Though Hollywood draws plenty of multihyphenates, only a few can claim the title "scholar-producer-host." Reza Aslan first landed in the klieg lights as an academic with his 2013 best-selling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, aided by a viral video of his exchange with a Fox News host who questioned if a Muslim scholar could credibly write about Jesus. His next move? Step into the interviewer’s chair. His talk show, Rough Draft With Reza Aslan, premiered on Ovation in February, and he’ll soon appear as host of CNN’s six-episode Believer series exploring world religion. "My whole life people have been telling me I have to choose," says Aslan, "but I never wanted to do one thing." Here’s how he made the transition into Hollywood.
Frustrated by the lack of fully realized Middle Eastern characters in pop culture, Aslan launched his BoomGen Studios in 2008 to create and incubate content about the region. But he knew better than to present it this way: "If you walk into a meeting with Disney or the Weinstein Company and say, ‘You should do this because it will make Middle Eastern-ers feel better,’ nobody will listen." Instead, Aslan got investors to sign on by reminding them that the average median household income for Muslim families in America is higher than for non-Muslim families.
At heart, Aslan enjoys the connective magic of storytelling. He modeled Rough Draft after the poetry readings he and his wife used to host in their home. On the show, he goes deep with top Hollywood writers, such as Norman Lear and Transparent’s Jill Soloway, in a nightclublike setting complete with backing musical guests and cocktails. Aslan and his guests settle in like it’s one of his old house parties.
Forget multitasking. Aslan’s strategy is streamlined focus. "When I’m a professor, I’m only a professor," he says. "When I’m writing, I’m only writing. People know not to call me about other things on those days." And nobody messes with his role as dad to his 1-year-old son and twin 4-year-old boys. "I insist on being there when my kids go to sleep and wake up."
"I tell my students, ‘Always say yes,’ even if you think you can’t do it," he says. "Say yes and figure it out later." Aslan says he’s as plagued by insecurity as the rest of us. But when CNN asked him to host Believer, he quickly agreed—and saved the anxiety about making the transition from producer to on-air talent for later.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.