Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
Rarely has a film's release dovetailed with an earth-shattering event so that, by its very existence, it CAN contribute to radically altering world affairs. The Stoning of Soraya M. is such a film--especially since it highlights the plight of the women of Iran. It tells the tale of Soraya Marnò, who refuses to divorce her abusive husband, a former criminal, so he falsely accuses of her of adultery which leads to her execution by stoning. In revolutionary Iran, women have few rights and the religion is manipulated by those claiming correct religious practice.
Though set in 1986 Iran, Soraya's plight and that of her one defender, her aunt, Zahra--played by Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo--is similar to that of the formerly liberated Iranian women, who, chafing under the current regime's oppression, have been at the forefront of the protests happening now since the Presidential election was stolen by conservative incumbent MaMoud Amadinajad.
Jackbooted by the Islamic laws put into place after the Ayatollah Khomeini's "revolution" deposed one dictatorship and imposed another in 1979, women lost many of their their rights, and abuses--including the stoning depicted here in great detail--began.
Based on Freidoune Sahebjam's 1994 novel of the same name, Soraya's death was documented by a journalist (played by Jim Caviezel in the film) whose car breaks down in a remote village. He hears the story through Zahra, who desperately relays it to him in the hope that he'll get the word out about what happened in her town.
That he did. The book was a big success when published, and now it's a film. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh struggled for years to get it made, so he hopes it will stir a groundswell of reaction for the women struggling in Iran. Of course, securing Aghdashloo as its star, an Iranian actress of such reknown--she went from starring in acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's early features to a supporting actress Oscar nom for House of Sand and Fog (with turns in such films as The Nativity Story or X-Men: The Last Stand and TV series as 24 or Grey's Anatomy)--was crucial to making it as powerful as it is. And in her husky, accent-inflected voice, the 50-something Aghdashloo shared similar feelings as well in this exclusive interview.
Q: Did you read the book the film is based on?
SA: No, I had no idea about the book. But I had seen a real [stoning] on tape.
Q: You saw a real stoning [gasps]?
SA: It was horrible! Those who say that the stoning in this film is graphic should see the real one. This is a mild watery version of the stoning.
Q: Where did this happen?
SA: It was smuggled out of Iran during the mid-'80s by some opposition. [It] was copied a thousand times and spread amongst the people who were involved with the Iranian film and show business industry in US.
Thank God he told me not watch it during the evening. I took my daughter to school, put my husband to work, and at 11 am I put it on. It took an hour and a half for them to die [gasps]...
Q: An hour and a half?
SA: An hour and a half! I was sitting at the edge of my chair. Now my audience is telling me they sit at the edge of their chair--they never get to relax. I tell them, "Believe me, I sat like that for an hour and a half" and when it was finished I was almost paralyzed. I could not believe my eyes.
There was no way this was [fabricated]. It was a real one. The one I saw involved two young men who were being stoned for being homosexuals, one was 18, the other 19. This is like 20 years ago.
Q: After watching that actual footage, did it influence you as being the storyteller of this film? How did that affect you in regards to how you portrayed your character?
SA: Basically, Cyrus trusted me, because he was born here in the U.S. and got to Iran only for a few years when he was a child. So he did not really have any recollection—none whatsoever. He also told me to come up with ideas and then we’ll discuss them together. I just kept playing for him and maybe we talked a few times over the character. But basically he trusted me all the way through.
As an actor, especially a method actor, I needed to imagine her physicality, how she looked. So I started with my nanny, Maryam, and the green scarf she wore. She used to put one of her ears out like it was a hairstyle, wearing it with those coin earrings which has a picture on them.
So I thought, "Okay, okay, okay, I’m going to dedicate this to Maryam. I’m going to think about her, the way she walks and talks. She was a villager and took really good care of me." She was a kind yet strong woman. She came all the way from the village, and started working in Tehran and had six kids.
Then, while doing research on the physicality, I saw this brilliant picture on the first page of New York Times--we’re subscribers though we live on the West Coast. I saw this Iraqi woman standing with her hands clutched into each other, like this, and she was looking far into the distance.
There was a younger girl, seven or eight years, next to her with a fire going on behind her back. Her face is bruised, and she is, of course, dirty with the mud and everything on her face and clothes. But still, you could see the strength in her eyes. The way she was looking far in the distance was like, "I am determined to win this war." I thought, "This is it." So I tore it out, took it with me to Jordan, and put it on the mirror until the film was finished.
Then I had to think about different ways that woman wear the chador [full veil], and I had no idea because my family didn’t wear a chador in Iran. I only got to wear it twice with my grandmother, going to the mosque.
So I was renting Iranian films that were made in post-revolutionary Iran, and started going through them and seeing, "Ooh! That’s great!" It all came to me, how they act with the chador.
