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Interview with Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo and her movie about stonning in iran

By Alex Simon

Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo made history as the first Middle Eastern woman to be nominated for an Academy Award, when she received a Best Supporting Actress nod for her work in House of Sand and Fog (2003), opposite Ben Kingsley. Born in Tehran in 1952 to an upper middle class family of intellectuals, Shohreh spent her youth performing with various avant-garde theater companies during the country’s period of social and artistic freedom under the rule of Iran’s Shah. Most prominent among these groups was the renowned Drama Workshop of Tehran. Based upon her work with the latter group, Shohreh was cast by the two leaders of Iran’s New Wave filmmakers—Abbas Kiarostami and Ali Hatami—to play starring roles in Gozaresh and Sute-Delan, two seminal films of the period, both released in 1977 .
The following year, 1978, changed everything with the Islamic Revolution and the deposition of the Shah by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, and his band of extremist Shiite Muslim followers. After relocating to England, where she earned a B.A. in Political Science, Shohreh’s planned transition from actor to politician ended before it ever started when she was cast in Rainbow, a landmark play about the Iranian Revolution and its discontents. She hasn’t stopped working since .
After House of Sand and Fog, Shohreh’s body of work has been varied, from prestige TV productions such as 24 and HBO’s House of Saddam, to features such as The Nativity Story, The Lake House, American Dreamz, and X-Men: The Last Stand. Shohreh’s latest film promises to be the landmark of her career, not only for its skillful production and her fine performance, but for the timeliness of its release .
The Stoning of Soraya M., based on Freidoune Sahebjam’s best-selling book, tells the true story of an Iranian woman in 1986 who was buried to her waist in the square of her rural hometown, and stoned to death by her fellow villagers. What led up to this heinous act supplies the drama of this harrowing, unforgettable film, made all the more prescient with the real-life drama unfolding on the streets of Iran today, following the controversial re-election of right wing leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his popular, more centrist opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In the rioting that followed in the streets of Tehran, a 26 year-old woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, who had no politcal affiliations, was gunned down by a Basiji sniper on June 20. When the video of her death spread across the Internet, awareness mixed with outrage around the world at the brutality of Iran’s current government—a palpable parralel to the story, and message, of Soraya M. Co-written (with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh) and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, The Roadside Attractions release also stars Mozhan Marno, superb as Soraya, and James Caviezel as Sahebjam. It arrives in theaters June 26 .
Shohreh Aghdashloo sat down with us recently to discuss this remarkable film and her equally fascinating life .

This is one of the first films in years I’ve attended where the audience just left in stunned silence. It reminded me of the climax to Bonnie & Clyde. Was it equally emotional during the shoot ?
Shohreh Aghdashloo: It was hard, but actors tend to have their own fun time to break the tension. So we told jokes, and just tried to comfort each other. The stoning scene took six days to film, which was really hard. Day after day, we had to see these angry men, screaming for Soroya to be stoned, shouting “God is great!” with the dust in the air, and voices choking in their throats. At one point I opened my eyes, I was crying, and realized that it’s really hard to tell the difference between cinema and reality now. All of the extras in the village were real villagers. It was really hard to tell the difference. I’d never had an experience like that before, working with non-actors in that kind of intimacy .

How long a shoot was it ?
A month and a half, one month of which was in the village in Cyprus. I’m a Method actor, so it was wonderful to be immersed in that setting .
Was it easy or difficult to step into the shoes of your character, who is such an

outspoken woman in a repressive society ?
Zahra is very much like I am. She’s not afraid of telling the truth. I was proud of what I was saying and proud of this woman’s character, who I believe was a product of the Shah’s reign, as am I. She has the strength she has and as she also says, she was once somebody in the town, when she was married to the Mayor. One day she had a voice and the right to choose, and then one day she didn’t, but she chose to keep her voice, even though as the character of Ebrahim warns her, “This is not the Shah’s reign anymore" .

Were you familiar with the practice of stoning before doing the movie ?
When I was living in Iran, nothing like that happened during the Shah’s reign. I had heard about it happening in the past, and then saw one on video tape, in the ‘80s. That involved two young men who were stoned to death because they were homosexuals. A friend of mine gave it to me, and warned me “Don’t watch it during the evening.” I put it on at eleven in the morning. What we show in Soraya is a condensed version of how long and brutal a process stoning is. It goes on for a long time before the people actually die, which is part of what makes it so horrific. I couldn’t eat or sleep for days after watching it. So I was familiar with the subject matter. I was a reporter at the time, for the local Iranian TV station in Los Angeles, so I felt it was my duty to watch the tape, both as a journalist and as an activist who cares about her birth country .

Shohreh and Mozhan Marno in The Stoning of Soraya M

Were you familiar with the book before you did the film ?
No, strangely enough, I had no idea about the book. Cyrus was introduced to me by one of my favorite producers, Joel Surnow, the producer of 24. When Cyrus called and told me about the subject matter, I took a long pause and said ‘Where were you? I’ve been waiting for you for 20 years.’ I read the script twice that night, and just loved it .

What are you hoping people will take away from the film ?
To see for themselves what kind of a barbaric punishment is still being committed around the world, the Islamic world. I would hope that this film will be shown not just in the countries that oppose this kind of brutality, but in the villages where these kinds of things still occur. I hope they put a print of the film on a donkey, send it up into the mountains into these small villages which are full of people who have never seen television, project it onto a white sheet, and let them see and decide for themselves how inhuman this is .

