Creative License: Paterson’s Golshifteh Farahani Talks Jarmusch and Breaking Through Iranian Self-Censorship

We all long for lives filled with extraordinary moments, signs that our individual experiences are different from everyone else’s. Yet reality is characterized by repetition and boredom and frustration, routine and shapeless.

Jim Jarmusch’s cinema has always reflected on what can be called, loosely and grandly, the meaning of life. His latest film, Paterson, tells the story of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who writes poetry on the side and dearly loves his wife (Golshifteh Farahani). They live in Paterson, New Jersey, made famous as the subject and hometown (respectively) for American poetry greats William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg; otherwise it’s a relatively humdrum slice of small-town America. The characters’ lives are packed with routine: The bus-driving poet (also named Paterson) goes to work, gets in a couple of verses, drops by the local bar, while his artistic wife Laura stays in home and occupies herself with baking and learning guitar. On the whole, though, they’re happy.

Jarmusch’s whimsical, solemn film would’ve been impossible to pull off without the help of great performances by Driver and Farahani. Farahani, an Iranian actress now based in France, brings to life an effervescent, energetic woman, whose self-absorption and flightiness is balanced with a great deal of charm. Farahani’s successful career in Iran, including frequent work with auteur Asghar Farhadi (she starred in his acclaimed About Elly in 2009), was put on hold when officials banned her from the country following a nude photoshoot in French magazine Madame Figaro. She has since worked with a range of international moviemakers, from Mia Hansen-Løve to Ridley Scott to Jon Stewart. With her courage, versatility and immense talent, her future certainly seems to be very bright.

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in Paterson. Photograph by Mary Cybulski / Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What does Jim Jarmusch mean to you?

Golshifteh Farahani (GF): He represents my dream of cinema. Jim Jarmusch’s films represent a cinema that takes this art to another level. It is entertaining but at the same time it brings some meaning to people’s lives. It’s independent and it’s always suffering—it’s hard to make these films, even for him. For me, he’s a legend and this is how I’d like cinema to be.

When I got the chance to work with him, I was just so blown away. I thought that I didn’t even need to read the script, because I could just do it with my eyes closed and be fully confident. When he came to me and asked me to be in this movie, the offer had such tenderness. It was such a soothing, amazing thing.

MM: What about your first reaction when you read the script?

GF: I liked it very much. Of course, when you read the script without seeing any images, you imagine Paterson, and you have to know Jim to be able to picture that. It might be a very simple script in which literally nothing really happens, but if you know Jim then you know that something amazing is going to come out of it that will blow your mind. There are so many layers behind it and so many dimensions of life, and teachings, that just come out of it.

MM: How did Jarmusch’s particular style of directing impact your performance? 

GF: I think he works very intuitively and he doesn’t intellectualize or analyze. It’s not in his head; he just sees when something is right or wrong. He enjoys watching things that are right and he really gets annoyed by the things that are wrong. Then he works on it so much to get it to the point where it needs to be. Also, he’s a very soft, tender, gentle person so the whole environment during shooting is also very tender, very calm, very loving and friendly. Because it’s an independent film and there was not much money, everybody worked as a team, as friends.

MM: So he isn’t too controlling?

GF: Well, of course he sometimes does take control when things are going wrong, but for some directors, their art is casting their movies very well and then they can leave the actors to be mostly free. I think that Adam Driver is probably one of the only actors who could play Paterson, because he has this silence about him, and the way he listens even in real life is the ways he does when playing Paterson.

MM: In the movie, you are much more expressive; you use your body and gestures to express your emotions on screen. However, Adam is very quiet. 

GF: Well, in real life as Golshifteh, I don’t move too much, so I’m mostly like Adam. I’m not a person who jumps around very much. However, my character Laura is like that, because she’s more of an extrovert and Adam is an introvert so she had to be, as they say in French, like a bubble, like champagne, like Tinkerbell or like fireworks. She’s constantly in motion and excitement, so she is exactly the opposite of Paterson, who has much more equanimity. She’s just excited about doing things. I think that’s something that I knew when I read the script. I knew about Laura and that she is more of someone who cannot really sit still somewhere.