Honestly, I discovered the chador in United States. There’s thousands of ways of working with this--how to open it to a person you have an intimate relationship with, and how to close it to strangers.
Q:Did you stay on top of the struggles in Iran when you went into exile?
SA: I did all the time, yes.
Q:So you stay in touch with your fellow exiles or filmmakers because you’re so involved aesthetically? How do they survive in Iran?
SA: Well, people do find their own ways of living—either behind closed doors, or in the dungeons, or try to keep a low-key position in society. Some came out and worked, such as Kiarostami, I guess.
I once asked an Iranian poet living in Colorado, "How are you doing? Are you still writing that beautiful poetry?" And he goes, "No, I’m afraid not, I haven’t worked for a year now." I said "Why not?" And he said, "Because I am a poet when I’m in my own country. When I see Damavand mountain in front of me, when I see all those hot springs in Iran. I guess I get my sources from what’s in Iran."
I asked a painter, "How come you lived in Iran and never left?—because he speaks English and French fluently. And he said, "Shohreh, I’m a painter. I get my sources from rich colors, and the carpets, and the rich foods in our nature. I can’t do the same thing in Switzerland."
Q: Are you a Muslim?
SA: I was born into a Muslim family, but never practiced.
Q: We Americans have a very limited, if not distorted and superficial, view of what the Muslim world is like. If I asked someone on the street what is a Shiite and Sunni, few would know. The Shiite tradition is vastly different from the Sunni tradition.
SA: It goes beyond that. For rural societies in the Muslim world, it’s more details, of course, not just what's on the surface of it. [Stonings like this] do not happen in the big cities. It happens in the rural societies, where people who’ve hi-jacked Islam are manipulating people through Islamic law, claims that stoning is Islamic law—which is not, really.
Stoning is not in Qur'an, it’s not even in the Hadith--stories that were told in the time of Muhammad or after him that [can carry the weight of law]. It’s categorized under superstitions and traditions. But there are a few, especially in the rural areas, that don’t know this.
Q:The same thing is happening in Pakistan and other Muslim countries--of stonings not really sanctioned by law.
Q:When you were in Jordan shooting, did you talk to the villagers that were there?
SA: Oh. I was all the time with the villagers.
Q:What did they think about this story?
SA: First of all, when I’m working on a natural scene, I try to mingle and get involved with the scene. So when I got in, I started talking to a man and a woman. She was wearing a chador, but her face was out, and she was this close to hitting the man. I told my friends, "This is my character in this village."
So I went to her and I said "Madame, what is your name?" She said, "Jamila." And I said, "Jamila, my name is Shohreh and I want to be your friend." So every day she used to do my braid. I would literally sit on her lap and she would do it.
Our hair person, said, "Why don’t you let me do it?" I said, "You don’t understand. This way I am making this bond with this woman. It’s necessary for me to feel like being one of them when portraying my character, and plus from that, I’m learning so much from them." I learned how to smoke from Jamila. Believe it or not, I smoked.
Q: You’ve never smoked [laughs]?
SA: Oh yes, I did, but not a chain smoker. Still, I had no idea how a village woman would smoke, because I smoke like a European. That’s totally different, how they put their cigarettes between their fingers—that's how they smoke.
I learned a lot from them, and they were so gracious and kind. They kept asking me, "What’s the story? What’s the story?" I couldn’t tell them, of course, but they were putting bits and pieces together.
Q: Even though there are people wearing chadors there, Jordan is still a fairly modern Muslim state without this repression. What did they say or think? Did they get an idea of what the movie was about? And did you get their reaction to the idea of stoning people?
SA: First of all, they were very cooperative. They were extras in the film. They loved doing it. They kept asking about the story, and I kept telling them different things. I didn’t want to tell them what the core of the ideas was, not until the stoning scene started. And when it started--Jamila kept asking me, "Is she innocent?"
I kept telling her, "Jamila, it is irrelevant whether she’s innocent or not, this thing shouldn’t happen. Her husband shouldn’t hit her." Because I go and get into the middle of the fight and save [Soraya] when Ali is beating her up in the street, Jamila and all the woman friends were around acting like the people of the village. They couldn’t help themselves, they applauded, "Bauurra! Baurra!" The director goes, "God no! You’re not supposed to show any kind of reaction. Don’t applaud--this is not theater. It’s for real."
So they were really cooperative, very nice people. But the moment we started digging the hole, they all gathered together, looked at the hole and Jamila came to me and said, "Are you Shiite?" I said yes. She said "Oh. Alas."
They were crying. And the scene of stoning, Jamila and her friends--I was crying because I was supposed to, and I couldn’t help myself because I was thinking of the real thing. But they were crying. Never did they ever witness anything like this before.
Q:Not in Jordan?
