Is it important for you to combine acting with activism?
Shohreh Aghdashloo: Well, yes, after all, it has become important to me. I have lived and worked in Iran, in the Middle East, in Europe and in the US. Having seen all kinds of people, from all walks of life, living with them, and having witnessed these injustices going on around the world, including in my home country Iran, it turned me into an actress with a mission, whether I like it or not. And mostly, I am enjoying it because as an actor I am beyond the stage of worrying about fame and fortune and beyond the stage of making a name for myself. I’m standing at a point in my career where I would rather do meaningful and educating films rather than just entertaining films, I would say.
I have to admit that before taking on this assignment, I had a lot of misconceptions about the ritual of “stoning”, in general. This film was a huge eye-opener for me on the subject. Why do you think this type of punishment is selected still?
Unfortunately, it’s been with humanity since the beginning. Throughout history it’s been a part of all religions: Judaism, Christianity, other religions, other nations have gotten rid of it. But unfortunately, people who are abusing Islam to manipulate people, they are still using a punishment that was going on in Muhammad’s time. Actually, it’s not a part of Islam, it’s just a cultural matter, because it’s not in the Koran, it’s not mentioned in Islam’s holy book, it’s only been mentioned in the stories told at Muhammad’s time or after him. It’s more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. But those who are manipulating the religion are obviously still using it for the main fact that fear works better than anything else. The other day my daughter was asking me ‘why aren’t the women of Iran standing up for their rights?’ I kept telling her ‘do not underestimate the power of fear’. The stoning is a form of barbaric punishment, an ancient punishment, made to make people fear.
Is it fair to say that stoning is mainly a punishment for women?
Men and women both. I have seen a real one on tape. It came out of Iran in the early ‘90s and it involves two young men, 18 and 19, and they are being stoned for being homosexuals, for having a so-called “inappropriate” relationship. Usually, they stone women with the men they have been caught with together. In Soraya’s case, they don’t do it to the man because he has a retarded son and because he himself is almost retarded, that’s why they don’t touch him, and of course, they know they’re lying. They know that they need this man to lie. Otherwise, they would stone both.
I liked this quote from your director: “Our cast and crew are brave people who put their lives and careers on the line to make sure this movie would be seen.” The Stoning of Soraya M. looks at women’s rights, and capital punishment, among other volatile topics. What do you think are the dangers of making a politically-charged film, filled with complex moral issues, such as this?
Well, it’s mostly the fear. Again, it is the fear of the unknown, which is the worst fear on the face of the earth. But at the end of the day, to commit myself to something meaningful, I am not afraid of this. At the end of the day, when I think about that woman who was sitting in her cell, waiting to be stoned, I would rather go with that woman than my life, or my career, or my Iranian image. I’m not saying that I’m not afraid, I’m saying that it’s worth it.
Iran is a country where there are many different kinds of women, ranging from very modern in the city to rural working class women as in the film. What do you the biggest Western misconceptions about Iranian women are?
That Iranian women will give up. They don’t. They never do. They are really strong women with strong willpower. Forty percent of the protestors on the streets of the cities of Iran are women. They’re naming it a “women’s revolution”. Many “Zahras” are running on the streets of Iran now, including Mr. Mousavi’s wife named Zahra. They won’t give up.
I once heard Ingmar Bergman’s great actress Harriet Andersson talk about her fears of making any movies that required her to speak in a language other than her own. What are the differences for you acting in Persian and English?
First of all, it’s interesting you say “Ingmar Bergman” – My husband and I have a theater company, and we have our own group, who I jokingly call my “Ingmar Bergman” group. I love, love his work. His actors – oh my God. They’re incredible. The best method actors in the whole world!
It was really an opportunity for me to speak in Farsi, after 30 years, in the movie. None of us had done this before—neither me, nor the incredible Iranian cast who joined me, like Mr. [Parvis] Sayyad, who plays the mechanic or Mr. [Ali] Pourtash who plays the Mullah. When we all got together in that village and started speaking Farsi in front of each other, we all had strange feelings, of course. But then, a few hours passed by and language was no longer an issue. We were just together, on the same page, [and were] trying to put on a brave face despite this picture being about this horrific act. As a matter of fact, it was very nostalgic, I should say. We kept speaking Farsi all day and kept singing Persian songs, or Farsi songs, in the evening when we were having dinner. We hadn’t had this opportunity in years, none of us. You can imagine it helped us to keep ourselves ‘up’ and to stay together until we finished doing this story.
I imagine that you would need to have a strong bond with your fellow cast members when acting out something so intense…
Absolutely. With tragedies, actors tend to keep themselves ‘up’ all the time. We joked around. We were, you know, making fun of each other. One of us liked to do a lot of practical jokes. The only time that we really couldn’t do it, or in other words, didn’t have the energy to stay ‘up’ anymore, was when we were filming the stoning scene. It took six days and the director covered it from all angles. It looked so real that it was so hard for all of us to go through: the victim in the hole, the villagers who got to participate in the film and the extras who got to throw the stones, with the familiar faces, shouting “Allah akhbar, God is great”. At one point, I think it was on the fourth or fifth day, I’m not quite sure, I opened my eyes, and I really had a hard time telling the difference between cinema and reality. That’s how moving the whole shooting of the scene was.
As a viewer to be front and center for a scene like that is tough. It’s an intimate experience, and watching the mob violence is terrifying. It’s a very challenging thing to sit through, but I suppose necessary to get the point across? Do you feel the violence in the film is justified for the subject matter?
Absolutely. For people who believe that the film is graphic, I have to tell them that in comparison to the real one I saw on tape, this one is a mild version. The real one that I watched, it took an hour and a half for them to die and was far worse than this one [in the film]. Yes, you’re absolutely right, in order to send a message across, we needed to show bits and pieces of it.
You’ve blazed a trail by representing a diverse spectrum of Middle Eastern women’s experiences with the many different kinds of characters you’ve played. What are the responsibilities of being a trailblazer for you?
They are enormous, and to be honest with you, I have a lot to do. There is a lot left to pay attention to but, you know, one at time, I pick them up with a pair of tweezers (laughing). You know how meticulous I am with my work! I’m not in a hurry! I know that there will be time, there’s a time for everything. Twenty years ago, I wished that a film about stoning would be made, and that the act, the public wouldn’t beatify it. Now, it’s happening. It was meant to happen now, not back then. I just wait, gradually and slowly, and bring into light the things that I have witnessed. I believe that humanity should do something about this.