By Christopher A. Pape & Anna Ryan
With a voice reminiscent of Kathleen Turner and as beautiful as a Persian queen, Shohreh Aghdashloo has roared onto the Hollywood scene. If you think she did so by a fluke, you would be wrong. It was only through hard work and perseverance that she honed her skills in Tehran and fled the country during its Islamic Revolution in 1979 to become one of the most beloved actresses on screen today.
We sat down with her at a neighborhood café to discuss her new book, which details her life's journey from her homeland through England to Los Angeles, her Academy Award nomination for House of Sand and Fog and how it was difficult for a foreigner to break through when English was not her first language.
Both of us were surprised and gratified by Shohreh's graciousness. This was on display when our waitress at the café recognized and lavished attention on her. Rather than demur or be annoyed (as many Hollywood actors are wont to do) Shohreh basked in the attention: "It's my reward when people recognize me in public. If people recognize me it means that they have connected with my character. It means that I've been convincing. They like us (actors) so if they approach us, it means that they want to tell us how much they love our work. And as actors, we should be appreciative instead of being rude to them."
Her love for people is evident and translated into her desire to be an actress. "I wanted to become an actress since I was seven years old." Yet, her parents did not support her love of acting. They wanted her to go to Germany to become a doctor. That was the plan for her and her three brothers. "It was very popular to send your kids to England or Germany to become doctors," she said.
Shohreh was torn, but her desire for acting grew when she met a man who taught her all there was to know about live cinema. "For the first time in my life he taught me that cinema is all about metaphors and symbols." This became a whole new world, "a world that had nothing to do with my life at home, with my parents, which was beautiful, but not as meaningful as I wanted it to be." The day came when he proposed to her, and she saw it as a sign to really pursue her acting career. Her opportunity came when her husband told her about an audition for the role of a British queen for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Upon completing her audition, she was asked to go to the main office where the head of the workshop told her, "Congratulations little girl, you won the contest for playing the role." This was the impetus for becoming a successful actress in Iran.
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution sparked a new chapter in Shohreh's life. She was faced with the dangers of living in Iran and decided it was time to flee. "I had heard that the Prime Minister at the time had ordered all the airports to shut down. I thought this is it, they're going to shut down all the airports and then they're going to shut down all the borders until no one can leave, so it's better if I drive out while the borders are still open," she explained. She fled that night at 4am and sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the border, where "we were all claiming we were going to Turkey for vacation." When she made it to London, she heard Margaret Thatcher give a speech which made her want to pursue politics instead of acting. "So I studied politics. I studied international relations. I committed myself to this for four years," she stated.
After graduation, a playwright friend of hers called her and said he had written a play with a lead role in it for her. She read it and immediately fell in love. "It was a political play," she said. "It dawned on me that I don't have to change my profession. I can still be an actress." The play was put on stage for five nights in London and was completely sold out. Once the United States heard about the play, they wanted to bring it to Los Angeles. When a riot broke out to see the play, she decided she wanted to live here, a place where people would break down the door to see her perform.
Living in the United States proved to shower Shohreh and her second husband with new opportunities. "We started Workshop 79 believing that there was no place for us in Hollywood; we'd have to create our own work. We're both artists, and we could create from scratch – so we did," Shohreh said. Her first Hollywood film, House of Sand and Fog, developed her English-speaking acting career in the United States. She was eventually nominated for an Oscar. Since then, she has been in multiple films including X-Men, The Lake House, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the TV series 24.
Every day Shohreh is reminded of how blessed she is to be where she is now. It's reflective in her way of thinking, and one of our favorite lines from the interview shows this bright light of her compassion: "It's only in comparison that life becomes meaningful. When you see a hobo you see how lucky you are to have a shelter. When you see a sad face then you realize how fundamental it is to wear a smile. And all the time I make an effort to smile at people." Her hard work and dedication have truly paid off, and the world is a better place for it. •