Despite the rhetoric coming out of this year’s political campaigns, Middle Eastern actors are breaking through the stereotypes they have long experienced and are being cast in more substantial roles. Perhaps no one has endured/experienced this more over the years than Shohreh Aghdashloo, who has seen great actors who just happen to be Middle Eastern break out of the “terrorist” roles that they had long only been offered to find real work in primetime and features.
Before being nominated for an Oscar in for 2003 for her brilliant turn in House Of Sand And Fog, she too was offered only terrorist roles. On the eve of the Persian holiday Norooz (New Year), Deadline interviewed the Iranian-born Aghdashloo about what she has seen happen over the past 25 years and how it has changed now that a real call for diversity has taken hold in Hollywood.
Before the audition for her career-changing role in House Of Sand And Fog, she said was offered parts as “a terrorist on a plane, a terrorist on the Earth.” All of them were one-dimensional roles, she said. Hollywood has evolved, but it took years.
Twenty-five years ago it was a different mind-set, and she brought up two experiences to illustrate what she meant. Years ago, a casting agent in Los Angeles (since retired) told her that she ran to a type and she was very limited in the roles she would be able to get; English is Aghdashloo’s second language. In response, she said, “I may be limited in your world, but not in my world.” She kept going to auditions, refusing to give up.
Finally, she was sent to an audition for a popular TV series that called for a Middle Eastern woman. “I was asked to meet with the casting director and when I walked in, I heard the casting director say, ‘No, we are looking for a downtrodden Middle Eastern woman, you’re too beautiful, go home.’ ” So she did, and decided to put to practice what she had told the casting director — see no limits. In other words, she believed she could, so she did.
“I went home, and with my husband Houshang Touzie who is a writer, we started our own Farsi-speaking production company. I found non-union actors — stage actors — who were willing to become part of our group and we started putting on plays and touring around the world.”
Twelve years later came a call from DreamWorks for the role in Sand And Fog. But, the call came after producers actually went into the Iranian community of shopkeepers and restaurant owners in Beverly Hills and Westwood and asked them who their favorite actress was.
“My name was pronounced so many different ways — Abdahloo, Agdaloo — so, when they called me, they said whatever your name is would you like to come audition for the role?”
After Sand And Fog, which garnered Aghdashloo a Best Supporting Actress nomination, the actress said she’s never stopped working. She has since spent a season on the Emmy-winning 24, then ended up winning an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie for her portrayal of Saddam Hussein’s wife in HBO’s House Of Saddam.
The actress, who also works with a non-profit called Mother Miracle in India to help school children, continues to be cast in roles in TV, film, and for voice-overs. But, she admits that she still always keeps one eye on legit theater. “I still do theater,” she says. “I love theater. That is something that I cannot stop doing. I love it. I love it.”
Her film Septembers Of Shiraz, a story set against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution, will get a theatrical release in June via Momentum Pictures. Aghdashloo experienced the Iranian Revolution first-hand during the 1970s.
“Art reflects life and life reflects art. Hollywood has changed tremendously over the years but it took a long time to change. At the time that I was cast in House Of Sand And Fog, American society was just evolving into a more cosmopolitan society and Hollywood was trying to adapt itself where it could,” said Aghdashloo. “Let’s do not forget the years that we went through when the economy started deteriorating because that was another problem. Therefore, they were trying to sell products only in the United States and now everyone is thinking globally. I will never forget Nike’s (adage), ‘Think Globally, Act Locally.’ Now its vice versa. We are a global economy.”
Aghdashloo just returned from filming alongside Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac in Terry George’s The Promise — a love story set against the Armenian genocide in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, from producers Eric Esrailian, William Horberg, Mike Medavoy and Ralph Winter.
She is now also a lead character in Syfy’s The Expanse, playing a powerful politician and master manipulator.
We asked how she thought such long-standing stereotypes could be broken. “Let’s be honest and logical and reasonable here,” she said. “You can’t blame anyone for wrongdoing. If we want change, we have to change it ourselves. We must change the wrong situation into the right situation and do it the right way. Not nagging, not complaining, not overthinking, not casting a shadow, not blaming people for what they don’t know because they don’t know any better. We can only do it by peaceful co-existence. We cannot blame and fight for our hard times that some of us are going through.”
She said the last couple of years, especially, she has seen a surge in the kinds of roles all of her Middle Eastern actor friends are getting. “My friends who were only offered terrorists roles are now in primetime roles,” she said. “Most of them have been hired now for pilots. I cannot even tell you how many offers I’ve had for pilots.” And, she said, they are for key and substantial roles.
In fact, her husband Touzie was in Showtime’s Emmy-winning Homeland, playing Iran’s intelligence chief. Actress Nazanin Boniadi was a fan favorite also on Homeland (there was outcry when her character, Fara, was killed off), and Shaun Toub is on Grimm.
“Everybody has the right to get an opportunity to shine. After all, we are in the land of dreammakers. The expectation is in our DNA whether we believe it or not,” she said. “We are already halfway through the awareness.”
When does she think the change began in Hollywood? “I think the change started when the American film industry started to cross-breed and started to make films with other nationalities … it was really slow but started with Bruce Lee and continued with Jackie Chan and now there are so many Asian actors, and that gradually and slowly is now coming to Middle Eastern actors, too. We are now the newcomers.”