Monday, May 30, 2011

The Actress Who Kicked the Cultural Barrier

Shohreh Aghdashloo at the 2008
Toronto International Film Festival
These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about cross-over artists—singers, actresses, and writers who start out in one culture or language and later make it big in another. Partly, this is because I’ve just started writing a new book about an Iranian rapper who has just released her first English-language hit in the United States and is poised to become a household name. Like many Iranian performers in the real world, my rapper grows tired of the restrictions imposed on her by the Islamic regime in her native country and she flees to California where the language barrier means that she initially performs only in front of Iranian audiences.

One real-life artist who followed a similar path is the Iranian-American actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo. She may not be a household name yet, but Aghdashloo has worked steadily in Hollywood and American TV for a couple of decades now. Her breakthrough role came in the 2003 film The House of Sand and Fog, where she played the English-challenged wife of a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force (Ben Kingsley) and earned an Oscar nomination for her nuanced performance. Before that, she’d already appeared in TV shows such as Matlock (1990) and Martin (1993) and later took guest roles in Will & Grace, ER, Gray’s Anatomy, Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, House, M.D., and The Simpsons, among others. So even if you can’t pronounce her name, you may have seen her in one of these programs.

Shohreh Aghdashloo was born in Tehran in 1952 to a family of intellectuals. She built a successful acting career in the 1970s with roles in Iranian movies such as Gozaresh (The Report) and Sooteh Delan (Broken Hearts). During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, she moved to England to study international relations with the intention of working to improve the situation in her homeland. But a few years later, when a friend offered her a role in a play that became a big hit in the Iranian diaspora, Aghdashloo revived her acting career. Now a U.S. citizen, Aghdashloo lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the actor/playwright Houshang Touzie and their daughter Tara.

In 2005, Aghdashloo drew heavy criticism from the Iranian community for her role as the terrorist, Dina Araz, in the hit TV show 24. Prior to that time, the actress had avoided roles that reinforced negative stereotypes, and she even worked exclusively in theater for some years because the only film roles on offer were for terrorists or battered Middle Eastern women, portrayals she feels do not reflect reality.

At the time, I sided with the Iranian critics and wondered why this rising star would choose to reinforce such a disparaging view of her nationality by playing Dina Araz. But in an interview with Time Magazine, Aghdashloo defended her choice by saying, “[…] this role was a full-dimensional character. She’s a very strong woman, and she has many faces. And things may not be what they seem.”

I can’t fault her for making this kind of artistic choice. What performer can resist an intriguing role? And it raises the question of whether an actress must always see herself as an advocate for her culture and avoid stereotypes at all cost, or whether her primary responsibility is to her art and the opportunity to turn even a stereotype into a fully fleshed character. I think Aghdashloo has struggled with this question, and her choices have taken her to both sides of the issue.

Shohreh Aghdashloo has built a career as a character actress rather than a leading lady. But in the 2009 film, The Stoning of Soraya M., she again bucks tradition and plays the main character. This movie tells the chilling tale of Soraya, who is falsely accused of adultery, a crime punishable by stoning. Aghdashloo plays Soraya’s aunt, Zahra, who tells her niece’s story to a foreign journalist in an attempt to spread the word about the terrible injustice and cruelty of her niece’s fate. As Zahra puts it to the journalist: “Voices of women do not matter here. I want you to take my voice with you.”

That line sends chills up my spine every time I replay it in my head.

In an interview with Backstage, Aghdashloo discusses this movie and the choices she’s made over her career.

Offscreen, Shohreh Aghdashloo demonstrates the social consciousness that led her to England and her interrupted pursuit of a career in international relations. She is a tireless advocate of Iranian artists in the diaspora (and has been a strong critic of the iconic Iranian singer, Googoosh, for failing to do the same). Most recently, Aghdashloo has spoken out in support of the Baha’is, a religion that is severely persecuted in Iran. Her latest project is, Iranium, a documentary about Iranian politics, the West's collective Mideast policies, and nuclear proliferation. Released in February 2011, the film is already generating controversy within and outside Iran.

To learn more about this versatile actress and her bold artistic choices, check out her interview with Brad Balfour.


  1. She sounds like a very interesting woman. I know it wasn't easy for women to pursue an acting career in Iran, so just the very fact of that makes her an amazing character.

  2. Shohreh has me intrigued. What a fascinating person with so many layers. I can't wait to see what she does next.