By Aubry D'Arminio
Updated June 10, 2011 at 03:02 PM EDT
Credit: Carol Rosegg

Robin Williams is the biggest thing in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. But Arian Moayed is the best thing. His portrayal of Musa, an Iraqi gardener who’s working as a translator for the American forces while dodging the ghosts of war — the vulgar spirit of Uday Hussein is, literally, stalking him — earned Moayed a Tony nomination in a year that was overflowing with excellent male performances. Entertainment Weekly talked to the actor-writer-father-of-two (who’s currently developing his first film with director Campbell Scott) about the play, his immigrant childhood in Chicago, and his very famous costar.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were born in Iran, correct?

ARIAN MOAYED: My family moved to the States in 1985. I was that kid that didn’t know the language. I lived in Chicago proper for a while and then we moved to the suburbs. I was kind of like an only child in a weird way, because my brothers and sister were so much older than I am. I’m the baby by 17 years. Crazy, right? So I started acting just to have fun by myself. I had imaginary friends. That whole game.

Do you remember your first time on stage?

When I was like 5 or 6 — I barely even spoke English — they had this thing at my school about the “hellos of the world,” where you say “hello” in your language. I went up and I said “hello” in Farsi. I’ll never forget it. I turned around to see the whole entire school raise their hands and say “Hi, Arian.” I was so impressed. That was it.

Did you have day job when you were a struggling actor?

I had many. My brother said, “The one thing I don’t want you to do when you move to the city is become a waiter,” because he was a waiter for so long. So I was a teacher. I’ve done temp jobs. Some computer jobs. There’s this thing called “law gigs,” where you do a mock trial for law students. My worst job was as a loan processor at a New York City mortgaging company. I think it might have been my first job in New York City.

Have you met any of your fellow nominees?

I’ve made it my business to meet them all. I’ve met John Benjamin Hickey a few times. “Wonderful” is so small a word to describe what he’s doing [in The Normal Heart]. I wrote him an email and I said, “To be nominated in the same category as you is beyond belief at this point.” He’s amazing.

Is Robin Williams amazing?

Greatest man ever. This is the first time he’s done [a play on] Broadway. He did off Broadway — Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin, directed by Mike Nichols — in 1988.

You’ve been in Bengal Tiger since it premiered in Culver City in 2009, but he was new to it. Did you give him any advice?

Did I have advice for Robin Williams? I had no advice for Robin Williams besides, “Just be awesome, man.” He takes the work so seriously. He comes in an hour before. He runs lines before everyone gets here. He wants to make sure he’s not in your light. He never goes off book. If he does want to change a line, he asks. He’s a dream.

Are the set’s giant animal-shaped topiaries even cooler up close?

I have this moment at the end of the play when I touch the horse topiary on the head and I feel him with my hand. It’s an incredible thing. I look at the horse and I say, “My horse, my poor horse, look at you,” because he’s been so destroyed [by war]. Here is this amazing, beautiful thing that my character created that is now ruined. You can’t but cry. There’s not much acting that needs to be done when you have pieces like that.

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