With an Oscar nod, the Iranian actress steps into the spotlight
By Wesley Morris, Globe Staff, 2/28/2004
If it were perfect, the world would have heard of Shohreh Aghdashloo before Jan. 27, 2004. But it's not, so Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, had to tell us: "Shohreh Aghdashloo in `House of Sand and Fog.' " It was the first name in the first category to be called the morning the Oscar nominations were announced. (Not to mention the first Iranian acting nominee ever.) And, as you might expect, Aghdashloo life's was changed irrevocably. But heaven knows it was fine before.
Over three decades, Aghdashloo, who was raised in Iran and has lived in Los Angeles since 1987, has starred in a handful of films and been a leading name in Iranian theater. As an activist, she writes and speaks out around the world, and she has even done political commentary on Jaam-e-Jam, California's popular Iranian cable TV network, looking fierce and smashing in beige pantsuits.
Suddenly, though, she was flung from the middle of American pop-culture nowhere to a teary appearance on the "Today" show, and anybody getting ready for work had to stop and compose themselves as Aghdashloo talked about her stern father's pride in her success. One of the best-kept secrets in America's Iranian community had become a full-fledged celebrity.
Her longtime fans were elated. Her husband was thrilled. But her 15-year-old daughter, Tara? Eh.
"When I was nominated, I thought she was going to jump up and down like myself," Aghdashloo says during a recent visit to the Globe. "She did not. She was in bed. I said, `I have been nominated!' She said," -- here Aghdashloo becomes a bleary, vaguely impressed teenage girl -- " `Cool.' "
It wasn't emphatic, exactly, but Aghdashloo was thrilled: "Are you kidding? Coming from her, it means you're the best."
According to her mother, Tara has been encouraging Aghdashloo and her husband, the actor and playwright Houshang Touzie, to do less Farsi film and theater and more movies in English. "She was always telling me, `You have to do things in the mainstream, you have to be part of the American mainstream. The stage is too tiring, mom. You cannot do this all your life,' " Aghdashloo says.
If you can feign ignorance of Hollywood's historical preference for young white women, you might ask why it took Aghdashloo, who's 51, so long to command our attention. Most people will never meet a more charismatic and charmingly intelligent woman. She's a grand raconteur, with the regality of a dignitary. When she popped into the Globe after a charity reading of "The Vagina Monologues" in Newburyport, the first thing you noticed is that she's nothing like Nadi Behrani, the character she plays in the movie. Both women are warm, but Aghdashloo is dynamic and witty. The second thing is her speaking voice, which is low, gravelly, and slightly accented.
You also notice the woman at her side. Jaleh Modjallal has been her good friend and manager for most of Aghdashloo's career. While her client is off being interviewed, Modjallal, who asks that you call her "Zsa Zsa," is working the phone, planning, among other things, the logistics of Aghdashloo's upcoming appearances. The next night Aghdashloo is on Larry King's TV show, seated beside costar and fellow Oscar nominee Ben Kingsley.
In "House of Sand and Fog," Aghdashloo plays a dignified Iranian homemaker married to a hubris-stained former colonel (Kingsley), as he battles a boozy Californian (Jennifer Connelly) for a modest house. Aghdashloo's performance segues from gentility to fear to fury back to gentility, then to some wrenching but holy place that seems recognizable to a moviegoer but, at the same time, unknowable and personal. As her family is dragged deeper into tragedy, Aghdashloo's Nadi, who speaks mostly in Farsi, retreats further into herself. But her compassion for the woman her husband is fighting never dries up.
The film is based on Andre Dubus III's 1999 novel, a copy of which Aghdashloo bought a few years ago when Oprah Winfrey recommended it as part of her book club. Dubus's cogent knowledge of Iranian culture floored her. "I asked him, at one point, `Andre, where were you? Behind the door, or under that table? You know everything, even the most intimate details between the colonel and his wife. Where were you?' " she recalls.
Dubus echoes Aghdashloo's astonishment. "She could not have more faithfully brought this woman to life," he says. "She's the soul of the film." When he saw the movie, and she appeared for the first time polishing the furniture in her home, "I literally gasped," Dubus says. "I forgot I had written the words she was saying."
Finding her voice
When Aghdashloo was a girl in Tehran, she used to perform for herself, which naturally led her parents to believe she was deranged. She would come home from the movies, intoxicated with the characters she'd just seen. One of the earliest was Claudia Cardinale in "Girl with a Suitcase," from 1960. Aghdashloo's father, an accountant, wanted her to be a doctor. And when she was 12, the Aghdashloos took their daughter to see a psychologist -- her Cardinale was that convincing. After a session or two, Aghdashloo wanted to know why she was there. The doctor asked back, "Why do you talk to yourself?"
She wasn't talking to herself, Aghdashloo said. She was playing characters. She wasn't crazy, said the doctor; she wants to be an actress.
When she was 25, the shah's regime began to fall apart, and Aghdashloo left for London, where she earned a degree in international relations. She never thought of herself as less than a liberated woman, which ran counter to the Ayatollah's propaganda, so leaving Iran was really the only option.
"It really disturbs me," she says, "when I see a voiceless woman, a voiceless human being who's been abused or molested, and can do nothing about it. It kills me." Nadi was one of those voiceless women. This was a character Aghdashloo says she knew she had to play, telling her husband, "You know if they don't cast me in this part, it would be really, really unfair."
After a fruitless search to find the right actress for the part, screenwriter and director Vadim Perelman and his casting directors scoured the Iranian entertainment industry for a prospect; Aghdashloo's name came up the most. She was sitting in her office, after a trip to Europe, when the phone rang.
" `Hello. Can I help you?' " Aghdashloo remembers asking. " `I would like to speak to, uh, Soreya Agodoslo,' " said the voice. " `That sounds familiar, but it's not my name. And we don't have a Soreya. But that sounds like my name.' "
The voice said, " `We have so many different spellings. Would you like to come down and straighten it out?' " Aghdashloo recalls.
It was Deborah Aquila, one of the casting agents on "House of Sand and Fog." She was calling to send over a copy of the script. But Aghdashloo wouldn't let herself get carried away. A friend who was in the room wanted to know what was wrong. Why was Aghdashloo being so tentative?
" `There are only four characters in the book,' " she remembers telling the friend. " `Maybe they want me to join their party or go to their wedding. Let me ask.' " She called back. The casting agent still didn't get the name right, but confirmed that they were calling about the key role of the colonel's wife.
"And it was then that I started shaking," Aghdashloo recalls. "I could not believe it. It was like a miracle coming true."
Aghdashloo had worked hard for this moment, but she always believed something amazing was coming. When she left Iran, she talked herself out of fearing failure. "I was on my own," she says. "I had no parents, nothing. I had to be my own parents. That's what I kept telling myself: `You're going to be successful. You're going to be successful.' Be an optimist. Be useful to your society, and then everything will return to you.' "
This is also a healthy way to feel, should she go home empty-handed at the Oscars tomorrow night. Or she could take the Dubus approach and get steamed. Aghdashloo is "the only reason I'm watching," he says. "If she's not holding that statue, I'm throwing my hammer through the TV and walking out."
He calms himself and adds, "This award is almost worthy of her." http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2004/02/28/shohrehs_turn/