March 3, 2006

 

Shohreh Aghdashloo Enjoys Career Boost from Oscar Nomination

Respected Iranian-American actress gaining international attention

By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent

Portland, Oregon -- As the March 5 U.S. Academy Awards ceremonies honoring achievement in motion pictures remind us, Oscar, the award’s nickname, is a fickle fellow.  The little statuette can revive old careers or make new ones.  Sometimes an award seems to have little effect at all, while for some winners, perversely, the Academy Award only marks the highlight of a descent into obscurity. 

For many, though, even an Oscar nomination can bring new attention and move someone from the list of struggling actors who scratch for an occasional role to the ranks of well-established performers who suddenly have roles seeking them.

So it has been for the Iranian-born actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo.  Two years ago, before gaining a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Academy Awards, she knew the frustrations of many performers who work only infrequently.  She had gained the respect and admiration of those in the film industry who knew her, but she never had received the kind of attention that would lead to more and better roles.

Her harrowing performance as the wife and mother of an expatriate Iranian family in House of Sand and Fog changed all that.  In addition to her Oscar nomination, Aghdashloo won a New York Film Critics award and gained universal critical acclaim for her performance. 

After years in which she had struggled to find work, the offers now are numerous.  She enjoyed a prominent seasonlong role in the hit television action/thriller series 24 as well as guest roles on other programs.  Perhaps even more important in maintaining her career, she has three major movies coming out in 2006.

Aghdashloo, in a recent interview with the Washington File, said of this sudden change in fortune:  “I wasn’t thinking about Oscar nominations or awards.  For years, my dream was simply to become a working actress.  Now I have realized that dream.”  Though the term “working actress” might seem modest, it speaks volumes in the world of Hollywood; it means someone who finds roles regularly and works throughout the year.  In an industry in which the vast majority of the members of the film actors’ union, the Screen Actor’s Guild, make less than $5,000 per year from their craft, this is a significant difference.

SEEKING ROLES THAT OFFER “ENLIGHTENMENT AND INFORMATION”

For Aghdashloo, though, steady work and fame never have been entirely an end in themselves.  She always has spoken passionately about her desire for roles that carry a greater meaning.  Speaking from her home in Southern California, she says, “Our problem right now is ignorance.  If we only knew how valuable even a single human life is.”  She adds, “When I am offered [roles that deal with] these subjects, I don’t hesitate.  Even if it’s a small part, I will do it.  I want to do these roles for the enlightenment and information they offer.”

She says that each of her films being released in 2006 has a substantial theme.  The first, scheduled for an April release, is entitled American Dreamz and deals with the ways that different generations deal with the opportunities and challenges of immigrating to the United States.  She says, “My character feels that she doesn’t dare pursue the American dream – but her son feels he can.” 

The film boasts a strong cast of established Hollywood stars, including, in addition to Aghdashloo; Dennis Quaid, Hugh Grant and Willem Dafoe.  Though it also deals with the effect of international politics and terrorism on daily lives, surprisingly, it is a comedy.  Aghdashloo says, “One of the things I admire most about Americans is that they can laugh at themselves.  It is difficult for people from older, more ambiguous, darker cultures to do that.”

She also will have major roles in The Lake House, a film she describes as “a science-fiction love story” in which she will appear with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, and X-Men 3, a fantasy-adventure film.

However, it has been the role in her television series 24, with its enormous audience, that has made her face familiar to millions of Americans.  Working on a television series, she says, is vastly different from working on a movie.  “It seems there’s no end to it.  You go on and on playing the same character,” she says. 

She laughs about the special challenges of the series, whose seasonlong story, filmed over several months, covers only one 24-hour period.  “I was shot in one scene and so had to wear a bloody shirt for three months!” she says. 

She says the sudden fame from her role in the series took her by surprise.  While she would on rare occasions be recognized in the street after her role in House of Sand and Fog, the series 24 led to instant recognition almost everywhere she went.  She talks about going into a local department store to shop and hearing someone say, “There’s the woman from 24!”  She laughs, “All these people started running towards me and I started running too.  Then I asked myself, ‘Why am I running?’ and stopped,” and talked with her new fans.

She says the reaction of some presumably sophisticated filmgoers can be surprising.  After her role in House of Sand and Fog, she says more than one fan asked, “Are you a housewife?”  She tries to explain, “No.  I’m an actress.  I was acting.”  On one occasion a man remarked to her, “When you did House of Sand and Fog you didn’t speak English, and now you speak English well.”   It came as a surprise to him that she could speak English all along, but the role required her to speak only in Farsi.

Aghdashloo, who holds a degree in international relations, was the first Middle Eastern woman to receive an Academy Award nomination.

Perhaps her most important project is one still on the horizon: the lead role in the proposed film version of the best-selling autobiography, Reading Lolita in Tehran.  She understands that the movie could be controversial in her native country, but has no reservations about making the film, saying, “It has an important theme.  You shouldn’t waste time worrying about what other people think, if you believe that it’s right.”

This is the most important challenge of her career, and one that she embraces. “The world is getting smaller and smaller.  We must learn to live next to each other,” Aghdashloo said in her interview, echoing almost word for word sentiments she expressed in a previous talk with the Washington File two years earlier.  “We each need to put aside politics and racism and yourself be a better person.”

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)





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