MM: Is there a message the film is trying to make about the nature of creativity?

GF: I don’t think that Jim wants to say anything big in his films. He doesn’t have any flag. He doesn’t even analyze his own work. Paterson is an introvert and he gets everything. He is emotional, but his emotions come out in a different way. He feels everything even more than other people, because he is a poet. For him a pumpkin is something different than what it is for a normal person; he can write a poem about a pumpkin since he is very intensely and deeply in touch with the world. That’s why I think these two characters are so beautiful together. It’s funny because he’s an introvert who lives outside and gets everything from the outside world. Laura, on the other hand, is an extrovert living inside the house. It’s like their world is complete because they complete each other.

Shit happens in life. Sometimes we make some mistakes. Paterson has a routine. He always does the same thing over and over. He doesn’t make mistakes. He takes the same lunch, he brings it back, he wears the same clothes, he goes to the same place, he goes to the same bar, and he orders the same thing. However, he forgets his notebook on the couch and something happens to it. Based on what I know of Jim, I don’t think he wants to manifest any meaning there about artists or introverts; this is just what happens.

Farahani plays Laura, a young wife with artistic dreams. Photograph by Mary Cybulski / Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street

MM: So how did you craft your performance of this creative extrovert?

GF: I went to the art department and started working with them to create the house for the film. I started painting curtains and creating things. I’ve lived a lot with artists and other such creative people in my life, so it was good to spend time mostly working with my hands in the art department. I also spent time working on my accent.

MM: It’s clear that you worked on your accent because your English pronunciation is very American.

GF: Tim Monich is the best coach ever. He helped me with the American accent because I have a mixture of French, English and American influences. Tim did a great favor for me, working with me on Skype for free for this movie. That was like the biggest gift because Jim wanted no accent at all—not even New Jersey or New York, but a general American accent.

MM: What I like about the movie is that there is very little information about your character’s personal background. For example, there are very few songs associated with her Persian background.

GF: Well, at the time they were editing Jim was asking me about some songs. I suggested one of them because my mother used to sing it. I’m so happy that these songs are there. This was really their idea. You also see some Persian calligraphy on the curtains and all that.

MM: You’ve acted in independent French movies, and this movie, which was independent—but do you hope to do more blockbuster movies, like with Exodus?

GF: I don’t hope at all to be in any blockbuster. I don’t think that the American Hollywood blockbuster is the ultimate cinema, so I don’t have the same dream as most actors to be in these. For me, the ultimate films are independent, European, Japanese, Korean or American—whatever is independent. Of course, if there’s a good blockbuster, then why not? Still, I’m not working towards the goal of blockbusters. If I wanted to do that then I would be in Los Angeles right now.

MM: What is the difference between indie moviemaking and blockbuster moviemaking, for you?

GF: I think the essence of acting and the relationship between directors and actors doesn’t really change. But in independent cinema, you are more creative. You are certainly not a tool, an object like the lighting or the camera. In large productions, you’re just a tool and you don’t have much creative control because the creativity comes after and there’s less communication. It all just happens really quickly and that’s how it is, whereas in independent cinema you [are involved with] pre-production. You read. Of course, in blockbusters you might have to learn how to shoot or learn karate or all sorts of things like that. I think cinema that only wants to entertain is just not going to have a long life. Those are movies that will be forgotten in the history of cinema.

There are some movies, like Ben-Hur, that were big Hollywood productions in  their time but which are still considered to be masterpieces. However, with blockbusters in general you have to do whatever is there. Even changing lines is a no-no, because it’s there and that’s it. With independent cinema you can make suggestions about changing a line or changing a scene because it’s not $300 million! You can change things and make them better or worse or whatever. When I do some big productions, I don’t even bother to ask why something is happening or to suggest doing something differently. I don’t even bother because I know that there’s no way you can change anything.

