Warp speed with Nazneen Contractor

Nazneen Contractor. (Photo Credit: Ian Brown)

Nazneen Contractor now lives in Los Angeles, but spent many younger days in Toronto. She was the first actress of East Indian ancestry to star in a Stratford Festival production. (Ian Brown photo)

Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor

TORONTO, ONTARIO — With Star Trek Into Darkness just released for home entertainment and as the Toronto International Film Festival speeds into overdrive this week, Vacay.ca decided to sit down with talented Canadian actress Nazneen Contractor. Having appeared in several outstanding productions — including the latest Star Trek movie, The Border, Rules of Engagement, Last Resort, and 24 — Contractor has never been afraid to take on challenges, break new ground, and — pardon the pun — go where few have gone before.

Contractor spoke to us about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, TIFF, living in Los Angeles, her favourite places to travel, Zoroastrianism, and working with Kiefer Sutherland.

Vacay.ca: Born in Mumbai, raised in Nigeria, boarding school in London, England, to Toronto, and now you’re in Los Angeles. You are one well-travelled person. How have these places rubbed off on you?

Nazneen Contractor: Sure, well I was born into a family where my father believed there were three things that he should do for my brother and me. The first was to love us unconditionally, the second one was to educate us, and the third was to show us the world. My dad had the travel bug. He worked in the Congo, he worked in Japan, and this is all in the ’50s and ’60s. He went to Paris and Rome, Australia, all over Africa, spoke six languages fluently. He made it a point when he had his family that his family would go everywhere with him. As a result we were able to go everywhere with my dad. We had amazing experiences travelling.

Then we immigrated to Toronto. This was the first time that I felt like we really had a permanent home, and I felt so incredibly foreign. I was Indian by birth but not really Indian, I grew up in Africa, which everyone in Canada just thought was crazy and ridiculous, and then I went to London so I had this really interesting British/Indian accent. So I sounded funny, looked different, and I just felt for the first time in my life, different.

Vacay.ca: How did this influence you as an actress?

Contractor: It helped me to learn one of the things that actors have to have. It taught me how to assimilate, how to read people, how to figure out the energy in a room, and then work it to your advantage. That’s when I really started taking on different roles. That’s when I realized there was a different way to speak to my friends than there is to speak to my parents than there is to speak to my aunts and uncles. I got that down really fast, and I think that’s a product of moving around a lot.

Vacay.ca: Your favourite travel destination so far?

Contractor: Favourite country is Peru. Went there when I was two months pregnant, and the reason I love it is because it had everything to offer. So we did Machu Picchu in the mountains, then we were in the rainforest in Iquitos, where we went to an ecolodge on the Amazon River. Then we went up to Mancora and had a beach holiday. So we had three completely different holidays. We were in the Andes, we were in the rainforest, and we were on the beach — all in one holiday. So that was my favourite place to visit. Best fish, best tuna I’ve ever had in my life. Peru.

Vacay.ca: You worked in Stratford for awhile?

Contractor: Yes, two seasons in the conservatory. You know, I think when I moved to Stratford, which was in 2002, I was probably like the most exotic thing people in Stratford had ever seen. Really, there were four black actors and me. And there was an influx of Asian actors too. And we were doing The King and I. I remember one time going to a bar that many of the local actors hung out in and people were literally staring at me. Not in a mean way, but I didn’t look like them. I was the first woman of East Indian ancestory to play a lead role on the Shakespearean stage in the 51st year of the festival.



Spend a tasty weekend in Stratford
Savour Stratford’s food festival blooms
Give an encore for chocolate in Stratford



Nazneen Contractor’s family moved to Toronto in part because of its population of Zoroastrians. (Greg DeGuirre photo)

But I very quickly fell in love with Stratford. It’s a beautiful town, the people were so nice, the river is beautiful. Being there in the winter, though, I mean it’s a snow and wind belt, I would walk five minutes to the theatre and my eyelashes would have icicles on them. No really, it was brutal. That was hardcore, but the town in the festival during summer, it was such a gift, the town is so picturesque, storytime shows. It was an amazing experience, and living there was lovely. It was my first time tasting independence.

Vacay.ca: And now you’re in L.A.!

Contractor: Yes, Los Angeles is a different town, it takes some time to get used to. It’s hard because it’s so spread out. But you find the places that you like, and you hang out there. The thing about L.A. that’s different from Toronto is in Toronto we go out a lot, and in L.A. we host a lot. And it’s not just because we have children, but because people have to drive distances and the drinking laws are really strict in L.A. It’s a big deal to get a DUI [Driving Under the Influence] there. So you don’t really want to go from bar to bar, you want to go somewhere, hang out. So we host a ton of dinner parties. There are a lot of beautiful places in Los Angeles.

Vacay.ca: So you would recommend Los Angeles for Canadians?

Contractor: There are more Canadians in Los Angeles than there are anywhere else in the world.

Vacay.ca: Interesting.

Contractor: It’s true. I feel more Canadian when I’m in L.A. because I hang out with so many Canadians. There are so few Americans that I hang out with when I’m in L.A. So it’s like a Canada South.

