Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo

The Oscar nominee recounts some of her struggles as a woman, a Muslim and an Iranian, as detailed in her memoir, The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines.

The first Iranian actress to receive an Oscar nod (House of Sand & Fog), Shohreh Aghdashloo was a superstar in pre-revolutionary Iran. During the Islamic rebellion, she went to England, where her interest in social justice compelled her to earn an international relations degree. She also continued to pursue acting. In a controversial storyline, Aghdashloo had a recurring role as a terrorist in season 4 of the Fox hit 24 and won a supporting actress Emmy for her turn in HBO's House of Saddam. She adds "author" to her body of work with The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines, in which she shares her struggles as an outsider in a foreign culture.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo fled Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution that ushered in a repressive regime. Settling in the UK before moving to L.A., she continued acting, the career that she’d begun in the Middle East, in fact.

An Oscar nominee for “House of Sand & Fog” and an Emmy winner for the HBO miniseries “House of Saddam,” Shohreh Aghdashloo has written her first text. It’s a memoir. It’s titled “The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines.” Shohreh, always an honor to have you back on this program.

Shohreh Aghdashloo: Likewise. Thanks ever so much for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: It is so good to see you. There’s so much I want to talk to you about with regard to your memoir and what’s going on in the world, of course; specifically, the elections in Iran.

But I want to start by going right into the book with something that your father once said to you that I think is a good linchpin for -

Aghdashloo: “Success can only be achieved beyond fears.”

Tavis: So you knew what I was going to say before I even said it.

Aghdashloo: Yes.

Tavis: You’re a mind-reader too. You’re telepathic.

Aghdashloo: It’s with me every single day.

Tavis: Yeah.

Aghdashloo: I think about it every single day. I know now, know more about this than before. I read a book by one of my favorite gurus ever. While he was alive, he kept saying, “Do not call me a guru.” Krishnamurti.

He once wrote about fear, and he was explaining what fear can be. He says fear does not mean anything, unless it’s the fear of the unknown, and how could you be fearful over something that you have no idea of?

He sort of added to what my father had told me before – don’t be afraid. Try. Success can only be achieved beyond, when you overcome the fear.

Tavis: Before you read that powerful text that gave you this new framework to navigate your own fears, what fears did you have to overcome to get on the path to success, you personally?

Aghdashloo: Since childhood I was having these horrible rheumatic fevers most of the time when I was like – it started when I was 12 years old, and I had to deal with it until I was 16 years old.

Finally I had to go to the hospital, and I had complete bed rest for a while. But losing my life, dying at such a young age, taught me so much. I was thinking, what if I’m not here anymore? What if I don’t exist? What am I going to do with my time while I am here on this Earth?

It taught me a lot. In this, and also the fact that I couldn’t go to school for a while, I had to stay home. I was thinking that I’m not going to be properly educated when I’m a young woman.

The fear of not being properly educated or being illiterate, all those fears were killing me. Then all of a sudden my father came in and said, “Do not be afraid, my child. Success can only be achieved beyond fear.”

Tavis: Tell me – I say all the time, I’ve come to believe this, that we are who we are because somebody loved us. We are who we are because somebody loved us, so it’s clear that your father, your parents, played a major role in your life. Tell me about your parents.

Aghdashloo: My parents were such loving parents, unbelievable. They were very young. My father was 24, my mother was 20 when they married, and I was their first child. So you can imagine all the love, all the first, spending on me. They were spending so much time with me.

My brothers, especially the fourth one, keeps saying that our parents never spend as much time with me as much they did with you, and I told him that I was the first child, and I was loved and praised all the time.

My mother actually told me years later that she used to hug me and took me to the mirror and watch me in the mirror, and thinking thank God for having a daughter, thank God for having a child. So that’s kind of amazing, when you have a childhood, a loving childhood like that.

Tavis: I’m not surprised that your mother felt that way, and I don’t want to get in trouble by saying this. I’m not even so much surprised, necessarily, that your father felt that way about you.

But you well know, and I’ll let you speak on this, that that region of the world, patriarchy, sexism, very real, and women, children, are not always as adored and adorned and as loved as boy babies. That didn’t happen to you.

How much of the love that you got, even though you were a girl in that region of the world, is what’s made all of this possible?

Aghdashloo: Again, my family was pretty, a modern family in comparison to the families of the time. But again, they were so young and so caring and so loving that I cannot remember it vividly, but I can feel it every time I close my eyes. I can feel the love. Shall I tell you a secret, Tavis?

Tavis: Please, tell me. I love secrets, tell me a secret.

Aghdashloo: Yeah, although the society, the Middle Eastern or Iranian society seems to be on the surface patriarchal, underneath it is matriarchal. It is the women who make the decisions and tell their husbands.

