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Bringing Hollywood home

Petaluma has served as the backdrop for numerous major motion pictures in the film industry, with its rolling green hills and provincial charm that is the quintessential small-town America — and that film location tradition continues.

Petaluma native Ali Afshar has brought himself, his film crew and his team of actors to Sonoma County this month to film his new production, “The Wizard.”

Afshar grew up on a 200-acre ranch on Adobe Road and attended Old Adobe Elementary School, Kenilworth Junior High School and graduated from Casa Grande High School. He then went on to attend Santa Rosa Junior College for about a year, then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.

Afshar’s older brother had been doing acting and stunt work at the time, sparking an interest in Afshar to explore entertainment. After four or five auditions went by without a booking, he auditioned for the role of a car mechanic character named Grease in the television show, “Saved By the Bell.” He landed role.

“As soon as I did that, I got bit by the (acting) bug. I’ve been studying and doing as much work as I can since,” said Afshar.

He recently finished a movie called “The Wrong Side of Right,” which was also filmed in Petaluma, starring actress Lea Thompson and James Remar.

“The Wizard” is Afshar’s latest project and is about an Iranian boy who escapes Iran at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. He arrives in America in a small town in California during the height of the Iran hostage crisis.

“It was a time when it was worse to be Iranian in 1980 than to be a Middle Eastern after Sept. 11,” explained the director of the film, Alex Ranarivelo. “There were protests on the streets — people were getting beat up.”

The Iranian boy (the protagonist of the movie) seems to travel from one bad situation across the world to another, and is living with an uncle that doesn’t want him around.

“He wants to be accepted. He wants a new home. He sees that all of the popular kids at school wear varsity jackets, and he wants one, so he joins the school wrestling team. He overcomes all of the prejudice and everything through succeeding in wrestling,” said Ranarivelo.

“It really is representative of how Petaluma was (at that time), because at first the town wasn’t very accepting,” added Afshar. “We thought, where is a better place to shoot it than Casa, Tomales, Petaluma, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University — the same place where it really happened, the same hills, the same scenery? Petaluma has really grown a lot since then, but if you just go on the outskirts, Tomales still looks like it did in the ’70s.”

When handed the script for “The Wizard,” actor William Fichtner, who will be playing the protagonist’s wrestling coach, expressed immediate fascination with the role. Fichtner has also been a part of many major movies, such as “Black Hawk Down” in 2001 and “Crash” in 2004.

“From the very first time that I read (the script), I thought there’s something really cool going on here. I really dig what’s happening,” remarked Fichtner. “I like the role of this coach, and it poses a lot of thoughts. It made my mind wonder a little bit, which is great.”

Afshar himself will be playing the role of the protagonist’s uncle, alongside Fichtner and Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight.

Afshar was eager to bring truth to his role in the movie. “The uncle is loosely based on a couple different characters in my family. It’s interesting to wear those shoes and put that hat on,” said Afshar.

Afshar appreciates being home in the small town of Petaluma where he was raised.

“The support we have out here, the resources and the family; we call in so many favors and locations and people,” he said. “Knowing who everybody is, how everything flows, is really a plus for me.”

Even though scenes at CGHS and Tomales have already been filmed, Afshar is still looking for film extras. He asks participants to be as period-specific as possible: longer hair and ’70s wardrobe. He’s looking for 1,500 extras for the film shoot coming up at Santa Rosa Junior College on April 18 and 19.

“The more true Northern California people, the small town people, the better for us. All sexes, ages, colors, genders — men, women, young kids, adults, anybody — because we want the whole stands full,” said Afshar.

Those interested in being a film extra should contact Lisa Fowler-Marsh at leeleebee33@gmail.com.

(Contact Kate Hoover at argus@arguscourier.com)