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Emmy Winner Shohreh Aghdashloo on ‘The Expanse,’ Trump and Stereotypes of Middle Eastern Actors

Variety logo Variety 6/19/2017 Nick Vivarelli
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In 2004, Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo became the first woman from the Middle East to be nominated for an Oscar, for her work in “House of Sand and Fog” opposite Ben Kingsley. She is also the first Iranian woman to win an Emmy, for her performance as Saddam Hussein’s wife in the HBO-BBC miniseries “House of Saddam.”

More recently, Aghdashloo has appeared in “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Star Trek Beyond,” and plays high-ranking United Nations politician Chrisjen Avasarala in Syfy channel series “The Expanse,” which was recently renewed for a third season.

Aghdashloo spoke to Variety at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, where she is a juror, about why the lead role of Avasarala represents a milestone in her struggle to smash stereotypes for Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood and how she hopes there is no turning back now.

You’ve often decried that, for years, the only roles you could get in Hollywood were “terrorist” ones. That started to change after “House of Sand and Fog.” Do you fear the Trump travel ban could now even indirectly have the effect of turning back the clock on progress?

No. It’s not going to happen, it can’t happen. What is out of the box can’t be put back into the box. I believe that the political system and the freedom of speech in the U.S. allows for people like myself to negate what the president wants.

Your role as the savvy United Nations undersecretary who is defending humanity’s survival on “The Expanse” does seem like a milestone.

Certainly. It’s my first lead on American television where you can hardly get a recurring role as a foreign actor, let alone a lead. So I’m very proud of this one….It’s really overwhelming. Sometimes I wake up and I think: “I’m going to portray a member of the body of the caucus of the United Nations?” And I feel so proud. I’ve come a long way. But I worked hard to get here. Even after “House of Sand,” I went to an audition and someone said to me: ‘Are you an actor?’ And I replied: ‘What do you think I am?’ They thought I was a housewife.

Season 3 of “The Expanse” was recently greenlit. I’m not going to ask you for any spoilers, but when do you start?

We are going back on set on July 12. I haven’t read the scripts yet, so I couldn’t tell you anything even if I wanted to. Usually they give us the first episode 10 days in advance of the principal photography.

You recently starred in “The Promise,” the drama financed by Kirk Kerkorian about the Armenian genocide. Another film was released almost at the same time, titled “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which critics charge takes the side of the genocide denialists. Ben Kinglsey plays a part. Do you think he realized he risked becoming a party to genocide denial by acting in that film?

Having worked with Ben Kingsley, I know that he is very politically conscious, so I hope it’s just a simple mistake. If he had known what was going on, he would not have done it. This denial movie was made immediately in a very short time once word got out that we were shooting “The Promise.” Nobody can deny the Armenian genocide.

Can you talk to me about the indie movie titled “Simple Wedding” which you are also executive producing? As I understand it, it’s a romantic comedy about a millennial Iranian girl navigating a cross-cultural relationship.

It’s a first work by Sarah Zandieh, an Iranian-American director who shot some interesting shorts. I was brought in by Rita Wilson [who also stars]. Rita and Tom Hanks were the first people who introduced me to Hollywood. She sent me an email saying it’s a really great romantic comedy and also: “I want to work with you, Shohreh!” So I read the script and when I met Sarah I told her: “It’s beautiful!” I was hoping that finally someone would make a movie about Iranians in Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian population outside Iran. Five days later, we started shooting with Rita and a group of amazing stage actors from New York and L.A., a combination of American and Iranian actors. It’s about a cross-cultural wedding. It’s also a great way to fight the Trump stereotype that Iranians are all about espionage and terrorism.

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