Tavis: Oh, I don’t, I don’t argue that. (Laughter) That’s not a secret.

Aghdashloo: That’s how it works.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Aghdashloo: Yeah. Napoleon Bonaparte says it beautifully – “cherchez la femme.” Anything happens, just search amongst the women and you’ll find your person.

So it was my – and they were modern as well. They didn’t really care as much to have a boy or a girl, and they were planning to have plenty of children. It was my grandmother who did not give any gift to my mother when she gave birth to me, but when my mother gave birth to my brother, my grandmother gave her a ruby pin.

Tavis: See, that’s what I mean, that – well, you know it well. That tends to happen sometimes in that region of the world. What’s your sense – I’ll come to the elections in a second. I’m going to bounce back and forth between life in Iran and the text. What’s your sense today of how matriarchal that society is as we speak?

Aghdashloo: It is still pretty matriarchal, but again, we don’t see it on the surface because we are dealing with a religious government, which sends women home and pretends that it has made all the decisions himself. It is the same, still the same.

Tavis: Remind me how old you were when you left Iran. You were -

Aghdashloo: Twenty-six.

Tavis: – 26 when you left, so you were not a baby at that point. The fears that you had to navigate through as a child, given your illness, and the fear of being pushed out of your own country – I don’t want to necessarily compare fear, but give me some sort of contrast between the fear of being forced out of your own country.

Aghdashloo: Well, youth is blessed with positivism. All I had in mind was to get out of Iran, to get myself educated, to go to England, London, which I was pretty familiar with. My mother used to take me there since I was 16 years old.

And get myself educated, learn English properly. I could have spoken English, but it wasn’t proper. So all I had in mind was positive, positive, positive. Living in a democratic society, find out what’s happening to Iran, study.

I couldn’t even think one second about whether it’s going to have any ramifications or consequences if I left Iran, or am I – they were all positive, positive, positive. I remember a dear friend of mine who was helping me to get out, Madhi (sp), who unfortunately later on committed suicide.

When we were leaving, he said, “You’re so positive. What if you cannot find any job? Then what will you do?” I said, “I will (unintelligible) tables. I will dish washes. Then I will be free.”

And that’s what I’m looking for. Not living in a – because although young, I could anticipate it, the sort of government that was going to take over, the religious tyranny, religious government, Sharia law, in which women are worth half a man legally and one-quarter of a man socially in a marriage. I didn’t want to live with that. My expectations were a lot higher.

Tavis: You’ve said this three times already in this brief conversation. Why was education, the desire to get a high-quality education so important to you?

Aghdashloo: My father. I loved my father, and he didn’t want me to become an actress. Back then, becoming an actress was frowned upon by good families, proper families. I had done this to him. I had turned myself into an actress. Then I wanted to – he always wanted me to have higher education.

He was about to send me to Germany to become a doctor, and then I decided to marry. I gave him half news, of course, that I was getting married, not necessarily becoming an actress, which I did two or three months after I was married.

After that, after I was done with what I wanted to do, I wanted to follow my father’s wish for me to have higher education. He was right. He was right. He always kept telling me that, “In this big, vast world, young lady, you’re going to need to get yourself educated or you’ll be treated as dirt.”

Tavis: Tell me how the pull, the magnetic pull of the arts just drew you, even though as much as you adored your father, he told you not to do this, begged you not to do this, you’re still being drawn by the arts, by this desire to be on the stage and on the screen. How did that happen? Tell me more about that.

Aghdashloo: I was born an actress. (Laughter) Since I was four or five years old, I mocked each and every member of the family. As a matter of fact, after a while it turned into entertaining sort of nights for my parents and families.

Every time we got together Fridays, equivalent of Sundays in the West, every time we got together or we partied, friends and family members were like, “Ooh, ask Shohreh to come in and show us how Uncle Esi (sp) behaves.

I did it a couple of times and they loved it, but then I had a call from Uncle Esi, who told my mother, “Ask Shohreh not to do me again.” (Laughter) When my mother told me, she told me, “Your uncle doesn’t want you to do this anymore,” and I said, “That means I’ve done a good job.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Aghdashloo: I still remember that. My mother was like, “Don’t talk to me like that. Not under this roof. Don’t be so disrespectful.” (Laughter) But I was born an actress. They couldn’t get it. They couldn’t understand it.

After a while they did, especially my father, who I’m still thirsty for his life, though he passed away a couple of years ago. But they couldn’t understand it. They just, they were going – like my three brothers and I, doctor, engineer, doctor, engineer. They all became doctors and engineers and architects, except for the black sheep -

Tavis: Except you.

