Washington - Tehran-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo became the first Iranian American to win an Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, receiving the honor September 20, 2009, for her supporting role in the original HBO miniseries House of Saddam.
It was only six years earlier that she hit another historic cultural mark by becoming the first Iranian-American and Middle Eastern woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the movie House of Sand and Fog.
Aghdashloo began acting in the Theater Workshop in her native Iran in the early 1970s. She performed in numerous plays and also gained acclaim for her film work in Gozaresh (The Report). In 1978, her performance in Sooteh Delan (Broken Hearts) established her as one of the youngest leading actresses in Iran.
She fled Iran in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution and traveled to England, where she earned a college degree in international relations. She continued to act, and in 1987 decided to pursue her career in the United States, appearing in her first American film in 1989.
Since that time she has appeared in numerous films, plays and television programs. Her most recent role was in the 2008 Iranian-American film The Stoning of Soraya M., based on Freidoune Sahebjam's book about the real-life 1980 stoning of an Iranian woman accused of adultery under Shariah law.
In a telephone interview, Aghdashloo reflects on her recent Emmy Award, her career and her future aspirations.
Q: How important is the Emmy Award?
A: It is pretty important. It is a precious award that I received from my peers. I did not expect it at all and as I walked toward the podium, I wondered if I had really heard my name right. It was just incredible.
Q: Can you tell us of your emotion about being the first Iranian actress nominated for an Academy Award and winning an Emmy?
A: I am so proud and happy. Let's say happiness personified. Not just for myself. Let's say that this little Middle Eastern girl from Iran came to America, which is truly the land of opportunity, and made her wish come true. You can imagine how proud I am not just for what is happening to me, but also to many Iranian women who hold key positions in every field.
Q: Do you prefer acting in movies, television or theater?
A: I act for the sake of acting, not for the medium, although technically every one is entirely a different form of art. I love acting, so it really doesn't make a difference whether it is for cinema, TV or the stage. Personally, because I started as a stage actress, I love to go on the stage. I feel at home. Cinema will take every actor's career further and gives them a larger and international platform. I love TV work. I keep telling my actor friends, "If you want to win people's hearts you should be engaged in a TV series, and you'll see how people recognize and acknowledge you." People feel close to you because you've been in their home and entertained them.
Q: In Iran, you began your career in the Theater Workshop, which was mostly an experimental theater. Did it have an impact in the development of your acting career?
A: Yes, indeed. Thirty-five years ago, I acted in plays by Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello. Sometimes we even improvised a group of them together, like in a play titled Tonight Is the Moonlight, directed by Ashur Banipal, especially for the Persepolis Arts Festival, which was praised and people loved it. I remember Play and Players, a prominent theater magazine in England which is still published, wrote a brilliant piece of critique on this play.
We had to study the Bible as well, with Ashur Banipal's teaching of Bible stories, which was very much related to Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director, whom we were studying as well. All that brought me to England, and the knowledge and the techniques which I had learned in Iran enabled me to work on international stages, rather than just Middle Eastern or Iranian stages.
Q: Which one of your roles do you like the best?
A: I like my character Nadi in The House of Sand and Fog. The subject matter was so close to heart and to home. I have known women like that all my life in Iran. I think of her [Nadi] as my aunt or my grandmother.
Q: At the Emmy Awards, you were seen wearing the green bracelet, which is the sign of solidarity with the green movement in Iran. Do you consider yourself a political activist?
A: Since I left Iran in 1979, I have never stopped fighting for human rights. This [is] just a follow-up with what's been happening for the past 30 years. The green bracelet was, in fact, the symbol of solidarity with what is happening in Iran. Especially to the young people who shook the world with their civil disobedience and spontaneous uprising. I, like thousands around the world, watched those horrible photos. I just tried to shed light on it for the media to pay attention.
Q: As the most famous Iranian actress, do you think celebrities and other Iranian immigrants can enhance civil liberties and democratic ideas?
A: What happened a few months ago was just a beginning of an end. This movement which now has gone underground will reemerge. It will not stop till they control their own destiny - something they've been deprived of, having lived with a religious and military government for the past 30 years. Without getting directly involved, as it would not only have a huge backlash, but also [Iranian officials] would blame the Western countries for this spontaneity. Thus, it is best to echo the opposition's voice, to shed light on injustice, torture and the rape which is taking place in Iran. American media has been lenient and paying a lot of attention to current events in Iran.
Q: You have spoken out about the Baha'is who are incarcerated in Iran.
A: I do care about the Baha'is' cause, and as a born Muslim I am ashamed of what has been happening to them. In '83 a group of 62 Baha'is was arrested for a simple gathering. They were asked to deny their faith in writing. To avoid jail, 50 of them signed a letter stating they are Muslims; the rest were sentenced to death. In 1983, President Reagan urged the world leaders to join him in asking the Ayatollah [Khomeini] not to kill these innocent people. The Ayatollah's response was "Since when has Reagan been interested in human welfare? How come he said nothing about Iraqis' crimes against Iranians?" So, words are not enough. We need action. Also, words of interference would crash the movement.
Q: Are you trying to screen your last movie, Stoning Soraya, for a possible Academy Awards nomination?
A: We started with the Toronto Film Festival and managed to become the second-runner-up, and the film was shown next to Slumdog Millionaire. It has received good reviews. The audience has been overwhelmed and reacted with disbelief that this is still taking place and not just in biblical times.
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