Culture

The Shohreh Aghdashloo You Need to Know

Shohreh Aghdashloo/Photo © Shutterstock

The voice on the other end of the line is so smoky it practically leaps through the receiver and inquires about an ashtray. It belongs to a woman who has been called "the Meryl Streep of Iran," and, okay, full confession, the person who called her that was me when I first wrote about her in the wake of her Oscar nomination for Vadim Perelman's 2003 adaptation of Andre Dubus III's novel House of Sand and Fog, but still. Indeed, it belongs to Shohreh Aghdashloo.

The thing is, her career has been so singular since - a memoir, an Emmy for playing Saddam Hussein's wife, even a turn as a video game admiral in the twenty-second century - that the comparison no longer serves not only her, but also possibly not even Ms. Streep. These days, Aghdashloo is a triple threat with her book, a star turn in "Rosewater" - which comedian Jon Stewart loosely adapted from imprisoned journalist Maziar Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me - and a role in a new video game franchise that takes her further afield into the twenty-eighth century.

"It's been like this for at least thirty years," the sixty-two-year-old says of her gravelly baritone. She laughs, recounting that after she hit puberty in the Shah's Tehran, her voice thickened to the point that her parents joked she was her younger sibling Shahryar's "big brother." Aghdashloo has three brothers in total and with her second husband, a daughter, who recently graduated Chapman University and wants to direct films. Despite her parents' more practical plans for young Shohreh, she began acting at age eighteen and was a superstar in Iran before the Shah toppled and the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in 1979's Islamic Revolution.

"I was a liberated woman," Aghdashloo says, that throaty laugh bubbling up again. "This Iran was no place for me." Still, it was a harrowing time for her as she decided to leave her husband, her family, even her beloved German Shepherd Pasha, and flee her country the day before the Ayatollah was installed. She landed first in London and eventually Los Angeles where she had to restart her career from scratch. She hasn't returned to the country of her birth in more than thirty years and a ban against her name appearing in Iranian media was only lifted with her Oscar nomination a decade ago.

She writes about the days just before the fall of the Shah in her new memoir, The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmine. "Angry crowds chanting slogans have now turned into rioters demanding the Shah's abdication. Tehran is shrouded in tear gas and smoke. The Shah's picture, once mandatory in government offices, is flying out of every office building in Tehran into the abyss. There is fire everywhere. Our city is painted the color of orange and red. Mobs are burning more and more stolen tires, and the Shah's pictures are discarded in piles in the streets."

It is political reporting on par with the subject of her latest film, "Rosewater," the chronicle of the Iranian-born, Canadian citizen Maziar Bahari and his four months in northwestern Tehran's Evin prison, which with gallows humor is called Evin University due to the number of intellectuals imprisoned there dating back to the time Aghdashloo fled Iran. The parallels between Bahari's mother Moloojoon, whom Aghdashloo plays in "Rosewater," and her own mother, both of whom remained in Iran while their children fled to the west, is not lost on Aghdashloo.

"I call her Mother Courage," she says of her own mom, while calling the late Moloojoon "a very tough and very witty lady." The synchronicity is uncomfortable for Aghdashloo, but it's almost worth asking just to hear her wrap her Persian purr around the phrase "déjà vu."

That's how she refers to her first read through the "Rosewater" script. "I lived through this turmoil in Iran and always pray that the same thing will not happen again, that the people do not fall into that same trap, because it's like a house of cards. If one country gets itself in order, others will follow, but if another country falls, the whole thing can collapse. I think we're all about to find out if the Middle East is ready for democracy or not."

Aghdashloo mentions that she's heard her director Jon Stewart say he was motivated to adapt and direct "Rosewater" because of "Jewish guilt." And she can relate, chalking up her own desire to make the film, and even continue to perform in her native Farsi, as "Iranian guilt."

"I have an inner guilt about leaving Iran," she explains, "I saved myself, but what about everyone else who was born into that tyrannical regime since I left?" She supposes this guilt will never leave her. When her daughter was born in 1989, she recalls hugging her fiercely, but then beginning to cry. When her husband didn't understand, reminding her that they had a beautiful, healthy baby girl, she replied, "I am crying for the millions of little girls in Iran."

Lest Aghdashloo come off as an overly politicized Debbie Downer, it's already been noted a deep, bassy laughter punctuates the call, even when it might not necessarily be appropriate. She says that's just one more thing she has in common with Stewart and mentions arriving in Hollywood and having to navigate the red carpet. She recalls paparazzo in New York chiding her at the "House of Sand and Fog" premiere. As each of the photographers shouted her name, she began to jerk her head around spastically. She recalls one photographer in particular screaming, "Oh my God, you have no idea how to do this!"

But she calls herself "a quick study," and by the time that film's success catapulted her to the Oscar's red carpet, she felt more assured, ready for anything. "People warned me about her," she says of the late Joan Rivers, "but she had a lot of background on me and she was very nice. But when Rivers said Aghdashloo's family name, she inadvertently pronounced the Farsi word for "contaminated with urine."

For the record, it's pronounced "SHOW-RAY OG-DOSH-LOO." But she can muster no other reaction to the flub than laughter. "What can you say?" she asks, deadpan. "I said nothing, my family name is not easy and, my God, the poor woman, but then Iranians who saw the program became very upset with me so sometimes it's hard to win."

I have my own red carpet meltdown over Aghdashloo. When Jon Stewart screens "Rosewater" for a local journalism program, there is an ad-hoc red carpet and his eyes slowly widen in horror as he realizes I'm using all of my too brief "who are you wearing?" time waxing on the star quality of Aghdashloo. He finally raises his stop hand mid-sentence and cracks, "It sounds like you've got what we in the industry call a boner." The press corps around me dissolve into laughter, but the hysterics provide Stewart with just enough cover to shoot me a knowing wink, suggesting that he too has it pretty bad for Aghdashloo.

Later, in a more proper press conference for the film, Stewart sighs, "Oh, this guy," when I ask in a more composed fashion about casting and working with Aghdashloo. "I still can't believe someone like her, an Academy Award-nominee, was like, 'Sure, I'll come out into the desert in 100-degree heat during Ramadan to make your movie,'" he says of the Muslim high holy day marked by a daily fast, and then mentions he "still can't believe that she happened."

"We filmed in Amman," Aghdashloo continues of the Jordanian capital whose Royal Film Commission incentives have lured everything from "Prince of Persia" to "Zero Dark Thirty" to this metropolitan, but "Blade Runner"-ish desert outpost. "The shoot took a month and a half, but I was there just three weeks. It was difficult because we shot during Ramadan, but we were all pleased. I feel like it's going to be the movie of the year, but actors sometimes let their imaginations get away with them."

But when Aghdashloo digs a bit deeper into her process, vis-à-vis a compliment she paid Jon Stewart after her first day of filming, just who was wearing the pants on set becomes murky. Before they started work that day, Stewart reminded her he was not a director. "After we shot a few scenes," Aghdashloo recalls, "I told him he was very humble. I told him he was a born director and he asked why. And I said it was because like all good directors, he allows the actors to craft their own takes on the character. Maybe he fine tunes it a bit here or there, but he lets us alone to create."