November 21, 2006
Folks, sorry I haven't posted anything in so long. I just wrapped 3 months on Campus, one month on Winner, and any chance I have to write these days goes into sketch writing for the Groundlings. But I was recently interviewed for a piece in Back Stage West, so here is that:
MIDEAST MEETS WEST
By Jenelle Riley
Shohreh Aghdashloo exudes an effortless warmth and generosity of spirit that makes her a natural choice to play St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in Catherine Hardwicke's new film The Nativity Story. "I guess I have a biblical face," the beautiful actor says with a laugh. "It was amazing to be able to play this role, regardless of who I am or whether I was born a Muslim or not. It's a role I never thought I would get to play. It's opened the door a little bit and given me hope. I've always wanted to play Isadora Duncan one day but never thought I could. Now, I think, maybe it could happen."
Aghdashloo's story is the stuff of dreams and worthy of a film all its own. Her Hollywood career began fairly recently, with her heartbreaking portrayal of Nadi, the wife of a once-great Iranian colonel (Ben Kingsley) in the 2003 film House of Sand and Fog. It was a star-making performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was Aghdashloo's first significant role in an American movie. It scored the actor an Oscar nomination and a renewed career at an age when most female actors find the pool of age-appropriate roles drying up.
Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Aghdashloo was drawn to acting at an early age. She starred in two films from acclaimed Iranian directors Mohammad Reza Aslani and Abbas Kiarostami, and was an active member of a Tehran-based theatre company until it was abruptly closed in 1979 by revolutionary guards. Realizing "there wasn't a place for women like me" there, she drove for 31 days to London, where she earned a bachelor's degree in international relations and became an outspoken political activist. But she never let her passion for performing die. In 1983 a friend asked her to be in his play, Rainbow, about an Iranian man who is accused of being a member of the shah's elite circle and commits suicide in hopes of garnering media attention. It was a way to combine politics and art, and Aghdashloo hasn't stopped acting since. She moved to Los Angeles in 1987 at the invitation of playwright Houshang Touzie, who asked her to collaborate with him professionally and personally: The two founded the theatre company Workshop 79 (named after the fateful year her company in Iran was shut down) and married.
Aghdashloo set out on auditions for film roles but soon became frustrated by the limited opportunities. "Within a year I realized I wouldn't be able to get a proper role," she notes. "I was only going out for terrorists and battered women. So I decided the best thing to do would be to concentrate on my work on the stage and not even bother with film and television." Asked what she was looking for, Aghdashloo says simply, "Roles with body. The roles I was sent were one or two lines, just heads talking. Nothing you could put your teeth into."
When she read Andre Dubus III's best-selling book House of Sand and Fog in 2000, she immediately connected with the role of Nadi. "I told my husband, 'If one day they make a movie out of this book and they do not give me this role, it would be really unfair!'" the actor recalls. Still, she knew it was unrealistic to think she would even have a shot at such a part. What she didn't know was that casting director Deborah Aquila was having an impossible time finding an actor for the part. Eventually, Aquila and her associates went to several Iranian businesses in Los Angeles and asked people who their favorite actress was. Aghdashloo's name kept popping up. Aquila contacted the actor by phone, promptly mispronouncing her name. "She said, 'I'm sorry, we have so many different spellings, but we want you to come in; we've heard so much about you,'" Aghdashloo remembers. "I thought, 'Here we go again, another terrorist.' I asked what the movie was, and as soon as she said House of Sand and Fog, I was speechless. The dream was coming true."
Following that role, Aghdashloo found herself in demand on screens large (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Lake House) and small (24, ER, Will & Grace). Being a prominent Middle Eastern actor is a responsibility she takes very seriously. "I care so much about what my community thinks of me," she says. "We're not just actors; we're ambassadors of love and friendship. We don't need to make things worse. A lot of African Americans refused to play bad guys because they wanted to hold their heads up high in their community. I don't want to disturb or hurt anyone. But please remember, I'm just an actress trying to do my best."
The Right Part
Aghdashloo is in good company. More now than ever, Middle Eastern actors have been brought to the front lines of entertainment, even if the sudden increase in roles is due to a national tragedy. L.A.-based actor Amir Talai was born and raised in San Francisco but is of Persian heritage. "I moved to L.A. about six months after 9/11, and I knew I would be going up for a lot of bad guys," Talai notes. "But as much as I went up for them, I didn't get many, because I'm not very terrifying." He has portrayed terrorists in the short film Jihad, the TV movie Homeland Security, and the upcoming The Onion movie but excels in comedic roles that often have nothing to do with politics. He currently plays Abdul on the Oxygen Network comedy Campus Ladies and has a recurring role as sketch writer Fred on NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Like Aghdashloo, Talai also found refuge in the theatre, having appeared in the Queen musical We Will Rock You in Las Vegas and as Pontius Pilate in the L.A. production of Jesus' Kid Brother. "Theatre is always more open to ethnicities," Talai notes. "I tried out for a role in a musical where they were looking for a 'James Dean rocker type.' I was like, 'This is a joke; there's no way they're going to go with someone brown.' To my surprise, I went really deep; it got down to me and two other guys."
