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June 2009
THE STONING OF SORAYA M | An Interview with Shohreh Aghdashloo

An Interview with Shohreh Aghdashloo
By Brad Balfour

June 23, 2009

Rarely has a film's release
dovetailed with an earth-shattering new event so that it can not only illuminate a problem but maybe, by its very existence, contribute to radically altering world affairs. Such a film is "The Stoning of Soraya M."--especially since it highlights the plight of the formerly liberated women of Iran. This feature 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 this 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 that20of her one defender, her aunt, Zahra (played by Oscar nominee Shorheh Aghdashloo), is similar to that of Iranian women today who, chaffing under the regime's oppression, have been at the forefront of the protests that have been happening since the Presidential election was stolen by conservative incumbent MaMoud Amadinajad.

Jackbooted by the Islamic laws put into place after the Ayotollah's "revolution" deposed one dictatorship and imposed another in 1979, women had lost their rights, and the abuses including stoning began. Based on Freidoune Sahebjam's 1994 novel of the same name, her story was documented by the journalist (played by Jim Caviezel in the film)--whose car breaks down in a remote village and 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 to get it made for several years and now hopes it will stir a groundswell of reaction for the plight of women struggling in Iran. In her husky accented inflected voice, the 50-something Aghdashloo shared similar feelings as well.

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, international universal version of the stoning.

Q: Where did this happen?

SA: It was smuggled out of Iran during the mid-'80s by some opposition and 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 and 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 made, like it was a poor man process, it was a real one. The one I saw involved two young men who were being stoned for be ing homosexuals. One was 18, the other, 19.

Q: Was it reported in the news?

SA: I don’t know whether it was reported or not but this is like 20 years ago.

Q: After watching that actual footage, did it influence you, as the story teller in the film, and did it influence you in regards to how you exactly wanted to portray your characters, or did you basically just let Cyrus direct you? Did you bring up those old feelings from watching that film?

SA: That’s what I did. Basically
Cyrus trusted me, because he was born here in the US and got to Iran only for a few years, when he was really a child. So he did not really have any recollection. None whatsoever. He also trusted me, he 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.

First of all, as an actor, especially a method actor, I needed to imagine her physicality, how she looks like. 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 of 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 very strong woman. She came all the way from the village, and she 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 a subscriber though we live on the West Coast. It came that week and I looked at the picture and I saw this Iraqi woman standing with her
hands clutched into each other, like this, and she was looking far into the distance. There is 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 around on her face and clothes. But still, the strength you could see in her eyes, and the way she was looking far in the distance was like "I am determined to win this war" and 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 watching the films and going through them and seeing "Ooh! That’s great!" It all came to me, how they act with the chador. There’s thousands of ways of working with this. Better say I discovered chador in United States, honestly. There’s thousands ways doing this, you know, how to open this to an intimate person, intimate relationship, how to close it to the strangers.

Q: Can you go back and visitIran?

SA: I have not been to Iran in thelast 30 years since I left.

Q: Given that they’ve jailed people who came there 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 theater. I was a stage actor first and then [director Abbas] Kiarostami changed my [future]. He came to see one of the plays [I as in] and said, "You are going to be in
my film." It was his first feature--["The Report"].

Yes , 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. But he said "You know what, just deliver the words." I still remember that.

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