Wednesday, June 19, 2024 Jun 19, 2024
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The Hardest Working Man in Show Biz (Is From The Colony)

Jerry Habibi plans to conquer Hollywood. And he’ll do it from a house he shares with his mom.
| |Photography by Trevor Paulhus, Photo Assistant Joe Lacerte, Stylist Doug Voisin, Stylist Assistant AJ Kirkland, and grooming by Lisa Williams
Habibi plays a small role in The Persian Version, which won an audience award at Sundance. Trevor Paulhus

Some people say, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Those people have never met Jerry Habibi.

Habibi is a 27-year-old film and TV actor, voice-over actor, singer, musician, and audio producer—an all-around performer who loves every aspect of what he does. He had a small role as one of nine siblings in The Persian Version, a boisterous comedy-drama about an Iranian American family in the mold of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Crazy Rich Asians. It won an audience award when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023, and it began streaming on Netflix in March. The way Habibi has promoted the film, you’d have thought he was a producer who’d mortgaged his life to fund it rather than a supporting player who had a few scenes as the heroine’s twin brother. He just wanted it to be as successful as possible because he thought it was a landmark film for people of his cultural background (his family is Iranian American), and if it turned out to have legs, he might be able to spend a little more time on the art and a little less time on the stuff surrounding it. He currently has three credits on the Internet Movie Database, aside from The Persian Version: the English language version of the anime series Natsume’s Book of Friends, the video game Mythic Heroes, and the American Experience short documentary Operation Ajax, about the secret CIA plan to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. He’d like to add a lot more. Habibi speaks four languages: English, Farsi, French, and Arabic. And he tells producers and directors that he’s a good promoter of his work and other people’s. He offers a PDF of social media analytics to prove it. 

Promotion and self-promotion, self-production, and self-management are part of the job of being a performer, now more than ever. “For years when I was in the trenches,” he says, “I would find people and talk to them about The Persian Version—like, little Persian accounts that had a lot of followers and impressions and everything. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in this film. When it comes out, I’d like you to milk it for what it’s worth.’ You have to do this. You can’t do something and have it just get forgotten, you know? People are eager to be like, ‘Oh, don’t brag about it. That’s narcissistic.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, my dad’s not J.J. Abrams! Sorry!’ ”

Habibi is committed. Ask anybody who knows him. They’ll tell you he’s always working, talking about work, thinking about work. He’s never off the clock. When I met him for lunch at Cafe Brazil in Oak Cliff, he took regular, discreet peeks at his phone to check how things were going with his social media promotion and see if anyone had gotten back to him about the potential for work.

Habibi graduated from Plano West Senior High School and attended Collin County Community College and UTD but quit to concentrate on auditions. He lives in a house in The Colony with his mother and sister. His father, an engineer, died in 1996 when Habibi was 11 months old—collapsed from a heart attack on a soccer field during a company team-building exercise. The family is tight and cheerleads his attempts to conquer Hollywood. Habibi supports himself with odd jobs and by reselling clothes he finds in thrift stores through resale apps. He sold PS5s and Pokémon cards and anything else he can flip. 

“At a factory center, they had a $2 sale recently,” he says. “I picked up a bunch of dresses and resold those easily. I resold perfumes I bought for $5 for $70 a pop.” He did better with reselling a few years ago “because people had all these treasury checks. If I had an anime collectible or something, I could sell it for $300 a pop. Now I could get maybe $50.” For a while, Habibi worked 80-hour weeks as “a glorified customer support agent” for Peloton. “I would get the most interesting phone calls. ‘I’m stuck on this fucking thing!’ I kid you not.” 

To get closer to his goal, Habibi built a miniature audio studio for himself in a closet and taught himself how to record and process audio. His personal website lists all the gear he uses. He spends many hours in that cramped space each week, recording voice-over narration and animation character roles when he isn’t auditioning for voice parts. He’s not paid for recording his own lines, editing the takes, cleaning them up, and uploading them. This would not necessarily have been something he would have done himself a generation or two ago, when Dallas was filled with audition rooms and recording studios with full staffs and receptionists and waiting areas, but now it’s understood as part of the process. Habibi also auditions for live-action roles in movies and TV shows and has taken acting classes and gotten headshots and modeling photos taken. He finds auditions online, mainly on Breakdown Services’ Actors Access, a casting website. 

Auditions are conducted remotely, for the most part. Few producers rent audition rooms anymore—especially not in Dallas, though it’s becoming unusual on the coasts as well, except for big budget projects. Remote performing and auditioning were starting to become an online thing before the pandemic and became standard afterward, says Dallas agent Mary Collins, who founded the Mary Collins Agency in 1984 and has witnessed a complete transformation of the business as she once knew it. 