Ultimately, Talai says, he understands that colorblind casting won't always work. "It can be distracting," he admits. "And I don't typically want parts that aren't right for me." He also believes that in some ways his ethnicity can work to his advantage. "Maybe I can't go up for as many roles, but the roles I do go up for, I have less competition," he observes. "So it sort of evens out. I had a female friend say recently, 'How many roles do you think you get just because of your ethnicity?' I asked her, 'How many roles do you think you get just because you're a woman?' It's sort of like, that's your pocket. Play in that pocket. And I've been really fortunate."
Which is not to say Talai hasn't endured his share of offensive encounters in the audition process. "There was a movie audition where they wanted me to make out with a camel," Talai recalls. "I remember the casting director going, 'Great work, thank you!' And I was like, 'Great work? This is ridiculous!'" But overall Talai finds he's pleasantly surprised by the roles being written for Middle Eastern actors. "I think the terrorist roles being written nowadays are more nuanced than, say, the Russian roles being written in the 1980s," he notes.
Making a Mark
According to Shaun Toub, a respected actor of Persian descent who stars in The Nativity Story as Mary's father and is probably best-known as the frustrated shopkeeper in last year's Crash, roles have definitely improved for Middle Eastern actors. "The new generation, more so than ever, have such an opportunity," Toub says. "It seems strange to say it, but the market is even better now for Middle Eastern actors because there's so much more substance and story, and people are so much more familiar with our culture." This is due largely to actors such as Toub, whose brave, nuanced turn in Crash dared to confront racism head on. It was a role the actor had to fight for: Far younger than his character, Toub went through two hours of makeup daily to transform into the elderly store owner.
Toub recently wrapped production on an adaptation of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner, a story set largely in Afghanistan. Toub plays Rahim Khan, a close family friend of the story's narrator. It's a book that was embraced by the Middle Eastern community, and the film roles were intensely sought after by Toub's peers. "You have no idea," Toub says with a laugh. "Another actor who flew in to do a role walked up to me and said, 'I just want you to know, I'm envious. I understand why you got the part, but I'm envious. And I'm not envious of anyone else.'"
Toub had been a working actor for years prior to 9/11 a circumstance he feels helped him avoid being typecast in terrorist roles. "I think I'd made my mark in Hollywood, and people knew what I was capable of," he explains. "But I tried to be careful. Hollywood is a strange place: People see you as what you've done before." He points out that there are all kinds of typecasting. "At first I got a lot of comedic roles because I'd been doing comedy. Then I did dramas and only got dramatic roles offered. After Crash I started getting a lot of offers for 65- and 70-year-olds," he recalls with a laugh. "I'd walk into a meeting and people would be surprised I was so much younger. Even casting directors who know me and hadn't seen me in a couple years go, 'Wow, you look amazing!' But I really just look the same."
The actor notes that many times in his career he turned down roles he found insulting. "I do believe you have to be proud of what you do," he says. "And if I read something that I don't feel attached to or passionate about, I try to stay away from it. After all, people do associate you with the film. Especially after being a part of something like Crash, I feel such responsibility." That's not to say Toub is averse to playing the bad guy if the part is right. "Bad guys are fun," he says. "Give me the bad guy in a James Bond movie, I'm there!"
Sometimes, even a "terrorist" role can be compelling, as Aghdashloo learned when she joined the cast of the Fox series 24 as Dina Araz in the show's fourth season. Though she had made a practice of avoiding villainous roles, the complex character proved too much to resist. "I had said before I would never play a terrorist, because I'm a Method actor. I need at least some time to portray my character, to bring it to the screen and for it to connect with the audience," Aghdashloo explains. "When they give me one line, how am I going to portray such a character? But when 24 came around, I realized this role had so many dimensions. She was a mother, a housewife; she has a cause that turns her into a terrorist. I realized it would be a powerful role that would allow me to play a variety under one title." The role earned her the ire of some in her community. After hearing an Iranian radio station badmouth her over the course of a month, Aghdashloo took matters into her own hands and called in to defend herself. She recalls, "I asked to go live on the air and said, 'Aren't you ashamed of yourself, blaming me for something I was born to do? I'm an actress, trying to portray this woman as truthfully as I can.' That did it. It shut them up."
Sam Golzari, who is of Persian-Iranian-Russian descent, scored a breakthrough role earlier this year as Omer, a terrorist-turned-talent show contestant in the comedy American Dreamz (which co-starred Aghdashloo as his aunt). Even though he is sent on a mission to detonate a bomb during the season finale of a popular television show, Omer emerges as probably the most sympathetic player in the film. "I did hesitate when I first heard the role was a terrorist," Golzari admits. "But he was one of the more compassionate and multidimensional characters in the story." It was a role the actor was originally considered too light-skinned to play. "Every time I've gone for a Middle Eastern role, everyone else has been 20 years older and with a full beard," he notes. "I ended up having to fake tan for the role."
