Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo never sold herself out

Los Angeles Daily News

Three years ago Shohreh Aghdashloo was driving up the California coast with her playwright husband, Houshang Touzie, heading to San Francisco with members of their theater company, Drama Workshop 79, to perform one of Touzie's plays.

To kill the time, Aghdashloo took along a copy of Andre Dubus' House of Sand and Fog,the latest Oprah Winfrey Book Club title.

After a few hours the couple stopped their van to get some coffee. Aghdashloo, a passionate woman not prone to hiding strong feelings, got out and started stamping her feet, making all kinds of angry sounds. Concerned, Touzie asked what was wrong.

“If one day they make a movie out of this book and do not give me this role, it would be really unfair, really unfair,” Aghdashloo answered.

Her husband's response? “He thought I was crazy,” Aghdashloo says. “He kept saying, ‘Stop dreaming.' ”

Today Iranian immigrant Aghdashloo doesn't have to dream. Not only did she, out of nowhere, win the role in the film version of the book, she copped an Oscar nomination for her work.

Aghdashloo plays Nadi, an Iranian woman caught in the middle of a nasty fight between her determined husband (played by Ben Kingsley) and a fragile recovering addict (Jennifer Connelly) over a house that both parties believe is theirs.

“House” director Vadim Perelman calls Aghdashloo the “warm, beating heart” of the film, and there has been no shortage of praise for her heart-rending performance.

The Calabasas. Calif., resident won supporting actress awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, groups that rarely agree about anything, and has emerged as one of the great stories of this year's Oscar race — a woman who fled the tyranny of the Ayatollah Khomeini 26 years ago and is now finally getting her due after years of refusing to play stereotypical roles.

“I'm proud just to have met her,” says Kingsley, nominated himself for “House” in the lead actor category. “She gave me so much both as a person and an actor. She poured herself and her experiences into me. Her story is so intensely moving that it informed my work in every possible way.”

Aghdashloo, 51, had a thriving acting career in Iran in the mid-1970s, making four films, including one for renowned director Abbass Kiarostami. But by 1978 the writing was on the wall: The shah's regime was crumbling, propaganda for the ayatollah was everywhere.

Aghdashloo's theater company was shut down; the entrance to the building blocked off with brick and cement. She agonized for three days before leaving the country in the dead of night, driving off in the family car with the blessing of her first husband.

“There would be no place for a liberated woman like myself,” Aghdashloo says. “My husband had just returned from being educated in Europe. He didn't want to live in exile. He said, ‘If you feel like your future lies somewhere else, I don't blame you.' He gave me the key to the car.”

Aghdashloo moved to London, enrolled in school and earned a degree in international relations. She had plans to try to do what she could to change things in her homeland. She may not have returned to acting except that a playwright friend kept her mind when writing a story called “Rainbow” about an Iranian forced to flee to London.

“With this play, I thought, ‘Maybe I could be more useful this way,' ” Aghdashloo says. “And I've never stopped acting since.”

“Rainbow” was a smash success, taking the company and Aghdashloo on a worldwide tour that included a stop in Los Angeles where she recognized Touzie, whom she knew from the Drama Workshop in Tehran. She didn't like him much then, thinking the playwright was too full of himself. But now, she found herself intrigued.

Unfortunately, the two barely had a day together before Aghdashloo had to leave for the next city in the “Rainbow” tour.

When she returned to London, Aghdashloo found a card in her mailbox. “Come and join me,” Touzie wrote. “I love you. I want to marry you.”

Aghdashloo accepted and the couple wed in 1987, settling in the Valley.

They have a 15-year-old daughter, Tara (Aghdashloo is a huge “Gone With the Wind” fan), who now thinks her mom is cool, which as any parent of an adolescent knows, is a pretty big deal.

“She has never said anything like that about me,” Aghdashloo says, laughing. “That's probably bigger than the Oscar nomination.”

When “Sand and Fog” casting director Deborah Aquila put the word out last year that she was looking for an Iranian actress for the film, Aghdashloo's name came up time and time again. Aquila found her, although it wasn't exactly easy — at the time, Aghdashloo didn't have an agent or manager.

“Most of my film offers had been for terrorists and battered Middle Eastern women, and I won't consider them,” she says.

Perelman says: “It's so amazing that Shohreh was under our noses the entire time. I was willing to go to Iran or Iraq to find an actress. And here we found this luminescent person with an incredible magnetism about her, a great actress who could portray a voiceless woman.”

Since “Sand and Fog,” Aghdashloo said she has received four interesting scripts, but she's in no hurry to rush into anything. Work remains something through which she conveys her personal beliefs, convictions that run deep and completely inform her life.

“I do believe in the responsibility of acting and the dedication an actor has to have toward the work,” she continues. “So this was right up my alley. This is what I can do. This is what I do.