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In first foray into Oscar madness, 'Sand and Fog' actress learns to balance politics with partying

Shohreh Aghdashloo, nominated for her turn last year in “House of Sand and Fog,” recalls the Oscars, the PR campaign, the dilemma in choosing her dress and how it felt to be the first Iranian actress up for an Academy Award.

Going to the Oscars was like riding on a Persian magical carpet around Hollywood.

Since I came here in 1987 as an actress, I always wished to be a part of the mainstream and work with great actors but there wasn’t anything for me until I found the role of my life in “House of Sand and Fog.”

The part came to me when I turned 50. On the first page of the screenplay it describes “a 50-year-old Persian woman.” It was like I had seeds in the ground for the last 30 years and now trees have come up and are blossoming. It was all just amazing.

When I entered the Kodak Theater that night, I told an usher I was looking for my seat and he told me I was in the front row. I was so overwhelmed with everyone’s kindness.

Suddenly, here I am sitting in the front row watching this show I’ve seen for many years in Iran and England and America. I remembered the year before when I was rooting for Jennifer Connelly. She was nominated for “Beautiful Mind” and I almost lost my voice cheering for her when she won.

This was it — the creme de la creme of what I had imagined. It was beyond my imagination. That’s why it felt like riding on the magic carpet.

The things I was thinking about that night was freedom and democracy, especially for me as a woman. It was impossible to live under Islamic rules and still be able to be an actress and do what acting requires.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to act, let alone live as a second-class citizen in an Islamic society, under Islamic laws — both of which I realized since being a successful actress during the shah’s reign.

They didn’t allowing me to work — some of my friends didn’t work for 20 years — so you can imagine what kind of a feeling I had sitting in the first row, especially after going through the red carpet with all of these familiar Hollywood faces, movie buffs and fans cheering.

I decided I wasn’t going to go and be star struck but just have fun. I love Jaime Lee Curtis and she was the first one to acknowledge me. I saw her walking with union protesters and thought this is the kind of actress that I would like to become — someone who helps others. It doesn’t matter how cliche it sounds but artists are the role models of their own society.

The hardest part about being the first Iranian woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar was to separate being an actress from helping support the freedom fighting movements in Iran.

Trying to be both an actress talking about the Oscar and an activist for Iran was tough. It even affected what I wore to the big event.

When choosing my dress, I decided to go with Valentino because he is one of my favorite designers.

But within minutes after I announced it during an interview on Persian radio things got ugly. I received phone calls saying, “You are an Iranian. You should wear an Iranian dress.”

I kept saying that Iran does not have an international dress and I’m not going to pick one tribe over the other and give a wrong message to Iranians.

The solution was to go with an Iranian designer (Simin), which I did. Valentino was more than kind enough to support me and I will always love him for understanding because it was a crucial moment for me.

I also announced that I wasn’t going to get political if I had won, even though I’ve been a political activist for years. It was very important for me not to turn this platform of art and appreciation for my peers into a nasty war about politics.

There were articles saying, “She is betraying us. She isn’t talking about this or that.” Of course I wouldn’t. We have a saying in Farsi: ‘There is a right place and a right time to say what you have to say.’ That was not the right time or the right place.

I was told by DreamWorks that they didn’t even have to push the press to talk to me, rather the press that came to them. All of these intellectual writers and reporters asked to talk with me, so that was a bit overwhelming.

Acting is teamwork but you’re always on your own. You are hoping that doing your homework, studying the character and memorizing your lines has enabled you to portray this character in the best way possible without exaggeration.

You’re not quite sure whether you have gotten the message across or not. It’s the critics first and then the audience who come up to you and acknowledge your work.

People kept telling me how they identified with this Middle Eastern woman and you can imagine it was happiness personified when you find out that you have done your job right. Prominent journalists actually wanted to talk to me and that was the best thing. That was cloud nine when it all started to happen.

I knew that I wasn’t going to win it. I’m a woman of logic and rationalism. I realized that a few thousand people have to vote and only a few knew who I was and had seen my film.

They had not seen my body of work so, unlike fellow nominees, I wasn’t nervous at all. I knew that actresses in my same category that had been working the same length of time as I had would be preferred by voters who knew them, and had seen what they’ve done in the past.

Even if it was me voting, I would have given them a chance first and then the newcomer. So I decided I was a winner being one of five people among 300 million chosen in not only the United States, but in the whole world.

When reporters kept asking me ‘Are you the dark horse?,’ I hesitated to say yes or no but, rather, decided I was going to enjoy it and be nervous at all.

No hard feelings. I could see those who were nervous and I felt sorry for them. Stop with being worried. Stop thinking, “Am I going to win or lose?” It’s not about winning or losing, it’s all about happiness. Don’t get nervous on the red carpet. It doesn’t look nice.

— As told to Addie Morfoot

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