SA: Not in Jordan. Never. I was so afraid that we might [ruin] their kids by doing this, in that village—you know, teaching them how to throw the stones. I was really afraid about that, really afraid. But then they’re such civilized people, and they were all very, very, very upset and devastated about the film.
Q:What are your expectations with this film coming out?
SA: The film speaks brilliantly for itself. What I’m desperately looking forward to is that people who watch it, who would see it, will do something about it.
They won’t just have to cry in their privacy. They can go to the site, stoning.com, and leave remarks there. When millions of people have read the site, then together we might be able to do something.
Q: When you refer to the situation in Iran, how does this film play a part in the debate and in the broader Middle Eastern discussion?
SA: It’s amazing how timely this film is. It’s not only timeless, but also timely. Of course, shedding light on injustices such as this one would help a lot for the people hearing about what’s happening in Iran.
And it’s not only happening in Iran, it’s happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and more. So, being at the same time as this election and all these demonstrations in Iran, it’s just amazing, and again, it’s like a miracle.
I have to admit that from the moment Cyrus called to the moment we went to Jordan to shoot didn’t take more than a month and a half, then a month and a half of shooting, a couple of months in post. In less than a year, we were in Toronto Film Festival, where we managed to become a runner up to Slumdog Millionaire.
In fact, last year at this time, we were filming in Jordan. so it’s just amazing how timely it is and the effect it's going to have in opening people's eyes to what’s going on behind the curtain, especially in rural societies in the Islamic world. It also gives a portrait of these voiceless women who do not have even their own basic nights.
Q: Can you go back and visit Iran?
SA: I have not been back to Iran in the last 30 years since I left.
Q: Given that they’ve jailed people who came here with legitimate reasons I would be hesitant...
SA: I would love to visit Iran, but when Iran is free.
Q: Is that why you left?
SA: Yes, I was already on my way. I was an actress. I started when I was 18 years old with a stage actor first and then [director Abbas] Kiarostami changed my [future]. He came to see one of the plays [I was in] and said, "You are going to be in my film." It was his first feature--[The Report].
He taught me so much. First and foremost, the most important thing he taught me was not to act. Because I was coming from stage and I intend to act, he said, "You know what, just deliver the words." I still remember that.
Q: How much has Iran has changed over the course of the 30 years when you working with [esteemed Iranian director] Abbas Kiarostami?
SA: Actually, The Report was 34 years ago. The reason I left was the rumor that the Islamic Republic was going to take over and Ayatollah was coming to Iran via Air France. Being familiar with Islam from my grandmother--who was a pious woman, but not a fanatic by any means--I knew with its doctrine, there was no place [for me] in that society.
That’s why I jumped in my car in February 28th, 1979, and drove to Europe 31 days later. But yes, it has changed a lot, to the degree that nowadays we’re hearing words on the streets of Iran that you have not heard [in a very long time]. Not for the last 30 years. We’re hearing words such as transparency, law, accountability which is very healthy, very promising and very exciting.
Q: Moving here in the '80s to work in the US, it must have been a challenge as a middle-eastern actress to land a role here; is it changing a bit now but back then it must have been tough--how did you manage?
SA: In fact, when I got to the US, a friend of mine said, "You’ve got to work. I have to introduce to an agent." I went to meet with the agent, a very nice guy. He said, "Shorheh, you’re sort of over-qualified."
I can understand what he was trying to say. "You can get work, but it's going to be limited." With this accent and jet black hair, what are you talking about... Of course! I know that!
Then he sent me to different auditions and I realized that this was all extra work, like daily work and I called him and said, "Let’s not ruin our relationship over these petty audtions."
At that time I was doing theater with my current husband, playwright Houshang Touzie. He writes, directs, and produces contemporary Iranian plays. If I want to compare him to anybody in States, I would definitely say Neil Simon. Yeah, comedy.
We were doing so well with our first play, we bought our first house through it, so I thought, "Why am I wasting my time?" I called and said "Let’s forget about it."
It was 15 years later that casting director Deborah Aquila called and said, "Can I talk to Shoria Adhdashi?" and I said "Wow! That’s sounds a lot like my name but it’s not my name. Where on earth did you get this name?" She said, "Whatever your name is, I would you like to come down and sort it out."
I said, "Where to?" And she said, "Dreamworks." I said, "Regarding what?" She said, House of Sand and Fog and I was speechless.
I had read the book and told my husband, two years prior to this call, that if one day they make a film out of this book and do not give me this role, it would be really unfair of them. There’s no democracy in this country! He said ‘What does it have to do with democracy? You’re such a political animal.” [laughs]
Q: So it is liberating for you as a woman to be the one to speak this voice--to play this woman now.
SA: Absolutely. It was definitely liberating to me as an actor, as a feminist, as an activist, as someone who really cares about what’s going on in that country.
But to clear the air here, nothing like that happened when I was a child. Never, ever…