By MEGAN LEHMANN
IT doesn't trip lightly off the tongue, but Oscar pundits are fast learning how to pronounce Shohreh Aghdashloo's name.
The 51-year-old Iranian actress has burst on the scene like a firecracker with a star-making performance in the harrowing melodrama "House of Sand and Fog," out Friday.
Best Supporting Actress frontrunner Renee Zellweger (news) - who gives a rough-'n'-ready performance as a feisty drifter in the lush Civil War drama "Cold Mountain" - had better watch her back.
The New York Film Critics Circle (news - web sites) just handed Aghdashloo its Best Supporting Actress award, she has an Independent Spirit Award nomination in that category, and momentum is building ahead of tomorrow's Golden Globe nominations announcement.
"Shohreh is an incredibly skilled actress and she really brought a lot of heart to her character," says NYFCC chairman Andrew Johnston. "She was just one of the best things about that movie."
Which is saying something.
"House of Sand and Fog," Vadim Perelman's directing debut, also features outstanding performances from previous Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (news) and Ben Kingsley (news) as, respectively, recovering alcoholic Kathy Nicolo and deposed Iranian colonel Massoud Amir Behrani.
The pair clash - with tragic results - over the ownership of a modest Northern California bungalow, which Massoud buys at auction after Kathy is erroneously evicted for nonpayment of taxes.
Shohreh Aghdashloo (SHO-ray Agh-DASH-loo) plays Massoud's doomed wife, Nadi, who is torn between sympathy for Kathy and loyalty and respect for her husband.
In a richly textured performance, she blends an innate kindness with a sense of upper-class privilege and the painful isolation of a woman adrift in a foreign culture.
Aghdashloo, an Iranian exile living in Los Angeles, told The Post that by starring in the Hollywood production "House of Sand and Fog," she has achieved her American Dream.
And what would an Oscar win add to that?
"Oh my God, that's a very big dream to come true - to be appreciated in the highest form of all," she says.
"When they told me I won the [NYFCC award] I was jumping up and down, let me tell you the truth.
"Imagine after 26 years of work, being appreciated this way - it's unbelievable."
Aghdashloo has little in common with her desperate, repressed "House" character except that, like Nadi, she also fled Iran in the chaos of the fundamentalist Islamic revolution.
Just a few months before the Shah was dethroned and Ayatollah Khomeini returned, in 1979, Aghdashloo left her home in Tehran, a husband who chose to remain behind - and a promising acting career on stage and screen.
She landed in London and eventually wound up in L.A. in 1987, where she met and married Iranian playwright Houshang Touzie.
She has waited 15 years for a role like the one she nails in "House of Sand and Fog."
But the only mainstream roles she was offered were less than appealing.
"I will not play a terrorist or a battered woman from the Middle East - and those were the kind of roles I would get auditions for," she says.
Aghdashloo first read American writer Andre Dubus III's best-selling book, upon which "House" is based, in 1999.
"I said to my husband, 'If one day they make a movie out of this book and do not give me this role, it would be really unfair' and my husband just said, 'Stop your dreaming,' " she says.
"So when the casting agent rang it was like a dream come true. I was speechless - for 20 seconds I couldn't talk."
Aghdashloo says she was "awed" by Dubus' spot-on depiction of Middle Eastern characters.
"When I finally met him, I said 'Excuse me Andre, where were you? Behind the door or under the table? You know everything about [Iranians], even our intimate relationships,' " she says.
"What I'm hoping for is not only that this movie opens up new dialogues between East and West, but that it also opens doors for non-American actors like myself.
"There is more to us other than being from a nest of espionage and terrorism."