He isn't alone. A professional actor since age 13, Iraqi American Yasmine Hanani (Sleeper Cell) has been told several times that she "didn't look Middle Eastern enough" to play certain roles. "That makes me laugh, because I am 100 percent Middle Eastern and, trust me, it's obvious," Hanani exclaims. "I know it's hard for most people to recognize what Middle Eastern women look like. My response to that is, just look at someone like Shohreh Aghdashloo: She is a Middle Eastern woman, and she is gorgeous. I hope that people will stop associating 'frumpy, round, and hairy' with Middle Eastern women."
Of course, having an ambiguous ethnic look can be an advantage. Golzari recently wrapped a film called AmericanEast in which he plays "a Jewish guy from the Bronx who doesn't like Middle Easterners." Actor Cas Anvar (Shattered Glass) says he has been "working like crazy" in recent years; he echoes Talai's sentiment that his ethnicity can sometimes give him an upper hand. "When I go out for the ethnic roles, I have an advantage because there's less of us," he points out. "When I'm auditioning for a generic 'white-bread' role, I really have to blow them away in order for them to think of me for that role." Anvar, who was born and raised in Montreal, was initially prepared to be offered villainous roles only. "When I graduated theatre school, my big concern was I would get typecast as a terrorist," he recalls. "So I started my own theatre company in Canada and was determined to make my own work and do my own thing. But, oddly, I'd say that over the last 15 years, I've played two terrorists, and they were both in the last year. Other than that, I've played the comic relief Middle Eastern sidekick, doctors, lawyers, princes. It's been a huge range. On the whole, the stereotyping I was worried about didn't really happen. Why, I don't know. They just haven't come up."
The Upside of Typing
Even when stereotyping occurs, many believe it will ultimately benefit Middle Eastern actors. "Yes, it's frustrating now, but in the end it will be good," Anvar says. "I think eventually this will bring a lot of attention to Middle Eastern stories. I think...the drama and hypersensitivity and overzealous portrayal you see now is going to get boring, and it's going to become hip to portray Middle Easterners as everyday people. And once Middle Easterners are introduced into the mainstream, their stories will be told."
Hanani agrees. "I believe that the Middle Eastern culture is going through an initiation phase, much like other ethnicities have," she says. "Most of the stories being told about the Mideast are related to the war in Iraq, terrorism, and stereotypes, too. But I am hopeful and confident that, down the road, Middle Eastern characters will be integrated into film and television projects as other ethnicities have, including Latino, Indian, African-American, and Asian." Hanani points out that each ethnic group faced its own stereotypes. "Latino actors were stereotyped as gang members, Indian actors were convenience store owners, etc.," she explains. "Now you see these ethnicities being represented more widely in roles on film and television, including those that were previously limited to stereotypes but went through their 'initiation' period. That is also an accurate reflection of our country: America has citizens from all over the world."
And so Hanani remains hopeful for the future. "Actors will play some stereotypical roles now, but a fair tradeoff in the future is to have available deeper characters, with other aspects of the Middle East being explored," she says. "I hope there will be more balance in the way the Middle East is portrayed. There obviously are terrorists out there, but the large majority are wonderful, good people. I hope we'll be able to represent both sides."
Anvar agrees. "In my opinion," he says, "it's the best time to be an ethnic Middle Eastern actor as long as you don't take things personally and you maintain your integrity while doing your roles. If you look at the big picture and how art has evolved over the last 50 years, you can see this is good news for us."
The Name Game
Fortunately, many actors find that creative teams are open to feedback. "This is something I've noticed: When my character name is something like Abdul or Mohammed, I have an accent," Talai says. "When it's Richard or Fred, I don't have an accent. Yet my name is Amir, and I don't have an accent. So if I get cast in a role that is of the latter category, I'll often ask them if I can change the name to something Middle Eastern. But it's more about accuracy than an agenda: A guy who looks like me is more likely to be named Amir than Fred."
When Anvar was up for the role of a Middle Eastern passenger assumed to be a terrorist in the 2005 thriller Flightplan, he noticed a passage in the script in which Jodie Foster's character beats on the passenger, causing him to strike back in defense. Anvar didn't hesitate to voice his concerns and found the powers that be receptive to his feedback. He explained that "in the Muslim culture, a woman hitting a man like that is humiliating. And it's a [more] powerful moment [for him to do nothing] than him just whaling on her and looking like a wife beater." He says, "The final script that I saw, they made the change where she beats him and he doesn't fight back. That's how I deal with anything that I feel is not quite up to par."
In addition, the younger generation of Middle Eastern actors notes that it helps to have role models to look up to something that is fairly new. Anvar points to Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub, star of the USA Network series Monk, as one example. "He's a Middle Eastern actor who is a lead in a series that has nothing to do with his ethnicity. That's an aberration," Anvar notes. "They just got the best actor for that role; he happens to be Lebanese. He's an icon for us."
Other such role models include Aghdashloo and Toub, whose names often pop up in conversation with other actors. "I grew up going to Shohreh's plays," Golzari notes. "It was so inspiring to me as a young adult to be able to go and see something like that." Aghdashloo believes the industry is constantly changing. "Actors can only stay faithful to the characters they're going to portray and then detach their ego from everything else," she says. "That's the only way to stay successful in this industry: Don't lose yourself to any trouble. Or you may as well pack your suitcase and leave."