Tehran's Niv Sultan on Working With Glenn Close: 'She's Huge'

CUL PS Niv Sultan
Or Danon

"I don't think I've ever seen a female hacker on TV."

Spy thrillers are a popular TV genre, but one about a female Israeli Mossad agent? That's almost unheard of. Tehran (its second season on Apple TV+ premieres May 6) is the rare example. Niv Sultan stars as Tamar Rabinyan, a young Iranian-born Mossad agent tasked with deactivating an Iranian nuclear reactor. "When I got the audition and read it out loud, I was thinking this character has to be mine. She is truly a gift," she says. Part of Sultan's initial response was to how different Tamar's character is: "She is so complex and has so many layers. It's not like the regular Mossad agent. She is a real person. Sensitive but at the same time has her own opinion. She has chutzpah." While filming the first season she had no idea it would be a success. "We didn't know if people would love it or not," she says. "The fact that so many people around the world loved it, got the story and felt close to the characters, it's amazing." For Sultan, the positive international response is the most rewarding. She notes, "At the end of the day, that's what you want as an actor."

The show is wonderful! It's so thrilling. I find myself getting anxious just watching it.

It's funny, every time a viewer tells me they're in such anxiety, I'm so happy!

How does it feel to get this kind of international attention because of the show?

So it took me a while to realize that it's actually big. I think the first time I actually realized it was when they told me that Glenn [Close] was joining the second season. And I was like, "Wait, what?" And they were like, "Yeah," and I told them, "How? She's huge!" The fact that we were in Athens, we worked so hard, we didn't know if people would love it or not. You just do it and put in a lot of effort. The fact that so many people around the world loved it and got the story and felt close to the characters. It's amazing. At the end of the day, that's what you want as an actor.

What was it like working with Glenn Close?

She's huge. I didn't know what to expect. I realized there's a reason huge actors are huge. It's not for nothing. Obviously, she's super talented, but she works so hard. She is such a badass. It was fascinating to watch because she was so professional and she takes everything so seriously, every scene, every sentence, every moment, but at the same time she's having fun. I never felt like she was taking herself too seriously.

You've had such a year with Tehran, of course, but also That Dirty Black Bag on AMC. But if that wasn't enough, you also got married!

The wedding! We were shooting That Dirty Black Bag in Spain, Italy and Morocco. It was four months during COVID. We couldn't go back home. So we were stuck there. All the cast together, we became a family. Once we finished I moved straight to Athens to do the second season [of Tehran]. So it was a very busy year. I was really happy about it. The most amazing thing about [That Dirty Black Bag] is that it's a completely different genre from Tehran. I couldn't ever dream of doing a Western because we don't have Westerns in Israel [laughs].

What did you first respond to with your character in Tehran?

I remember when I got the audition and read it out loud, I was thinking this character has to be mine. She is truly a gift. I just finished my drama school here in Tel Aviv, and this is exactly the kind of character that you dream of. She is so complex and has so many layers, she is so humane. It's not like the regular Mossad agent or superhero agent story, she is a real person. She's so sensitive but at the same time has her own opinion. She doesn't obey if she doesn't agree. She has chutzpah. I remember reading [the script] and I loved it because it wasn't like Israelis against Iranians. It was much more complicated in a beautiful way. There isn't one specific enemy, there isn't good or bad.

You're right, there's a lot of nuance to the story, particularly in regards to the many political issues that part of the Middle East is grappling with.

I agree. Because there's so many sides and colors in this conflict and in Israel conflicts, we have so many conflicts here. Nothing is black and white. I feel very lucky to be part of it and to show a completely different angle of the story.

What things do you think you have in common with your character?

A couple of things. I think Tamar can't handle failure. She needs to be very good. She needs to be the best. I think this is something that I can relate to. And the relationship with her family, being super connected to her roots and her family. I think that's one of the biggest motivations she has. I have a very strong relationship with my family.

The other thing that makes Tamar so compelling is that we don't often see a female-led drama about an agent in Iran. Is this something that stood out to you?

I think that's the most brilliant thing the writers do. That was the first thing I thought about when I read it. I thought, okay, she's a woman. She's a hacker. I don't think I've ever seen a female hacker on TV. She's holding a very high position in the military. That's not something you usually see. I thought it was brilliant. It's very refreshing. She's brilliant, but she's sensitive. She's scared, but she's very brave. She has her own abilities she could use as a female.

What can we expect from the second season?

I think that stakes are higher. Action is much bigger. Like the rhythm of the show is very, very fast. And Tamar is going through a lot. In the first season she needed to do one little mission and then everything went bad. Now she's much more active because she's going deeply undercover. She's a real agent.