home for Totah.
"I went through a phase where I was intent on defending Palestinian rights, but I'm more an actor now than a politician," he says. "It was an interesting play - it was written by Israelis and Palestinians, and we went to Jerusalem to perform it there. It was kind of a play ahead of its time - before the negotiations, it was asking people to look at the other side, and try to make things work, yet it was very funny and charming and respected people. When we performed it in Israel, audiences talked to us afterwards and argued with each other, which is what we wanted: to make an effect, you wanted to make people think."
Totah's next project is a play, Visions and Lovers, Variations on a Theme, at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles. "My current acting coach,Milton Katselas, wrote a wonderful piece about men and women - I play a writer who is married and has an affair with a woman, falls madly in love with her, they have this tumultuous relationship, and you kind of see everything that happens, all the extremes, from the ecstasy to the worst of the worst. It's really looking at what it takes to make a relationship work," he enthuses.
What does he like best about his profession? "The way acting affects people. It does make people think, and it also teaches you about life, because as you take on these roles you get a little taste of what it's like to be in this person's shoes and that person's," he points out. It also appeals to his business background. "You're your own business - you're the president and vice president, and you're also your own instrument, you're working on yourself, your voice, your technique, you're administering your career, so you have to set some kind of goals." His television credits include Married with Children, Soldier of Fortune, and Midnight Caller, and he has appeared in several independent films.
A photographer by avocation since high school, Totah says he has tried directing and might be interested in working as a director at some point. "I have a visual sense and an acute understanding of the dramatic elements you need to make something work - as an actor, you train as a director, to direct yourself. I do like it, but my priority is acting. I'm not going to be one of those actors who says directing is my real passion."
The actor now resides in Los Angeles, and paints when he isn't engrossed in an acting role. "I like TV, but I like film more," he says of his hopes for future projects, adding that actors have to believe in themselves. "As soon as they can, the sooner they believe in it, the sooner they make it."
And he's on his way to the moon.