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Golshifteh Farahani
UntitledCG Watkins

Golshifteh Farahani in exile

The first Iranian actress to work in Hollywood on how her homeland paradise turned to hell

TextKaren OrtonPhotographyCG Watkins

Taken from the January issue of Dazed & Confused:

Golshifteh Farahani is in exile.

The trouble started following the Iranian star’s appearance opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008) – as the first Iranian actress to work for Hollywood since the country’s 1979 revolution, she was accused of collusion and banned from working after appearing at the film’s New York premiere without a headscarf. She soon moved to Paris and began building up international acclaim with carefully chosen roles in award-winning indies, often portraying defiant women. When she took her top off in a trailer for the Césars and appeared in a nude photoshoot for a French magazine in 2012, all hell broke loose. Frothing Islamic hardliners left sordid threats on her parents’ answerphone and she was told by the Iranian government that she was no longer welcome back home. But none of this has harmed her international acting career. In the striking The Patience Stone, directed by French-Afghan author Atiq Rahimi from his own novel, she plays a young Afghan wife and mother looking after her comatose husband and telling him about the anguishes she’s suffered. She’s just finished working with Gael Garcia Bernal on Jon Stewart’s Rosewater and is about to rejoin Scott again for Exodus. Dazed met Farahani in the light-filled restaurant of a brothel-turned-hotel in Montmartre.

Dazed Digital: There are some incredibly emotional scenes in The Patience Stone, and you had to learn to speak Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi. How difficult was the role?

Golshifteh Farahani: Learning Dari was just the fun part! It was the most difficult film I’ve ever acted in. Mentally it destroyed me for a few months. I’d read the book and told Atiq, ‘If you don’t give me the part, I’ll act it out in front of everyone on the street. You can’t, can’t give it to someone else.’ I knew I should play this woman. She helped me to know myself; she freed me in a way. I’m not a method actor, I usually leave the characters on location, but this time her sadness stayed with me.

DD: Why follow it up with a major Hollywood film like Ridley Scott’s Exodus?

Golshifteh Farahani: It’s because of Ridley, he is my godfather. He made this bridge for me to get out of Iran. So I would do anything for Ridley – I don’t even care. I don’t read the script, I do it. 

DD: Did the controversy with the Iranian government start after working on that first film with him?

Golshifteh Farahani: I never wanted to leave Iran, but the government wasn’t happy about that co-operation with the Americans. Everything about art and culture they pass through their filters – they have this paranoia. I was about to go to London to do Prince of Persia, but they took my passport at the airport and I had two weeks of intense interrogation. I stayed in Iran for seven months and did About Elly (her last Iranian film), and then I left. My interrogator traumatised me; I needed so much therapy to come out of that seven months of terror. For me Iran was paradise, and I believe it’s a paradise still but only if you don’t have political problems. If you have a political problem, paradise turns into hell.

DD: As a teenager, you shaved your head and went around as a boy, then you acted in your first film at 14 and were in a rock band at 17 - did your family worry?

Golshifteh Farahani: I was a bit crazy when I was growing up. I was trying to be an individual, and in that side of the world they don’t want individuals. You’re never alone, you are always part of your family, your tribe, your society – you shouldn’t disappoint them and you have to respect them. I wasn’t like that. I was born into an artistic family and they understood me. But they were really worried, because some of the stuff I did was dangerous. If I’d been caught without the veil with a shaved head, I don’t know what would have happened. But Iranian parents can’t stop their children. They’re just wild – they want to party, they want their rights, they want to paint, they want to dance. No one can stop these new generations coming. That’s why Iran has to open up: it’s like a pot full of hot water, vapour and steam. There are 40 million people under 35.

”We have the same collective memory, we’ve suffered. Compared with the generation born in the 90s, it’s like we were born in two different countries. They haven’t seen difficulties like we have” 

DD: How will the government try to keep the lid on these new generations?

Golshifteh Farahani: They’re really harsh on people, and repress alcohol but not drugs. The only prices that haven’t gone up since the revolution is opium. So many people use opium, and the effect of opium long-term is that you become like a vegetable, you just sit and smoke. And people are taking a lot of other drugs, like crystal.

DD: Does that drug culture fit in with the government wanting people to be less engaged?

Golshifteh Farahani: Exactly. I acted in an Iranian movie called Santouri about drugs and their effect on artists. The movie was banned, and when the pirate DVD came out, in a week the whole of Iran saw the movie ‘under the veste’.

DD: There was a moment during the 1979 revolution when Iran could have gone either way. Is that moment of possibility still part of the Iranian consciousness?

Golshifteh Farahani: Yeah, especially with all of us born after the revolution. Eighty to 90 per cent of our parents were part of the opposition against the Shah. Afterwards we had this government worse than anything else. My father couldn’t work, many of his friends were executed. There’s this dialogue of, ‘Look what you have done to our generation.’ Those born in the 80s after the revolution, we are the burned generation. We have the same collective memory, we’ve suffered. Compared with the generation born in the 90s, it’s like we were born in two different countries. They haven’t seen difficulties like we have. 

DD: How does that express itself in Iranian youth culture now? 

Golshifteh Farahani: It’s amazing, this is what I miss so much. Art is underground because everything is against the rules. All the artists are rebels because they’re fighting. Music, rappers, parties – everything is forbidden, so it gives this wonderful energy to the society, it’s boiling. The exhibitions, the plays, the movies people are making, the music that is coming out from bands every day. You have to fight for it – you cannot earn money from it and they can arrest you. You’re doing something for love, everything is so pure. This is what I miss. In Europe, art is also about money. Art and bourgeoisie are becoming the same thing. You have to have enough money, you have to promote yourself, you have to have connections. This kills art. In countries like Iran or even China, it’s not like that, it’s direct.

“It was the only place I was free. It’s funny – when I say that, everyone is like, ‘What? Freedom?’ But the freedom I felt in Iran I’ve never felt anywhere else”

DD: It sounds like you still love Iran, even after what the government put you through.

Golshifteh Farahani: How can I be angry with my mum? I’m coming out of the belly of Iran. It was the only place I was free. It’s funny – when I say that, everyone is like, ‘What? Freedom?’ But the freedom I felt in Iran I’ve never felt anywhere else. Freedom of mind, freedom of time, of spirit. But after a while you’re so wounded that if you continue thinking about Iran it will kill you. Just like the death of a child. If you keep on thinking of that, you will go in the grave with the child. You have to choose, and I decided to switch off Iran. In the west they like to victimise you so they feel good about their lives, especially in France. 

DD: How does that change you? 

Golshifteh Farahani: When you are a victim, you’re outside of society, they pity you. Hopefully you wake up and say, ‘I’m not a victim, why am I playing this?’ I’m so lucky. Imagine, I’m living in Paris – this is the best case that could have happened to me. You’re healthy, young, you have talents, ideas and plans, you should just start your life as a being. When you come out of being victimised they can’t pity you and you start living.

DD: Do you fear reprisal from Iran, or has everything that can happen already happened?

Golshifteh Farahani: If you’re pushing boundaries and they break, they’re broken forever. The first time is difficult and unfortunately or fortunately I’m always the first person to do this, and everything happens to the first person. You’re the first person taking off the veil, the first person working outside of Iran, the first person taking off your shirt, and then you’re the first person to take off the whole thing. I’m the first person, but once it’s done, it’s done forever, and it’s not an issue any more. Sometimes it’s really hard, especially for your family there. But you realise it passes. It’s like a tsunami of media and photos on Google and then people don’t remember it as shame, just an event.

The Patience Stone is out now