Too often Hollywood has cast Iranian roles with non-Iranians who betray next to no knowledge of the subtleties of behavior, speech and culture.
As Iran-born and trained actor Shohreh Aghdashloo — earning plaudits and awards for her performance in “House of Sand and Fog” — notes, American-made movies and TV shows have frequently confused Arabs’ manner with Persians’, unaware of how insulted both groups feel.
Fortunately for Aghdashloo, “House” author Andre Dubus III required that any film version of his novel pitting an Iranian family against lifelong Northern Californians be cast with at least one Iranian actor.
She recalls that “with Ben Kingsley cast, that left the role of his wife, Nadi,” a character whom Aghdashloo knew well from the novel, and knew she could play. “But I didn’t know that the movie was being cast.”
That was because Aghdashloo didn’t have an agent (“We amicably parted company five years ago when I told him that I wasn’t interested in terrorist or stereotyped roles”) and was touring internationally as a member of the Farsi-language stage company she runs with actor-husband Houshang Touzie.
So not only did she not campaign for the role — the first one expressly for an Iranian actor in any major Hollywood film — but she was sought out without her knowing it.
“The casting office at DreamWorks sent word out seeking actors in the local Iranian community in Los Angeles,” Aghdashloo says, “and out of the blue, I got a call.”
Although Aghdashloo began as a theater actor in Tehran in the early ’70s, she wasn’t associated with Iran’s major filmmakers of that fascinating pre-revolution decade. But she did act for the then-unknown Abbas Kiarostami in his first feature, “Report” (1977), and gained crucial insight into acting for the camera.
“He was the first in Iran to create true reality, a kind of verite, on screen, and he taught me how not to act. The tendency among Iranian actors was to overdo things, and shout and carry on. He was very firm about not acting, which is something I’ve carried with me ever since.”
This included — after a stay in London upon escaping her homeland during the shah’s fall and the ayatollahs’ rise — film roles in such well-regarded American indie films as “Maryam,” where she plays a mother and wife negotiating the tricky ways between Iran and America.
“I never feel extra pressure (representing my culture) because I trust that I’m in good hands, as with Vadim (Perelman, ‘House’s’ helmer), who’s very Russian in his way of keeping his eye on all of the details.”