Aghdashloo: – of the family, yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: When you say although passed, although deceased, still thirsty for your father’s love, you mean by that what?

Aghdashloo: I was always trying to make him happy. Turning myself into an actress, I knew he wasn’t happy with it, at least for a while.

I was still – I’m still carrying this guilt, like the guilt when I left Iran. This inner guilt that you feel when you left a towering inferno or a country in turmoil. The guilt, the inner guilt that Khaled Hosseini has described elaborately in his latest novel.

Tavis: He was just here a couple weeks ago.

Aghdashloo: I love – I’m sure you’ve read it.

Tavis: We had a great time.

Aghdashloo: “And Then the Mountains Echoed.” Beautifully, Khaled has talked about this inner guilt, and why and how you want to be helpful to your people. Because otherwise people would think, okay, you’re now out of that country 30-odd something years, live your own life.

Why do you even bother to see what’s going on? Why do you even want to shed lights on the injustices?

Tavis: See, what you’re saying now raises two different questions. Hopefully I can remember two questions. The first question is after all these years, with regard to your country, why still this sense of guilt?

You left because there was a repressive regime that came into play, and whatever good you could have done at that time the regime was shutting people down, shutting down expression, shutting down those kinds of voices, shutting down those kinds of demonstrations.

So you left because you couldn’t have a voice, you couldn’t have a say. So why feel guilty all these years later? That was ’79.

Aghdashloo: Still every time I hear so-and-so’s been tortured -

Tavis: Right.

Aghdashloo: – so-and-so has been killed on the surface of the streets, which happened during the last uprising in Iran, the Green Movement. How many young men and women lost their lives, and their names went in vain? How many students were tortured to death? How many came back damaged for the rest of their lives?

Every time I hear these things I feel sorry for them and I feel the guilt. I’m living in this country, in this beautiful, vast, democratic society. I’ve got to do something. I have to do something.

Tavis: The other question is with regard to your father, Shohreh, dead now for a couple of years, and you did not just become an actress, you became a really good actress. Enough to be Emmy-winning and Academy Award nominated and celebrated in this country and beyond.

Help me understand the guilt – and I’m asking this because I know there are other folk watching this program right now who for years can’t seem to divorce themselves from a particular guilt that they feel, even if they have been successful at their vocation, their calling, their purpose.

So help me understand the guilt that you still feel for choosing to be an actress when clearly it’s your calling, it’s your purpose in life.

Aghdashloo: I did not only choose to become an actress, but also I did not use my father’s family name, which is Vaziri-Tabar.

Tavis: Right, mm-hmm.

Aghdashloo: I chose my first husband’s family name, and I stood by it all these years, even after I divorced him. We are still dear friends. He had already told me that he wouldn’t leave Iran.

He’s a painter. He gets inspired by our (unintelligible) colors in our carpets, in our foods, in the mountains in Iran, he once told me, and I chose his name. Right at the Oscars, when my father came over, Tavis, he looks at me and he says, “What’s wrong with Vaziri-Tabar? Why do you still have to use Aghdashloo?”

I felt so sorry. I said, “But Dad, years ago when I started, I started with Vaziri-Tabar, my real family name, although I was married, but you sent me back to the workshop and asked me to go and ask the people at the workshop to change it to Aghdashloo. Do you remember?” He said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, I do remember. That’s fine.”

Tavis: See, but that wasn’t the Academy Awards, Shohreh. I thought he might say that. That was then, this is the Academy Awards. I want your name, I want my name on this statue, or on this nomination form.

That reality always fascinates me, because I think as humans we all have something in our lives that years later we still feel some level of guilt about, and I don’t know how, so let me just ask – how then does a girl, does a woman who adores her father, again, get over that guilt, or do you think you’re going to die feeling guilty?

Aghdashloo: You just keep working and do better and better, and make your, whoever it is – in my case, my father – make him happy, even if he’s not with you anymore. He’s still here. Remember “The Lion King,” when he and Simba go to the lake?

Tavis: I love that scene. (Laughter)

Aghdashloo: The scene was – that’s one of my favorite scenes ever.

Tavis: It’s a great scene. Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead and finish telling the story.

Aghdashloo: Simba says, “Father, you’re going to die. I’m not going to see you,” and he asks him to look in the water to the lake and see the stars, and says, “Look at the stars’ image, the images in the water. I’ll be always here, in your head, right here.”

He’s right here, always he will be here. So no matter what, when I wake up, I want to please him first.

Don’t do anything that he would be embarrassed by it. Be the girl that I promised him I’m going to be. Just do my work and keep his family name away from it, and try to do the right thing.

Tavis: See, only on PBS, philosophy brought to you by Simba from “The Lion King.” (Laughter) I love it. It’s a great scene. I absolutely love it.