MM: As for your future projects, is there anything specific that you’re working on now?

GF: I have a few movies that are going to come out. There’s one movie that I did years ago in Lebanon which we just finished. I also did a play in France [Anna Karenina] and now we’re going on tour.

MM: You have acted in different countries with different accents and different languages. Is that something that you want to continue?

GF: It’s my destiny. I’ve acted in seven languages. When I came out of Iran, everybody was saying I would be typecast and only play terrorists and so on. I pushed through and since then I have played a Spanish woman, a French woman, Lebanese, American, whatever, and I think that’s one of the biggest achievements of my life—the fact that I managed to challenge this and push through.

Farahani in About Elly, shot in 2009 but released in the U.S. in 2015. Courtesy of Cinema Guild

MM: What are the reasons for your success? Among Iranian actors, you are at the top, internationally.

GF: I think that it’s mostly about being free and not accepting things that reinforce negative outcomes. I put myself into very difficult and challenging situations in order to examine myself and see whether, for example, I could act in a Hindi movie and speak Hindi like an Indian person. Or could I play Anna Karenina in French, when it has never been adapted in French before? Could I do that? Of course, in the beginning there was fear—wondering whether I should leave Iran at a time when my career was at the top of the mountain. My salary was quite good, since I had built this huge career in Iran. But I left in order to challenge myself. I just threw myself from the cliff in order to see if I would land or stay alive. I never accepted the barriers that people put up around me. I think that was the reason that I broke through.

MM: Some Iranians assign moral values to the relationship between a woman and her body, but you never seem to engage in censorship—you behave as if you feel that what you are doing is correct. 

GF: I think if you want to live for others, then what does it mean to live? I’m an individual. I was born as an individual and I will die as an individual. And I don’t want to be connected to any sort of identities related to family, society, country, sex, or even being a woman or whatever. I’m just a human being and that’s who I am. There’s no limit.

It’s important for me to consider what a given movie is doing in the world and how it affects people. Even in Iran, the movies that I did had great messages about social, economic, political or other critical issues. They were always criticizing or challenging something. I never made any commercial movie just for the sake of doing a movie. I never did any movie for money or anything other than the meaning of what that movie was saying. What a given movie is saying is very important for me. I have to believe in it to be able to act in it. That’s why I couldn’t play the role of a terrorist. I couldn’t do any Iranian movie with a script that made me think it was about something that doesn’t actually happen in Iran. I couldn’t act in such a movie—it’d be wrong even if it were a big Hollywood production. I couldn’t lie to myself.

MM: Do you think that a woman in Iran whose body must be clothed cannot express her emotions in the same way as an actor outside of the country? I ask because you were raised in a specific culture that maybe shaped your thinking about your body in a specific way, and then suddenly you were outside of Iran and there were no boundaries for your body.

GF: I don’t think so, because when I think about Divar [The Wall, Mohammad-Ali Talebi, 2008] and some other movies that I did, they were always very energetic, so I was still moving in my own way. I don’t think that the biggest difference between being a woman acting inside of Iran and outside of Iran is physical—it’s actually mostly mental. It’s not a physical veil but rather a mental veil. It’s self-censorship. It’s all the taboos that shouldn’t be broken.

For example, something very funny that I remember from Body of Lies [Ridley Scott, 2008] is that Leonardo DiCaprio and I were friends, so I was coming on set kissing him and hugging him. Then there was a scene where I was supposed to touch his hand and I couldn’t touch him in front of the camera. It was like such a taboo. Of course, we know that in Iran, all the actors are having sex together like everywhere else. They are old friends who are partying and everything, but not in front of the camera. So I realized that, wow, I had such blockages in my mind. I had to free myself from this and be able to be open and comfortable, especially with my body, because I was born and raised in a comfortable culture with my parents and we didn’t have those blockages in our family. I have to be able to be who I am in front of the camera. MM

Paterson opens in theaters December 28, 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street.

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