UT alum stars in “The Inspection,” “King Richard,” motivated by authentic representation, thrill of acting

Aaron Boehmer, Senior Life and Arts Reporter

Eman Esfandi warms up with stretches and breathwork as if he’s about to play a tennis match. However, instead of heading to the court, Esfandi prepares for the cameras. 

The UT economics alumnus said tennis and acting include similar components: both require preparation and a relaxed, present mindset. In more ways than one, playing tennis since he was 13 years old prepared Esfandi for the acting world — his first role in a studio budget film being a tennis player in “King Richard,” a biopic about the father of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams.

“Being a tennis instructor for nine years, I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been method acting for this part my whole life,’” Esfandi said. “It was fun, exciting and a wonderful entrance into (the professional industry).” 

Esfandi started his acting journey at UT through his involvement in several student short films. After graduating in 2017, Esfandi starred in “King Richard” in 2021 and now in “The Inspection,” which premieres in theaters Friday. Presently, Esfandi is set to star as Ezra Bridger in “Ahsoka,” a Disney+ Star Wars show releasing in 2023. 

A few years before “King Richard” and “The Inspection,” Esfandi debuted in his first UT student short films, “Mother of the Golds” by Erica Robert Pallo and James Magazzino’s “Lover.” 

While making “Mother of the Golds,” which released in 2017, Pallo said Esfandi fostered an eagerness to help on set every day, a trait that reflects his personality on and off screen. 

“(He had) positivity, professionalism and willingness to be a team player,” said Pallo, who holds a master’s degree in film and media production.

Magazzino, who graduated from UT in 2016 with a degree in mass communication and media studies, said he knew Esfandi would find success despite any difficulties he faced. 

“It’s easy to see the fruits of someone’s labor and go, ‘We knew this was gonna happen,’” Magazzino said. “Talent alone won’t get you there; you have to put in the work. Ever since we graduated, he’s been very dedicated to his craft, getting better and putting himself out there.”

Following graduation, Esfandi moved to Los Angeles in 2018. After his role in “Red 11” that year, Esfandi said he did not book anything until “King Richard” in 2020. During the time in between, Esfandi said he received many auditions for roles that leaned on racist stereotypes toward Middle Eastern people, and they largely ignored his Latino identity.

“I’m not going to audition for something that’s offensive,” Esfandi said. “I’m not perfect for (those roles) because I’m brown. I’m not perfect for that because I can play this side character. I’m perfect for real characters because I’m a real person.” 

In addition to developing a greater sense of self worth through music, Esfandi said he found healing in portraying Ismail in “The Inspection,” allowing him to confront the traumas he endured while growing up in Laredo in the early 2000s.  

“I was around zero Persian people my whole life (and) mostly around Mexican and Caucasian people,” Esfandi said. “Texas Caucasian people can be really rough, especially the years I was growing up. (They were) very country, homophobic, Islamophobic (and) brutal.” 

Esfandi said his role as Ismail reflects his motivation as an actor to take on characters that authentically deal with race and ethnicity, properly representing him and his Persian and Ecuadorian identities. 

“I love to just play, (and) acting is such a fun thing to do,” Esfandi said. “At the end of the day, even though ‘The Inspection’ wasn’t always fun —  there (would) be moments like, ‘That was amazing’ and then, ‘Okay, this is hard.’ But, it is all ultimately for fun.”