Directed by Terry George, wartime romance The Promise follows a love triangle between Armenian med student Mikael (Oscar Isaac), the compassionate Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), and American journalist Chris (Christian Bale) during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Both a brutal, epic war picture and a sweeping, old-fashioned romance, the film brings much-needed attention to an event that’s been woefully underrepresented on the big screen.
Angela Sarafyan (Westworld) stars opposite Isaac as Mikael’s betrothed, Maral. The Armenian-American actress comes from a family of Genocide survivors, and in making the film found a deep connection to her ancestors and the horrors they faced just over one hundred years ago.
Sarafyan spoke to PopMatters about the emotional experience of stepping into her great-grandparents’ shoes, working with Oscar Isaac, her role on Westworld, and much more.
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I did some research on you and was moved to learn that your family survived the Armenian Genocide. Making this movie must have been an immense experience.
It was really special. The story is so close to my story, in a way, so it was really important for me to be a part of this story.
I imagine there was some added emotion that came along with taking on this project.
Yeah. When I read the script and read some of the stuff that happens in the story, I felt everything. It was a part of me and all of the stories I had heard from my great grandparents and my grandparents. It goes down the line. [As a kid,] I grew up hearing some of the stuff that’s happened, and it’s amazing that they survived. It’s amazing that I get to sit with you here now; if they didn’t make it, I wouldn’t be here. It’s full-circle.
It’s heartening to see a movie of this scale tackle the Armenian Genocide. I feel like most people are unaware of it or don’t give it much thought, sadly.
A lot of people that I met today had not heard of the Armenian Genocide. It’s interesting that this was something fairly new to a lot of people who see the movie. I think that’s the goal, to not only inform but tell it through a beautiful story. It’s the love story and how beautifully the movie is shot.
What I like about the film is that it’s just as concerned with being an engaging movie as it is informing the audience about this historical event. It’s an epic. Sometimes, movies about historical events can feel a bit too textbook-y.
Yeah, I think it has both elements. It’s meant to be a love story between these three main characters, but Oscar and I were talking about how Mikael also falls in love with my character, Maral. Our goal was to convey that he does love Maral and doesn’t just use her for her money. Eventually, he does love her.
Awareness has been building about the Armenian Genocide, and it’s great that your movie is out there, with its big budget and this terrific cast. But would you like to see more movies made on the subject? There have been countless movies made about World War II and the Holocaust, for example. Surely the Armenian Genocide deserves more attention than it’s getting in the film world.
There have been movies about the Armenian Genocide, but just not with the scope of ours. They were art pieces. There’s a movie called Mayrig, which is “Mother” in Armenian. It’s a beautiful film. But The Promise is the only film that tells the story in this epic, Dr. Zhivago way. Hopefully, there will be more films made about the Genocide.
This movie obviously presents some unique challenges to you as an actor. Your role on Westworld is incredibly complex but in a different way. As an actor, what kind of roles are you attracted to?
I look at it this way: I tend to know by the third page of the script whether or not I’m going to like the rest of the story. The Immigrant, a film I did that James Gray wrote, was very close to me. My mother and father left Armenia with two suitcases and flew here on a plane; imagine doing that in the early 1900s in a boat during the first World War. That’s what the Immigrant is about.
“When I look at stories, I have to connect with what’s on the page. I got goosebumps when I read Westworld. From the first few lines… I just knew. It was the same thing with The Promise. I love Maral, because I got to really look at the traditional Armenian woman, living in a village, living in a time when the villagers knew everything about each others’ lives. It was a time when parents would marry their children off at age five or seven. I loved investigating what it must have been like.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a particularly harrowing scene involving you and Oscar and a pile of dead that I imagine must have been terribly hard to film. Can you tell me what that was like?
I remember walking on set and thinking, these are just fake bodies. They’re plastic things. I was telling somebody that, and I started to cry. It was a subconscious thing. I couldn’t connect to it at first, but then a day passed and these tears were falling down my face. I wasn’t expecting that to happen. I’m an actor; you jump, you die, and all this crazy stuff happens. It’s the movies. But for this movie, I realized how deeply in the back of my mind this pain exists.
It’s tough to know that my ancestors and these people went through these things. It was very painful to be there. When Oscar held me, his energy went through me and I was crying.
What’s it like to work with Oscar?
He’s a full-on actor. He loves acting, and he talks about it in-between takes and after work. It was fascinating. It was an actor’s dream because it was like rehearsing all the time. There are actors out there who work with results and hit the marks. Here, it was more fluid. Actors sometimes say to each other, “He’s not giving me anything.” I don’t believe in that. I think people are always giving something, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
There are actors who will do one thing when the camera is on them but will sabotage the other actor when the camera isn’t on them. This happened to me — and I won’t tell you on what — but when the camera was on me, they’d do something silly during a really intimate moment. They won’t be there for you. They’ll literally try to fuck it up. Acting has to be honest. It has to be truthful. Not everybody can see that onscreen, though. I know when it’s fake and when someone’s really acting and not living. I can tell.
Your work on Westworld is terrific. That shot of your unblinking face is one of the more enduring images from the series, and I imagine your fanbase is growing as a result of landing that role.
I love running into people I’ve never met who love the show and are so taken with it. It makes me so happy, because it transcends. We wanted people to watch it and get something from it and change the way they think. I love hearing what people get out of the show, what they’re excited about, what they’re looking forward to, what answers they want to know. It’s exciting to have that dialogue and see all of the theories that are out there. I love reading them, because some of them are right, and I don’t know how they guessed! Terry George knew from the first episode that Jeffrey Wright was a robot! That blew my mind.
You’ve touched several genres in your career thus far. What’s a genre you haven’t explored that you’d like to in the future?
I want to be unpredictable with my choices, to not be stuck in one way. I want to constantly challenge how I’m seen. I wouldn’t necessarily want to play another robot prostitute. [laughs] Maybe a comedy… [trails off] The story has to affect me. If I’m not affected by it, I can’t do it.