Aghdashloo: Yeah.

Tavis: Let me switch now to – and I’ll come back to the memoir, I promise. By the way, Jonathan, put this cover up. I love the cover of this book. I love the cover, I love the title.

I could have started our conversation here, and I jumped right in. tell me about this photo that I absolutely – I love any photo of you, but I adore this particular photo, and tell me about this title.

Aghdashloo: Thank you so much. The photo has been taken by one of the most prominent American photographers, Brian Braff, and I had to fight for it a bit.

Tavis: The book company didn’t want it initially?

Aghdashloo: Yes, they wanted a head shot. I said, “By all due respect, I’m not a politician, I’m not Condoleezza Rice. I wish I were, but I’m an actor, I’m a humble actor. There should be some movement in the picture.”

Finally they agreed with the picture.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad you convinced them.

Aghdashloo: Thank you.

Tavis: The title -

Aghdashloo: So am I.

Tavis: The title, “The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines.”

Aghdashloo: Oh, Tavis, I was once asked to close my eyes and tell the interviewer what is it that I miss the most about my birth country, Iran, and I did. The first thing came to my mind were these love alleys, which the generation before me called it the truth alleys, and my generation called it love alleys because they’re so teeny-tiny that only two people, presumably hand-in-hand, can go through.

My generation recited poetries to their friends in those alleys. Love alleys, and in the spring, the walls are filled with yellow jasmines. The scent stays in your nostrils forever.

So when I started writing my book I thought that would be a great gesture from Iran, and from this rich and beautiful culture.

Tavis: Let me take your word “scent” and just tweak it just a little bit. There are some who are wondering if there is a new scent out of Iran that we are smelling here, Stateside, that suggests that there might be a new day, there might be a new relationship given the recent elections in Iran and the statements made about repairing this breach, fixing this relationship.

I’m paraphrasing now, not quoting exactly. But what’s your sense of what we can or should or should not expect regarding this relationship in the coming months and years now?

Aghdashloo: Certainly there will be a scent, not because of this president; just because of the timing.

It’s about time for us to hear the scene. President Rowhani is supposed to be a moderate man. He has studied in Glasgow. He is familiar with Western culture. He’s been exposed to Western art and culture.

He’s said to be a dear friend of the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. So what we’re hoping for is that having this relationship with the supreme leader, being exposed to the Western culture, would help him to make better decisions regarding Iranians and Iran and Iranian politics.

But at the end of the day, the problem is still there, it exists. The dilemma is that many Iranians who have been living in democratic societies in the Western world do not want religious tyranny for Iran anymore, or not even a religious government.

We are asking for a secular government. We are asking for a president who would come from the people, serve the people, and all he would have in mind is what to do to make Iran a better place to live in. Not necessarily to go to the supreme leader and act accordingly.

Tavis: To your point now, what is your sense, Shohreh, of what can be done, what might or ought be done to make Iran a better place to live and work in these days?

Aghdashloo: Both.

Tavis: Yeah.

Aghdashloo: Having Iran to stand on its feet, and then at the same time shedding light on the injustices. Info, info, info. The more information we can give the Iranians and also the host countries, the beautiful hosts.

One of the reasons I wrote this book was for the fact that Iranians have this habit of gathering together in speaking Farsi, having so many events, plays, concerts, Farsi-speaking, all of them, but haven’t done a lot to inform its host society that is now hosting more than a million Iranians.

So both sides informing people, telling them what is going on behind the curtains, beneath the surface, and yet at the same time ask for transparency from the Iranian government and just sort of remember that we’re all living in a small village now.

It is called the global village. We are the generation of Internet now. We hear everything that happens far, far away from us, and obviously, nowadays talking to one person is like talking to a thousand persons.

So the more we can inform one another, the more we can let each other know what is going on and how we can deal with dilemmas, how we can come up with remedies for serious illnesses, that would help a lot.

I do understand that many countries would like to have their own relationships, like the ones that they had in the past with Iran, such as the U.S. But I just wish that it would be sort of conditional reconciliation rather than nonconditional reconciliation with Iran.

Tavis: We will see what happens in the coming days and weeks and months and years, now that there is a new leader in Iran. For now, though, we celebrate the life and the ongoing legacy of a fine thespian named Shohreh Aghdashloo.

The name of the new text, it’s a memoir, it’s called “The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines” from this celebrated, Academy-nominated, Emmy-winning and a whole bunch of other stuff to come, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as this career continues to unfold.

I’m always delighted to have you on this program, Shohreh.

Aghdashloo: Likewise. Thanks ever so much for having me.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you back. That’s our show for tonight. Good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: July 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm