Young Rock, showing on NBC on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EST, takes viewers back to Dwayne Johnson’s youth on his way to superstardom. Of course, his youth differed somewhat from the norm; not many kids had people like The Iron Sheik hanging around with their family. As the show brings us glimpses into what it may have been like to have legendary wrestlers from the 1980s influencing Johnson in his childhood, casting the roles of these wrestlers was a daunting challenge.
Actor Brett Azar was chosen to fill the pointy-toed boots of The Iron Sheik, and it’s a role that he tweeted out as “the role of a lifetime.” He spoke with SlamWrestling.net about what makes this role so special, how the group of actors playing the wrestlers challenged each other during production, and the serendipity of a shaved head.
Upon first impressions, Azar looks like the kind of guy that could have easily found his way into wrestling had he desired. His dedication to physical fitness propelled him to National Physique Committee competition, and led to modelling and the unique experience of standing in for a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 in both Terminator: Genisys and Terminator: Dark Fate. With Young Rock, Azar is excited to bring his whole personality to bear in his performance.
“Every time someone asks me about what my ideal role for my acting career is, I never saw myself as the lead actor or as the heartthrob,” Azar begins, explaining why The Iron Sheik is at the top of his list of characters he’s played. “I either wanted to be a really, bad, bad guy, or the funny comic-relief. The Sheik was both of those things. He was the best bad guy in the WWF (now WWE), and in real life he was also a comedic, eccentric character. To play him, it fulfilled everything I was looking for in an acting role.”
While Matthew Willig, who plays André the Giant and was featured in an interview last week, admitted that he wasn’t a wrestling fan growing up, Azar has vivid memories of watching The Iron Sheik when he was younger. It’s just that he hated him. “When I was growing up I was a fan of Hulk Hogan, Macho Man, and The Ultimate Warrior,” he recalls. “I hated The Sheik! The more research I did on the man, Khosrow, the more I respected him and what he did for wrestling.”
Azar refers specifically to Hulk Hogan’s win over The Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden in 1984 for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, which would usher in a boom era for pro wrestling led by Vince McMahon’s company. While wrestling constantly tiptoes the line between sports and storytelling, there’s one axiom that holds true for both in-ring and on-screen entertainment: for there to be a great hero, there must also be a great villain.
“There was no Hulkamania without The Iron Sheik,” Azar concludes.
So with this reverence in the back of his mind, Azar was ready to approach the double-sided process of portraying The Iron Sheik. Firstly, there’s playing him as a fun-loving guy in street clothes; secondly, there’s getting in the ring and being a believable beast. Even a self-described “gym rat” like Azar makes no bones about how his small amount of in-ring training and performance opened his eyes to the life of a pro wrestler.
“People say (wrestling is) fake and, yeah, the plots are fake and the determination of who wins is fake,” he admits. “But those guys are hitting the mat and putting themselves through strenuous activities day in and day out, and working something like 320 days out of the year. The physicality is not fake. Taking the most basic thing like how you’re running and bouncing off the rope, and how physical that can be, and then you add suplexes, chokeholds, and all those little things. It takes a lot out of you.”
I mention to Azar that Willig shared a similar story of how bouncing off the ropes was surprisingly painful, and Azar says that all the actors-turned-wrestlers went through the training together, experiencing the bumps and bruises together, too. He also shares a story about a simple maneuver knocking him off his feet.
“I showed up in shape, like ripped,” he begins. “When we flew out to Australia (for shooting the series), we had to do a mandatory two-week quarantine. So for two weeks, I was doing nothing but working out, eating, and script reading. Everyone else was like, ‘Damn it, we have to be on camera with this guy?’ Chavo (Guerrero, Jr., who acted as wrestling trainer for the actors) had us do a somersault on the first day. I did it, stood up, blacked out, and fell down. I couldn’t do a somersault for the first two days without blacking out, so that became a joke of ‘Oh, Mr. Muscle Man who benches 500 pounds can’t do a somersault to save his life.’ It was the simplest thing; a third-grader can do a somersault.”
I ask, then, if there was ever a point where he came close to hitting a wall in training and recognizing this wasn’t meant to be for him. He answers “No” before I can even finish the question. “I loved every second of it, and would have done more and more if I’d been allowed to,” he says. “I was one of the ones who would push for as much as they would let us do safely; me and Kevin were that way.” (Kevin Makely, who plays Macho Man Randy Savage, will be featured in an interview next Tuesday on SlamWrestling.net.)
