Upstaged by Injustice: The Salesman Is About More Than Its Titular Character, Says Actor Shahab Hosseini

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Asghar Farhadi’s newest film The Salesman recently won prizes at Cannes for both Farhadi’s screenplay and for Shahab Hosseini’s lead performance.

The film presents the familiar idea of private space being disrupted and touches upon the question of how violence emerges in society, as well as how the judgement of others can turn a non-violent and peaceful character into a monstrous person. Farhadi adds another layer to the situation by drawing a connection between Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman and the story of modernization in Iran. Hosseini previously collaborated with Farhadi on the films About Elly (2008) and A Separation (2011), and Hosseini’s energy, dedication and meticulous performances play a significant role in the success of the film. His multilayered and absorbing performances make us observe how a peaceful professor gradually turns into a brutal and deadly person seeking revenge at any cost.

Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It seems that working with Asghar Farhadi on those three movies has been very beneficial for you, since you’ve won several prizes and awards, the most recent being a Golden Simurgh for best actor from the Fajr Film Festival. The Berlin Film Festival also awarded you the best actor award, and last but not least, Cannes Film Festival gave you an award for The Salesman. What characteristics do Farhadi’s movies have which inspire such consistent excellence in your work with him?

Shahab Hosseini (SH): Perhaps I can say that our mutual sense of likability and friendship toward each other and a deep trust factor is involved in each of the works that we have done together. It is the sort of dynamic which brings out the best in everyone involved. We truly “get each other” and the fact that I really do believe in him and his flawless work has a direct effect on the final work that we produce. I believe that what we call “luck” in a certain work is not just pure luck as we know it, but rather a certain shared, blessed synergy and affectionate karmic exchange between people within a group who cooperate to create any work of art among themselves. In this case, we all lucked out to have been placed in each other’s paths for the making of these films. Farhadi’s brilliant directing and flawlessly executed artistic influence also brings out the best in the whole production team.

MM: It appears that Mr. Farhadi’s works are so well planned, with every detail so calculated that they may provide little opportunity for others to add further value. In a way, it seems that his films may be too perfect, almost to the point where there is no room for the slightest change or input by crew members or actors who want to inject their own creativity into the work. What are your thoughts about that and how it affects the whole team? How much room is there for your own artistic expression in Farhadi’s work?

SH: He leverages his theatrical background, knowledge and university education in this field quite well by establishing a team spirit and communicating the common goal of the project so that others can both express their individual artistic talents and add to the final outcome. The whole cast and crew flies in tandem in order to produce a harmonious and tightly knit work together that benefits from all creative input within the team. Farhadi somehow knows how to create a certain type of environment and then guide and lead the team in such a way that magic happens. He creates a sense of enthusiasm and establishes a great sense of friendship while at the same time fostering a shared sense of ownership within the team. This lays a very strong foundation for teamwork yet leaves room for openness, communication and the exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of trust and fun that is very participatory.

MM: Both you and Taraneh Alidoosti have worked with Farhadi on several occasions and there seems to be a certain mutual understanding between all of you, much like De Niro and Scorcese. Does he make roles specifically for you, or even, secure your cooperation before developing roles? Or is it the other way around, such that you try to exactly match and mimic what Farhadi wants to portray and follow what he has in mind?

SH: He puts in a good two years on his scripts and therefore it is impractical and almost impossible for him to tailor it to suit a certain actor or actress. So, to answer your question, I would have to say that no, he doesn’t tailor the role, but based on the script he tries to find the best match and make a choice about who should play the character.

Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

MM: Considering that Farhadi is well known for using theatrical methods to coach his actors, how much does your own background in theater help you to perform in his films? How much of that theatrical influence has been brought from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and used in the recent movie?

SH: He certainly has not tried to replicate the Death of a Salesman play in his work here, and I am sure that if he wanted to do that he could. However, instead, he leverages his theatrical background to understand it first and foremost and then convey it and take certain impressions from it. His knowledge and university education in this field has also served him quite well, of course.

MM: Watching Farhadi’s work in both films and plays reveals an evident gap between the depth of expertise of the roles played, with the theatrical plays being of a more amateur nature. It that intentional?

SH: I don’t think that the gap you refer to is created on purpose to make one appear superior to the other, but rather the actors that comprise the cast of The Salesman, for example, are all young and new professionals in the field so it is natural for them not to have the same depth of experience. Nevertheless, Farhadi uses his expertise in both theater and film in a good way to bring to life the best possible portrayal of the scenes. He does this so that they are believable and superbly resemble real life. For example, consider the part of The Salesman when the young people are trying to present the theatrical production of Arthur Miller’s play in which they are involved. They were not supposed to be the best, but rather appear as a bunch of kids trying to put together a play.

MM: How much theatrical experience would you say that you needed in order to perform the roles that Farhadi had in mind for your assigned characters, like in The Salesman?

SH: I think it is inevitable for an actor to try to see himself in a play or film as part of a larger team beyond just his own character. The theatrical experience has that aspect in common and is very similar to that of a film. I imagine that the only difference is the physical atmosphere and perhaps the technical equipment surrounding you on a film set. The absence of the live audience is one part of it but the rest requires similar mental and artistic capabilities.

MM: Aside from The Salesman‘s screenplay did you also study the original play?

SH: Yes, we had to study the play first.

MM: When you first read the script, what was your overall impression of the role and could you readily put yourself into the place of your character? Could you understand where he was coming from and were you able to justify it for yourself? Could you identify with it as an actor?

SH: All of the characters in a movie are usually by-products of their environments and their circumstances, in my view. I was feeling sorry for Emad, the main protagonist, and what he was subjected to as a teacher. Someone who had to endure a certain harshness in life ends up reacting and behaving in ways that are perhaps strange outside of that dynamic. I liked the character as I liked other characters that I have played. When I learn their stories I try to put myself in their place and impersonate them the best I can to deeply convey their emotional state and be one with the characters.

MM: There are certain challenges and peculiar traits that may be hard and even unacceptable for you to agree with and mimic. How did you manage that?

SH: I think that once you try to empathize with the character and find the source of his actions and reactions this issue is resolved and you can easily become absorbed in the character you are trying to portray. Acting, voice and body language are, of course, all components of acting, but when I act I try to forget these components and become one with the part so that I forget who I am for that duration and become more mindful of my role. In a way, I forget I am acting and I am one with the character. I could even say that on a subconscious level I strive to reach the point where I am bringing the character to life. I need to think about the character deeply and try to understand his motives and dynamics in an almost investigative and curious way to really, intimately know the role before I can play it. I need to live with the character, like a dead friend who has come to me requesting that I serve as a medium to voice the concerns he can no longer communicate for himself. This leads me to become very close and intimate with my characters in my imagination, if not being one with them. I feel like that is a great responsibility which I need to do in the best way possible.

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