Vacay.ca: Any other travel plans?

Contractor: I think we’e going to be spending Christmas in Italy, in Piedmont where my mother-in-law is and her family. So I think that’s the next big trip. I would love to work in Canada more, I love working here.

Vacay.ca: Can you talk a bit about your religion, Zoroastrianism. I read that only about 150,000 people in the world practice it. And forgive me, I’ve never heard of it.

Contractor: I would love to! It’s a very old and ancient religion. It’s believed to be older than Judaism, and it’s one of the first religions to preach monotheism, or the belief in one god. It originated in Persia, which is now Iran, and when the Persian Emperor was conquering the world and all of Eurasia a lot of people were practicing Zoroastrianism. Although many of the rulers were quite tolerant of the religion. That’s one great thing about Zoroastrianism, we’re very tolerant of other people’s beliefs. The other three mantras are Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta, which translates to “Good Thoughts, good words, and good deeds.” We believe that if you try to achieve that in your life, then you’re guaranteed a place in heaven. It’s much easier to say than do, especially in my industry, which is so cut-throat and competitive.

Vacay.ca: Is there a large following in Canada?

Contractor: Yes, here’s another fact — the highest population of Zoroastrians in the world is Bombay. And the second highest is Toronto. I think now there’s like 7,500. Then Chicago has a big population, and New York. That was one big reason my parents came to Toronto.

Vacay.ca: Now let’s talk about your career a bit. In 24 you worked alongside fellow Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland. What was it like working with him?

Contractor: Total gentleman. Kiefer Sutherland, he was wonderful to me. He’s very much a part of that show, he has a lot of creative input, and he really made me feel welcome on that show. There was a week where we worked together because our story lines coincided. So there was one night we were in the tunnels doing these shootout scenes and there were night shoots, so Kiefer was there every day. And he was awesome. When I did my torture scene he made a point to come up and thank me for my work, because they really did put a bag over my head. They really did suffocate me. So he was like thank you for doing that, it worked out really well.

Vacay.ca: Where is Kiefer now?

Contractor: He’s in Calgary now, shooting a film with his dad called Forsaken, a western. And then he’ll start shooting the new 24, Live Another Day.

Vacay.ca: Will you be in that?

Contractor: I don’t know, let me check my phone!

Vacay.ca: And you had success working on The Border.

Contractor: Yes, that was my second series regular role. That was filmed in Toronto, on Cherry Beach. I enjoyed it, really loved the character I played. I learned so much, and it was such a social driven show. I got to kick butt, I got to learn different languages. And I got to put a face and a name to the culture of Islam that defied media perception, which was also really cool.

Vacay.ca: And I have to ask you another question that might drive you crazy, but … were you a Trekkie before your role in Star Trek?

Contractor: Everyone asks me that! You know, my brother watched The Next Generation, he was a pretty avid follower of that. But I really got turned on to Star Trek with JJ [Abram]’s 2009 movie, I just found it to be one of the best reboots of my time. The reboot was so well done, it had just the right amount of panache and pace, while still paying tribute to the past series, I thought he did an amazing job. So after that movie I was hooked.

Vacay.ca: Star Trek Into Darkness made its debut on Blu-ray, Blu-Ray 3D and DVD this month. This package features UltraViolet technology. That sounds very high-tech.

Contractor: It was an awesome experience and I really had a blast working on it. I really think people will enjoy it.

Vacay.ca: What’s your history with TIFF?

Contractor: Unfortunately I have to film in L.A. so I won’t be able to go this year. But TIFF is the best festival to go to. First of all, it’s a fantastic time to be in Toronto. The weather is still beautiful, the patios are still open, the city is thriving, and some fantastic films premiere here. Some of my most memorable cinematic moments have been at TIFF.



TIFF seduces with stars and nightlife
Trump spa gives you star power for TIFF
TIFF scores big with ‘The Fifth Estate’


Seeing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and watching Julian Schnabel present that film, seeing a great artist like that talk, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it happened at TIFF. And besides from the parties, which are always fun, and the circuits, and the press junkets, and the celebrities that come, the films that are shown here and the work that is done, and the newer films that get made, are all so important to Canadian cinema and industry. And the important thing is that it’s an international festival now. It brings in tons of people. And when I’m in L.A. and I talk to people who go to TIFF, Americans, Brits, it’s their favourite festival.

Vacay.ca: What’s next for you?

Contractor: So I’m starting reshoots on a film called Parts Per Billion that was wrapped in Detroit last year. It stars Rosario Dawson and , it’s an independent film. They need to do extensive reshoots on it, they’re introducing a new character, and I’m going to be a part of that.

Vacay.ca: Awesome. Thanks so much for your time today!

Contractor: It was a pleasure.


Rod has previously worked for Canoe.ca and is currently freelancing for Huffington Post Travel. He’s also written travel articles for the Toronto Star and Up! Magazine. Living in Toronto but raised in the small central Ontario village of Holstein, Rod is a country boy at heart who has never met a farmer’s market he didn’t like.

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