Are you concerned at all about the film garnering a negative reaction in its portrayal of Iranians ?
Yes, I’m very afraid. I had negative reactions with 24, which was a lot milder than this one is. I’m sure there will be negative reactions, particularly those who don’t read their holy books. Pious people truly read their holy books and understand what is written. But there are people who are ignorant and get their viewpoints from others, and have no idea what the content of that holy book really is, who think that stoning is part of the Islamic religion, which it is not, really. In Islam, we have Qur’an, which is a holy book. We have Hadith, which are stories told after Mohammed’s time, and we have Sonat, which means traditions and superstitions. Stoning is in that latter category. One needs to be really educated and read his or her holy book to understand that this is not part of religion .

You obviously have a real passion and verve for the film and the subject matter, in spite of it being so devastating. You have an enthusiasm for getting this message out .
Yes, absolutely. Every time I talk with a journalist like yourself, I feel happy. I feel proud. I feel like…I have an odd feeling, to be honest, when I sit and speak with you. I feel like I am fulfilling Zahra’s wish. This was her wish, for the whole world to know and now, when I tell you, you will tell the world. So it’s very close to my heart, very close to home for me. And of course, by shedding light on the injustices, I am doing something I am passionate about. 30 years ago when I left Iran, I promised myself that I would never aiding helpless, voiceless women and children, no matter where they are. Things like this happen not just in Iran, but in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, all over. So it’s not only a story that begs to be told, but it’s told with such skill and such style, that audiences everywhere are being affected by it, deeply. It is our job to put it out there, and not be afraid of the ramifications or the consequences .

Have you been back to Iran since you left, and do you think you could return at this point ?
No, it’s been almost 30 years now and I’m quite sure I could not go back

Because you’ve been so outspoken ?

What was it like growing up in Tehran during the Shah’s reign ?
It was beautiful. We used to call it “the Paris of the Middle East.” We had a lot of tourists, especially from the U.S., particularly hippies, who traveled through Iran to get to the Silk Road, which went to China. We would see them out and about in the street. I have a little brother, who is now a doctor, and every week we’d be having lunch, and he’d bring a hippie home my mother would give him lunch. My mother would give them food, but not the soda, and my brother would buy them soda out of his own pocket. (laughs) He loved anything that was American. Anyone he’d see with blue eyes, he’d say “Blue eyes, are you American?” (laughs)

Then came the Revolution in ’78. Do you have any specific memories of that ?
Well, I was quick and I got out and luckily missed most of the turmoil of the Revolution. I wouldn’t be a good witness for you. I saw the writings on the wall and people burning the Shah’s pictures, setting car’s tires on fire, but nothing major happened while I was there. After I left, I heard a lot and read a lot about what happened.

Then you moved to England ?
Yes, I didn’t want to be an actress anymore. I was already on my way when the Revolution started, so I decided this time I’m going to become a politician and I studied political science and international relations. As soon as I got my B.A., a dear friend of mine who was a playwright came to me at my graduation, and said to me “I have a new play and I want you to be the lead in it!” And without hesitation I said ‘Why don’t you bring it around and let me read it?’ To this day, I still don’t know where that voice came from. (laughs) The play, Rainbow, was a political play and I realized that I could help my people more by raising awareness through the theater and the arts than I could by being a politician. So the play was a sold-out hit in America, and I made a bit of money, and it allowed me to move to Los Angeles, where I’ve been ever since. That’s how it all started .

After you got out of Iran, did the rest of your family follow ?
No, but I eventually helped my other brother get out when he was accepted to study at Oxford. He got his PhD there .

Do you see the portrayal of men in the film as being emblematic of men who hold these extremist views in the Middle East ?
The portrayal of men in this film, more than being realistic to me, is very metaphorical. When I read a screenplay or a theatrical play, I always try to read between the lines. So their portrayal shows, I believe, how in a corrupted society men can use divine law for their own benefit. Metaphorically-speaking, they did it.

Life imitates art imitating life: Above, the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan on June 20, 2009. Below, Soraya M. is led to her death by fellow villagers in The Stoning of Soraya M.

What are some of your impressions regarding post-election Iran, and what’s been happening there ?
It’s amazing. I’m so proud, as are all Iranians living abroad, of these people fighting in the streets, literally bare-handed against militia who are armed to the teeth. The pictures we’re seeing are very heroic, and now with Neda’s picture, we’re all devastated. Until the photos of her death were released, I think we were all very cautious about not getting too involved (as ex-patriots) directly. After Neda’s picture was released, I think the general feeling was “Okay, we’ve had enough. Words are not enough anymore.” If Neda’s picture isn’t a call for action, then I don’t know what it will take to pull the trigger next, so to speak. Everything is changing before our eyes, and it is changing by minutes! Sometimes I try to update myself between interviews on what is happening so I will be prepared, but when I arrive at the interview 20 minutes later, things have changed so much. It’s hard to keep up with it all. But it’s happening, and it’s amazing that this timeless film has now turned into a timely film, and (the themes) that the film suggests: change, reform, reversal of the injustices that are going on in this village, have now become the mantras in the mouths of Iranians, whose political movement suggests the same things. It was beyond anyone’s imagination that things would work out this way. The film turned out to be prescient, especially if you look at the parallels between Soraya and Neda. As I said earlier, it’s almost like the line between reality and cinema has become blurred into one .

Sourse : http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com

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last update: 3/17/2016 8:00