There could be a hundred voices speaking simultaneously, but none of them could outshine Shohreh Aghdashloo. The Iranian-American actress has a history of over four decades on the big screen, debuting only in her early twenties in theatre plays. ‘I don’t act for the medium, nor the camera, nor for the audience. I act for the sake of acting. But my concentration is on the voice trying to make sure that it’s assertive enough.’
Following her success overseas, with an Academy Award nomination and an Emmy for her outstanding performances in House of Sand and Fog and House of Saddam, Aghdashloo shifted her attention towards yet another passion of hers: voice acting. From video games such as Mass Effect and Destiny to animated series like The Simpsons, The Lion Guard, and Arcane, the actress gained a new following thanks to her extraordinarily unique voice. On television, Aghdashloo has starred in hit shows like 24, Grimm, The Expanse, and most recently HBO’s The Flight Attendant. In the series, now renewed for a second season, Aghdashloo reprises her role as the very vocal AA sponsor, Brenda.
In an exclusive chat, Schön! joins Aghdashloo to reminisce about her inspiring career, discuss her experience on the set of The Flight Attendant and what’s next to come.
Shohreh, you’ve achieved international stardom over the past four decades. What led you to pursue a career in acting?
I guess I was born an actor, if there is such a thing. Ever since I got to know myself, I have loved to tell stories. Me and my friends would throw small parties with small plays pretending that we were grownups. But what led me to choose acting as a career was indeed the movie Gone with the Wind. I turned to my mother and I said: I will become an actress, and I will be acting just like her [Vivien Leigh], maybe even better than her. My mother laughed and said, ‘not under our roof.’ It’s inevitable. If there is a will, there is a want and then you stick to it until you’re successful.
What’s the best memory you have of your professional debut?
I was almost 20 years old and I was portraying the British princess in Japan in a play called A Narrow Road to the Deep North by Edward Bond. That was my first paid role which I auditioned for. It was scary and at the same time it was like a dream was coming true. The moment I put my foot on the stage, I was thinking: what am I going to do? And then I remembered that all I wanted was to prove to my audience that I can portray this, so that they can relate to me as a mother with two children at the age of 20. And it was great. That was what brought me to the Almeida Theatre 12 years ago where I portrayed Bernarda in House of Bernarda. It’s still one of the best memories of working in theatre.
Before Hollywood, you starred in many Iranian films becoming an inspiration to new and upcoming actors. How do you feel about Iranian representation in cinema?
It has changed tremendously, although it is still more about what is happening in Iran and to the Iranians rather than being international. They all have that Iranian theme, which for us it may be repetitive, but as for the rest of the world it’s something to watch and see how people live in tyrannies or religious tyrannies. It’s not easy at all. Socio-politically speaking, the Iranian writers, directors, actors go through hell to make a profound, meaningful film that is not necessarily entertaining. Considering that it’s not a long time since Iranian cinema has joined the international cinema scene, it’s been doing really well despite all the problems. Every time I portray these roles, I have this feeling that when a little girl in the Middle East or in Africa sees me acting, she would think: if she could do it, I can do it too.
We’ve seen you in hit shows like The Expanse and 24 playing completely opposite characters. How do you prepare for your roles?
I’ve had this habit ever since I started acting that, if it’s a fictional character, I would sit down and write a backup story for her. I need to imagine where she’s coming from. What’s very important is the element of imagination, so I always have fun with the scenes with fictional characters. But with non-fictional characters, such as Sajida, Saddam Hussein’s wife in the House of Saddam, I studied lots of tapes, clips of them visiting hospitals, throwing parties, working out. I studied her voice and her accent. So it’s fun when they are real characters.
Is there a dream role you have yet to play?
For years I was yearning to portray Benazir Bhutto and what she played in the political arena of her country. Then it was obviously Indira Gandhi, another amazing woman and politician that changed the course of history in India and the women’s situation for good forever. The third one, the closest one to my heart, is the queen of Iran. Because I personally like her a lot and tremendously respect her for what she’s done for my birth country, and for what she’s gone through with the revolution and its aftermath. I have to find a meaning either in the script or in the role to be able to bring it to life.
Your voice is particularly praised by your fans for being completely unique. How has that helped you professionally?
It helps me a lot to get meaty, multi-layered, or strong characters. Usually strong people, leaders, have a sort of effective kind of voice that would affect people. It’s hard to believe that a strong character, like Chrsjen Avasarala [The Expanse], can have a nasal voice. Unless it’s a comedy.
How did your voice acting path begin?
It all started with The Simpsons. I’m a fan of The Simpsons and have been for decades. Their writers wrote an episode for me, which was one of the most hilarious and pretty politically sensitive episodes I’ve ever seen on the series. After that, offers started coming in. They paid more attention to my voice and, professionally, it started becoming a part of my career.
Let’s talk about The Flight Attendant. How did your involvement come to be?
I had an offer on this one but I was already watching it. I’m really a fan of the series and I love this young, amazing actress [Kaley Cuoco]. What made me, from the bottom of my heart, want to do this was the fact that there is no example better than the real one. I was looking for a very profound, meaningful gesture or story. Cassie is an alcoholic and when she looks at her future, which is Brenda, it helps far more than reading a book about why that second drink is always trouble.
You portray Brenda — Cassie’s AA (alcoholics anonymous) sponsor. What can new viewers expect in Season 2 from her? How do you relate to her as a character?
The beauty of the whole thing is that Brenda is learning, too. Brenda is not just there as an example for Cassie to learn how to start helping yourself and get out of this horrible situation. Brenda does not lecture Cassie. Brenda just shares what has happened to her being an alcoholic for such a long time in her life: she lost her family, as per the restraining order, and even her children do not want to see her anymore. When she stands in front of Cassie, Cassie sees her future in Brenda. That to me is the best example between a pupil and the teacher. Be the example: do not lecture; do not try to make me understand through words, act it out.
The series has quite a few funny moments as well as more intimate dialogues between Brenda and other characters. What was like your experience on set? Did you enjoy working alongside Kaley Cuoco?
We had so much fun together. I love her. She’s just truly a wonderful actress and lovely human being. Every day, as soon as we would finish a scene, we would just go to a corner and start talking about Brenda and Cassie and real life. We were thinking: what if our characters were for real? And we would laugh our hearts out. It was a great experience working with her.
If you could speak with your younger self, what advice would you give her?
Do not scatter yourself too thin around. Focus on what you like to do and keep working on it and keep pushing yourself.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I just moved to Utah, Sundance. I was helping an Iraqi writer and director with a script called The President’s Cake. Every year, the Sundance Labs give a chance to eight writer-directors to shoot two scenes of their movies after the script has been accepted. I love doing this but I need a vacation too!
The Flight Attendant is currently streaming on HBO Max.
photography. Wanda Martin
fashion. Tasha Arguile
talent. Shohreh Aghdashloo
make up. Anna Inglis Hall @ Stella Creatives using NARS
hair. Emma Tierney
photography assistant. Marton Zseni
location + special thanks. JJ Media
words. Gennaro Costanzo