“Except for our direct business clients, whom we have fabulous relationships with, we don’t have the personal relationships with people anymore like the way we used to,” she says. “I used to pick up the phone and say [to producers], ‘You need to see this person,’ or, ‘Why didn’t you audition this person? They’re perfect for this.’ ” Online casting websites changed everything, she says. “I immediately had to get all of our voice talent to make audition studios at home and get a piece of software called Source-Connect so producers could record with them at home. The changes also affected on-camera auditions. We used to do auditions from here [in the agency offices]. Now, to be competitive, our clients have to set up a production center in their home, whether it’s a spare room or a corner of a room, and get it well lit.” 

Collins’ agency switched from analog to digital about 25 years ago. She had a remote booth built in her offices so clients could audition for voice-over parts and have the recordings submitted digitally. But just before and after the pandemic, things became more anonymous and direct, with individuals making their own audition recordings and uploading them to portals run by a third-party company and hoping that the unseen casting agent on the other end at least opened the file and experienced a few seconds of it before deciding to reject it. Unless an audition is restricted to performers with agency representation, anyone can audition for a job that’s listed on a casting site.

It sounds as if the new way is more democratic than the old way, and, in a grand sense, it is. But “the downside to these casting sites in every iteration is that too many people audition,” Collins says. “There’s no vetting.” As a result, the people assigned to look over applicants get overwhelmed by the sheer number of submissions, and one of the ways they thin the herd is by cutting people whose audition recordings are technically rough. Working actors will tell you that they’ve had to become filmmakers and/or sound recordists to gain an edge in their auditions for performing jobs. 

This is all a steroid-jacked contemporary version of what previous generations called “hustling” and what modern union organizers call “unpaid labor.” And it’s an inescapable fact of life for every performer who’s not a household name but would like to be. This is a grind even for people who live in a showbiz hub such as Los Angeles or New York or, to a lesser extent, Chicago or Atlanta or Austin. It’s a grind squared if you live in The Colony. 

“Some voice actors will be like, ‘I don’t need to do PR.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s all fun and games until Chris Pratt is Mario.’ ”

Jerry Habibi

Habibi has an agent for voice-overs (Melissa Berger-Brennan of CESD Talent, with offices in New York and Los Angeles) but not for on-camera work. He’d like to remedy that. His biggest credit to date is his supporting role in The Persian Version, which centers on a first-generation Iranian American lesbian who gets pregnant by the star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whom she drunkenly hooks up with at a Halloween party. It was written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, an Iranian American who loosely based the story on her own experience and that of her mother, who emigrated from Iran. The movie had a brief run in theaters last year before hitting Netflix. 

The filmmaker cast Habibi as Abbas, a former high school cheerleader and clotheshorse with a sardonic sense of humor, despite his dearth of industry experience, because Habibi could believably portray Abbas as both a teenager and a man in his late twenties, a crucial requirement due to the story’s timespan, and because the character is based on her own twin brother, Ali. After four rounds of auditions, she concluded that Habibi was as close to the genuine article as she was ever going to find. She fought for Habibi as producers insisted that she hire someone with more experience. “He really looked like my brother,” she says, “and there was something about him that reminded me of my brother: a mix of confidence and awkwardness. And his eternal optimism is very much my twin brother. Of the two of us, Ali is always the optimistic one.” 

It’s not a big part, but the eye is drawn to Habibi in group scenes because, well, look at him. Habibi’s friend Dounia Tazi, a singer-songwriter from New York City, says, “When we first hung out, I was like, ‘You look amazing. What do you do with your skin?’ He was like, ‘I just walk in the sun.’ ” There are shirtless photos of Habibi online wherein his abs are so cut that they look like you could grate lettuce on them. He says he hasn’t looked like that in a while because he doesn’t have time to maintain the requisite diet and workout routine. He’s had to content himself with looking better than 98 percent of the guys on Earth instead of 99 percent. 

Habibi is very online. He micromonitors how each post performs. He constantly refines his approach to try to get his name and face and credits in front of more people and keep building his following on every platform of consequence because a performer’s social media reach has become a factor in casting. If producers are torn between two candidates of roughly equal quality and neither is the child of someone rich, famous, or connected, 5,000 more followers could tip the balance and result in a booking. Whenever a new project he’s involved in is being teased or trailered or dropped, Habibi will post and post and post about it to get people to watch (or listen) and to show the folks who write the checks that, despite being a relative unknown, Habibi is just recognizable enough (mainly within the tightknit community of Persian American performing artists) that his involvement can move the needle of awareness. 

“God knows I’ve tried at times, knowing how difficult it is, to talk him out of it or get him to make it his hobby,” says his mother, Mahzad Habibi, who works as a senior program manager for McKesson, an Irving-based pharmaceutical and healthcare IT company. “There are times that I just hear Jerry upstairs when I’m downstairs in my room. No matter what time they want him to be on that Zoom call or send that tape or do that editing for them, he does it all, and he’s doing it around the clock.”

Even Habibi has moments when he thinks that the very idea of financially supporting himself solely through his art, without side hustles or leaning on his family, is nearly as absurd a pipe dream as winning an Academy Award. “I have a cousin who’s like, ‘I want to drop out and make music!’ ” he says. “And I’m like, ‘No, no. Go to nursing school! Use the money you make from nursing school, and then you can make music!’ ”

You can hear his resentment of so-called “nepo babies”—i.e., beneficiaries of family connections—in the way Habibi talks about the industry. It’s a lot easier to hone your craft and get a foot in the door when somebody in the family is a famous actor or filmmaker or has a big job at CAA or Disney, and their connections can get you into a top arts school on one of the coasts, with room and board covered by Mommy or Daddy. Habibi fantasized about going out of state, but it wasn’t financially feasible to try out, much less attend. “I didn’t have the finances to fly out to schools or [scholarship] auditions. I got offered a scholarship from The New School, but I couldn’t even attend the audition in person.” He quit college because, between the cost of tuition and the time involved in commuting, there wasn’t time left to be competitive at auditioning. 

“This is an industry where connections matter,” says his older sister Elena Gharipour, a senior content designer for Chase Bank’s website who has been encouraging her brother’s performing instincts since they were little kids making up stories with her Barbie dolls. “Nepotism is the expectation. To not care about that and work towards [success] anyway really speaks to something in his character. We don’t have any family or friends in this industry. All of his connections, he found on his own.”

Being Iranian American is an additional challenge. The industry has gotten more diverse in recent decades but still defaults to White, and there’s a strong tokenistic tendency at a lot of talent agencies. Habibi says, “I just gave up within the last month of trying to find a theatrical rep manager or agent because what keeps happening is, I’ll do a good meeting or pitch and then be told, ‘OK, that was great. I’ll go back to the team.’ And then hear, ‘Well, one of the managers already has a Middle Eastern client, so we have a conflict.’ ”

It’s not easy to be free of others’ preconceptions or agendas, even when you’re acting with just your voice. Sometimes when Habibi looks at the business he has barely broken into, it seems as if every voice-over role of any significance is going to people who are already on-camera actors. Brands, even. “I remember recently I put on an episode of an animated show,” Habibi says. “My sister was like, ‘Who is this? They suck.ʼ ” And I was like, ‘They’re not that bad.’ And then after five minutes I was like, ‘Yeah, this person sucks.’ And I realized, oh, it was a Netflix actress who was like, ‘I want to be in animation.’ ” Fear of being rendered irrelevant by big-name actors who aren’t even known for voice-over work is another constant, gnawing source of anxiety. “Some voice actors will be like, ‘I don’t need to do PR. I’m fine with just voice acting.’ And then I’m like, ‘Well, it’s all fun and games until Chris Pratt is Mario, dude.’ ” He has a couple of on-camera projects percolating—work that will draw on his heritage—but doesn’t want to say what they are because they aren’t officially happening yet, and he doesn’t want to jinx them. 

“He’s not afraid to try a million times,” says his sister Gharipour. “A lot of people get rejected one time, and it ruins them for life. Jerry just moves on.”

Habibi realizes that untold numbers of people share his dream of making it big in show business, so he makes a point of trying to help others who aren’t as far along in the journey as he is. Over lunch at Cafe Brazil, he flashed back to his phone job with Peloton and talked about the time that a caller told him he wanted to write songs for Peloton and asked Habibi to help him connect with a person at the company who would listen to his work. The way Habibi tells the story, it sounds like a lost Albert Brooks routine about a helpline staffer dealing with somebody who doesn’t understand how the world works. The caller seemed convinced that the customer support hotline was the best way in. 

“I told him, ‘I don’t think I’m the person you should be talking to!” He was like, ‘OK, I need to talk to someone higher up.’ ” Rather than pretending to transfer him and then hanging up, Habibi gave him advice on how to audition. “I told him, ‘I don’t think you’re helping yourself in any way by being like, ‘I can sing it for you right now!’ ” He also listened to snippets of the man’s work (“It was more rapping than singing”), then gave him a list of independent distributors and wished him luck. Always the optimist.  

This story originally appeared in the June issue of D Magazine with the headline “The Hardest Working Man in Show Biz.” Write to [email protected].