Azar again points this combination of in-ring physicality and character acting as the reason he sees this role a high point for his career, and one that will hopefully lead to even greater opportunities. “Yes, I got to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator body, but that wasn’t my face,” he offers. “I finally have a role where it’s dynamic acting, and there’s more to it than just being a body. It’s an acting challenge to do his voice, to be dynamic with the character, and to do my own stunts with the wrestling. It’s the perfect gig.”
If it sounds like Azar is somewhat dismissive of his work for The Terminator franchise, nothing could be further from the truth. For those unfamiliar with the series, 1984’s The Terminator featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Olympia body form, playing a robot who, for some kind of time-travel logic, is forced to walk around in the nude for a while. Azar was chosen to match Schwarzenegger’s body shape from that era, with a CGI version of Arnold’s face superimposed over his body.
To hear Azar talk about that experience, though, it feels like it wasn’t just an acting job, and was more of a bookend to one part of his life and a lunching pad for the next. “I grew up without a father figure,” he explains. “My grandfather, when he was around, he had an Arnold movie collection. I always told my mom that I wanted to be like Arnold, and that I wanted to be a good guy action hero in real life. For me, that was like the father figure in my life. For that to manifest into actually being Arnold — it’s more special than people would realize.”
“My father figure was a bad guy in real life, and I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be a good guy,” Azar continues. “To be able to do that professionally was … I really don’t have the words to say how special that was. And it’s so cool because once you’re in Arnold’s circle, he will befriend you, and so he invited me out to California to do breakfast a couple of times, and even at the premiere party for Terminator: Genisys, he called me over to his table and said, ‘I couldn’t recognize you, you’re wearing too much clothing.”
This is said, it’s worth mentioning, in a pitch-perfect impersonation of Arnold’s voice. It would stand to reason that having an ear for detail and ability to mimic would have played a part in getting the role. Not really, according to Azar. “I totally winged it as far as an accent for that initial audition,” he admits. “Once I got the role I hired a voice coach to really legitimize everything. The director (of the premiere episode, Nahnatchka Khan), her family is Iranian. She came up to me and said, ‘You know, my family is only watching this show for The Iron Sheik character.’ So, no pressure there!”
Unlike most of the wrestling figures featured in the show, Azar is portraying a character who is always in the audience. The Iron Sheik, having transformed himself into something of a Twitter celebrity, has been promoting the show and sending out praise to Azar as a favoured “bubba.” Azar was happy to take advantage of being able to access the source when it comes to bringing the past to life. “I got to talk to The Sheik himself, and talk to his family,” he says. “I know that he’s going to see this, so that was a special factor. Not so much nervousness, but a level of respect that I want to bring to the role.”
— The Iron Sheik (@the_ironsheik) November 25, 2020
“There are certain things in the show that actually happened in real life for him,” Azar continues. “So I asked him, ‘How did you react when that happened?’ and he explained it, and so that’s what I brought to the show. The director said, ‘That’s exactly what we’re looking for!’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s what The Sheik said to do.'”
There was just one more piece of the puzzle needed for Azar to complete his transformation into The Iron Sheik. Well, actually, he had to lose one thing and gain another. “We were quarantining, and I’d never shaved my head before, but randomly just had the impulse to do it,” he recalls. “So I did it and I was like, ‘That looks … not as great as I wanted it to.’ I realized that there was a fold in my head that I didn’t know I had. It was only two or three days later that I got the initial call to audition for the role. That was fate.”
The other part of the look is, of course, The Iron Sheik’s famed moustache, which Azar doesn’t see going away any time soon. “My girlfriend thought I was going to shave it when I was done,” he chuckles. “I think I’m going to ride with this look for as long as I can.”
Keeping the look is one tribute that Azar can offer to his time spent playing The Iron Sheik; whether playing that role is over, or may have more to offer, is unknown for now. Ultimately, Azar felt a strong connection beyond the physical that is helping him fuel his dreams of the next level of success.
“I feel that he was a great actor,” Azar says in praise more of Khosrow Vaziri than of his in-ring persona. “Yeah, his wrestling ability was phenomenal, but his acting ability was phenomenal, too. He just played his gimmick so well, and as an actor I really respect him. The hardest thing I did with my life is to pursue my passion, because it’s not always the safe bet. Ten years ago I decided to pursue my love of acting, and it’s paying off. I take every day as a blessing that I’m able to do this.”
- Brett Azar on Twitter
- NBC’s Young Rock page
- Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and family story archive
- The Iron Sheik story archive
- Slam Wrestling’s Young Rock review and interview archive