Actor/Writer Eric Bogosian Gives Talk at Cultural Foundation

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By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

ARLINGTON, Mass. — The leafy and quiet Mystic Street here is far from the glamour of Beverly Hills or the edgy chic of New York City, both locales where Eric Bogosian is equally at home. However, on March 31, the actor/novelist was at the Armenian Cultural Foundation, giving a talk organized by the Armenian Women’s Welfare Association.

The connection? Cheryl Panjian, the emcee of the program, is Bogosian’s cousin.

Bogosian, who hails from Woburn, was relaxed and entertaining. He joked while he was addressing the capacity crowd at the graceful setting that everyone wanted to hear him talk about former co-star Steven Seagal or “Law and Order,” but that he was more interested in talking about a book he is writing on Armenian history. The book is going to be finished by June, he explained. The format is going to be like a magazine article, meaning more anecdotal and less academic than a textbook, “but 500 pages long,” he explained.

Bogosian said that he has been focusing on learning about the subject, particularly in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, in the past five or six years. As he has gotten older, he noted, he has embraced and understood his roots all the more.

“Honestly, when I was a kid, growing up in Woburn, I was not entirely comfortable with my identity,” he explained. “There were a lot of Irish Catholic kids and I felt really different. I didn’t want to feel different.”

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He and his family attended St. James Church, where he was an altar boy. Speaking of his family, he said he was “very, very proud of  [his] wonderful Armenian family. Both sides were immigrants and they were a very loving and warm family.”

Bogosian noted that he does not speak Armenian, aside from a few words. While he said speaking it would be a plus, he added he thought that ethnic groups could survive without language. He gave as an example the African-American community, which feels ties to Africa, with less than 1 percent speaking Bantu, the most commonly-used language on that continent.

Bogosian recalled that when he first got an agent in the 1970s, the agent assured him of success, “if I fixed my nose, changed my last name and straightened my hair.”

Of course, he did none of the above.

He spoke about his early career, right after graduating from Oberlin College, when he was fearless and enamored of the theater. One of his first projects there was directing a play in Spanish for people who do not speak Spanish, with a very large cast. “And I don’t speak Spanish,” he quipped.

He performed at the New York Shakespeare festival and he was dared to write a piece. He ended up writing the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Talk Radio,” which cemented his reputation on the New York stage. Later, Oliver Stone directed the movie version of the play, starring Bogosian.

Bogosian, who has starred in many movies, including Stephen King’s “Dolores Claiborne” in 1995, said that for him, the 1990s were defined by working with Atom Egoyan in “Ararat.” The intense immersion experience alongside Egoyan shook Bogosian, whose knowledge of Armenian history up to that point was superficial and summed up by the following: “My grandfather told me if you ever meet a Turk, kill him,” he recalled.

Before and during the making of “Ararat,” Bogosian immersed himself in studying history. “Egoyan recreated this town in Van. I walked through there, among these people, and I got it. It was then that Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate came out.” Watching the news then, concurrently, when the former Yugoslavia was breaking up and genocide was being waged against Bosnians, made the subject that much more intimate for Bogosian.

One of the threads of post-Genocide history that fascinates Bogosian is the story of Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Talaat Pasha in Berlin. The more commonly-told story is that Tehlirian’s family was slaughtered in front of him and that after he managed to escape to Germany, he spotted Talaat and after meticulously studying his routine, shot him pointblank. As the story goes, his heartfelt story justified the murder in the eyes of the German jury. However, Tehlirian, as history buffs know (and Bogosian found out), was not a mere student, but an assassin in Operation Nemesis, based in Watertown, Mass., run by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. The group, which also included Shahan Natalie, knew many of the Young Turks from the years before the Young Turks came to power and waged genocide against the Armenians. Thus, after their erstwhile friends became their enemies, they knew exactly who their targets were and through Operation Nemesis, dispatched the top eight leaders, including Talaat, Enver and Jamaal. The group disbanded once the eight Turk masterminds (as well as three Armenian traitors who had fed information to the Ottoman and Turkish authorities) were killed.

There is original research in the book, including some of Tehlirian’s papers, translated by Aram Arkun.

Bogosian said the more he learns about Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the more impressed he becomes. “They could not have had that empire without Armenians. [By killing the Armenians] they killed themselves.”

Bogosian is married to director Jo Bonney and has two sons. “My younger son has taken the trouble to learn Armenian,” he said. “It’s weird, because I’m only used to old people speaking it,” he joked.

Among the plays he has performed in and written are “Funhouse,” “Drinking in America” and “Suburbia.” He has published several books, including Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead and Mall. He has also been in movies such as “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory,” with Seagal, Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” the mystery thriller, “Gossip,” “Wonderland” with Val Kilmer and “Igby Goes Down.” He was also on TV’s “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” for many years.

A reception followed his talk, during which he gamely answered questions from many fans.

 

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