Shohreh Aghdashloo fled Iran on the eve of the revolution, when she was only 25. She remembers the moment so vividly that she can still tell you the time (4:30 a.m.) and the date (Feb. 28, 1979). She's never been back. But in a sense, the 57-year-old actress—best-known for her Oscar-nominated role in The House of Sand and Fog—is experiencing a bittersweet homecoming of sorts this week. Aghdashloo stars in the new movie The Stoning of Soraya M., set in a small Iranian village in 1986, playing a woman named Zahra who retells the violent fate of her niece. The irony that the movie is being released during a week when Iran is facing protests that echo the 1979 revolution and are fueled partly by young Iranian women isn't lost on Aghdashloo. She spoke to NEWSWEEK about all things Iran. Excerpts:
Setoodeh: How did you leave Iran?
Aghdashloo: I was 25. The airports were shut down. The prime minister at the time ordered all the airports to be shut down. I didn't have any other way but to drive out. I drove out at 4:30 a.m., Feb. 28, 1979. I am leaving no matter what. I am going to get myself more educated. That way, I would be more helpful to my people. (Story continued below...)
You left in the middle of the night. Were you scared of getting caught?
It took me seven days to get to the border. We had to pass by demonstrators on the roads. When I got to the border, I realized that thousands of cars were waiting to get out. The only way I could describe the scene was it reminded me of the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Remember the scene at the border? People were claiming we were going to Turkey to vacation. That's why we didn't have suitcases or too much stuff with us. [The border patrol] couldn't say anything. There was not any law preventing them from letting us go.
Why did you leave?
Although young, I could anticipate what kind of life a person like me would have. I was familiar with the Islamic doctrine. I decided to leave and get myself educated in England.
What life would you have had if you stayed?
[It's possible] I would have been killed by now. I really can't tell. Knowing that I can't help myself; when I see something, I have to talk about it out loud. And being so concerned with the injustices. I can imagine I would have most likely ended up in a prison or been killed. [My character] Zahra and I share a lot in common. Although we come from different backgrounds—she is from a village, I'm from Tehran—we share strength and the courage to practice freedom of speech.
Have you watched the video of the young girl who was killed in the streets [Neda Agha-Soltan]?
Over and over and over again.
Did you think it was too violent to be shown?
Yes. But I am glad they are showing it. After 30 years. Iranian people tolerated this regime for 30 years. Out of fear or whatever it was, they never were able to tell the world what was happening to them. This is the first time. Let the world see what's happening to them. What we see is a mild version of what's going on. I'm more devastated for all those who are captured and put in prisons. They say our prisons are filled with new political prisoners. These kids are now being accused of being Leninist, Stalinist, leftist, where for each of them, the punishment [for their supposed crimes is] being hung. I know what kind of tortures they're going through. I can imagine it. Neda's picture is just an example of what these people are capable of doing.
Why did you decide to make this movie?
When I started, I had no idea things would turn out like this. My aim was to bring injustices to light, to make people pay more attention to this. Until 10 days ago, at private screenings people would say, "We thought [stonings] happened in Biblical times. We had no idea it happened now." It was so strange to them. But with now, with what's happened, they are putting the two together.
Had you ever seen a stoning in Iran?
I've seen a real one on tape. A tape that was smuggled out of Iran in the late '80s. It involved two young men, 18 and 19 years old, they were being stoned for being homosexuals. It was a stadium. In a rural society. I was told it was taken in the late '80s and it was filmed inside a sack. They made a hole inside a sack and put a camera there. For the first few minutes, all you see is the back of the people gathering at the stadium. The sad thing is that although they are stoning these two men for having an inappropriate relationship, there are mobs of men kissing each other on the cheeks. Then they start stoning these two men for having an inappropriate relationship. It was killing me. I cannot tell you how graphic the scene was. The people say stoning in the film was graphic; I tell them, "Oh, my God, you have to see the real one." The real one is horrible. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep for days.
Do you think there will be a day you can go back to Iran?
Oh, yes. The day is near. To a free Iran. Now it is more visible to me. Before, it was just an idea, a wish that may come true. Now it's more visible, more tangible. Because of this movement; no matter what, they have decided not to give in. They are going ahead at any price—to gain their basic rights. I have a feeling they're not going to stop.
Do you think the election was stolen?
Oh, definitely. It's pretty obvious that there was a fraud election.
Did you think Ahmadinejad will still be president?
It's hard to know. There are two faces to this coin. One, the movement is crushed by the regime. We would face a more military dictatorship in Iran. Or [two], the movement would win. And they would bring whoever they believe into [the] presidency.
You have a daughter. Do you think she will see your country one day?
I am dying to take my daughter to Iran. I am dying to show her how beautiful and great this country is. I want to show her monuments that are 2,000 years old, take her to Persepolis and show her the country of her ancestors that was the cradle of civilization once.
There have been so many violent images of Iran in the news. Do you have any positive memories of growing up there?
We used to call Tehran the Paris of the Middle East. We bought our beautiful flowers from Holland, wine from France. We enjoyed the certain type of serenity and democracy. We used to recite poems. My favorite one is one of [renowned Persian poet] Rumi's poems. One of the lines that I still remember: "Beyond the notion of right and wrong, there is a garden. My dear friend, would you like to meet me?