Speaking Volumes: Hooman Khalili

Words by Johanna Harlow

Photos by Annie Barnett

Words by Johanna Harlow

Check into Menlo Park’s Park James Hotel and your ear might pick up a familiar voice carrying over the click-clack-clack of rolling suitcases and the easy chatter of guests at the bar. Many a commuter recognizes the rhythm and cadence of the hotel’s creative director from his two-plus decades of radio banter on Alice 97.3 FM. That’s right, it’s Hooman Khalili.

As a seasoned film reviewer, Hooman boasts an impressive range of celebrity interviews—Charlize Theron, John Travolta, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and George Lucas, to name a few. But his repertoire far exceeds his role as Alice’s former morning radio personality. Beyond his role at the Park James, he’s also co-hosted the Fandor Festival Podcast, produced a groundbreaking film and is currently collaborating on a huge advocacy project in Israel.

But to get to the present we first need the past. As a toddler, Hooman escaped Iran on the cusp of the revolution. “Mom jumped on a plane with one suitcase, $5,000 and a three-year-old boy,” he describes. When they arrived in America, the customs agent messed up the numbers on her stamp, issuing a one-year visa (which allowed for work) rather than the typical three-month authorization for tourists. “It was a miracle!” Hooman declares. As a professed Christian, Hooman believes in divine intervention. He also remains awestruck that, before that year was up, his mom went from a job cleaning hotel rooms (while they lived in a back room) to a job as an accountant with green card status.

So when did cinema come into the picture? Hooman credits turbulent times in his early 20s. “I would go to a theater and just watch a movie and escape,” he recounts. “It was freedom.”

His radio career took off after Alice Radio host Sarah Clark asked if he’d like to review the film Angela’s Ashes. He recalls Sarah telling him, “What you bring to this microphone is up to you.” He dove right in. “It was just a terrible review, but they liked it enough,” he chuckles. “So all of a sudden, I find myself at every movie premiere and film festival. Anything I was invited to, I would attend.” Sure, waking up at 3:20 every morning was no picnic… But, “To be on with Sarah and Vinnie for 20 years, that was a gift,” Hooman reflects.

When it comes to memorable encounters, Hooman calls out John Travolta (with whom he’s talked six times). He’ll never forget his coverage of A Love Song for Bobby Long—and not because the film was a hit. Due to a botched schedule, Mr. Travolta’s publicist offered to sit Hooman next to the actor while he conducted all his other interviews. For two hours, Hooman listened to the actor patiently respond to the same unoriginal prompts. “Even though he was hearing the same questions, he would say, ‘That’s a really good question. I’m really glad you asked me that,’” he recounts. Although Hooman, like the other reporters, had mixed feelings about the film itself, the response was the same: “‘Look, it’s not my favorite movie—but John Travolta… What a wonderful human being!”

Hooman has also been up on the silver screen himself, cameoing as a partygoer in Cloverfield and an animated reporter in Cars modeled after a Ford Ka Coupe. “I have an action figure!” exclaims Hooman, explaining that the director of the Pixar film, John Lasseter, was a huge fan of Alice’s morning show. “He gave us all a line.”

The Alice morning radio team from left to right: Von Bellows, Uzette Salazar, Bryn Nguyen, Sarah Clark, Vinnie Hasson and Hooman Khalili.

For Hooman, making his own film felt like a natural progression—so in 2011, he produced Olive featuring Gena Rowlands. Partnering with Patrick Gilles, the two made the first full-length feature shot entirely on a cell phone (a Nokia N8, to be specific).

The film’s soundtrack features original Dolly Parton songs—another wild story. After running into Dolly’s dentist at a conference, Hooman managed to land his film in front of the singer—which subsequently earned him a meeting with the Queen of Nashville herself. “Dolly Parton travels like Jay-Z. So it’s nine people on that side and me on this side,” Hooman recalls. “And she goes, ‘Well Kid, what do you want?’” With go-big-or-go-home boldness, Hooman requested four songs for the film. “She goes, ‘All right, Kid, get your butt outta here. I got a lot of work to do.’”

Although Olive only got a limited run (spending just enough time in theaters to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song), Hooman expects the film to be re-released—and aspires to make as many as 20 films. “People don’t realize that independent filmmakers are still competing with Star Wars and Avengers,” Hooman shares. It’s a big reason why he’s also supported directors, writers and actors through the Fandor Festival Podcast, co-hosted with Chris Kelly, a previous investor in Olive, and Bryn Nguyen.

Hooman’s advocacy murals in Israel are designed to show solidarity with the Iranian people. The bird covering an eye represents Iranian women who were told they would be blinded in one eye by a pellet gun if they protested. They protested anyway.

A long familiar voice, Hooman speaks out in other ways—most recently, by producing and designing advocacy murals that show solidarity with Iranian protesters. With murals already installed in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Natanya, Hooman partners with Israeli officials as well as artists to create intentional designs. “Every time I create a mural, I am throwing a huge log into this fire,” he explains. “I am here to inspire the people in Iran to keep fighting against their tyrannical regime.”

If he can attract a supportive patron or two, Hooman envisions more than a dozen more murals coming to Israel’s walls. Meanwhile, he continues to balance his work at the Park James Hotel, where projects range from handling brand strategy to organizing their next speaker series. It’s a true hustle, but there’s no way he’s checking out. “It’s easy to say no to these opportunities and it’s sometimes hard to say yes, but you’ve got to ride that wave: the adventure of life.”