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From Architecture to Afghanistan: Homayoun Ershadi on 'The Kite Runner'

Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) and Amir (Zekeri Ebrahimi) celebrate Amirís birthday in ďThe Kite Runner.Ē
by Dan Lybarger

Until a decade ago, Homayoun Ershadi had been making his living designing buildings in Iran and Vancouver, British Columbia. A chance meeting with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami lead to him being cast in Taste of Cherry. Ershadi played a sad but enigmatic man named Mr. Badii, who is searching the outskirts of Tehran for someone to either bury or rescue him after he attempts suicide.

Kiarostamiís minimalist directing style provided a challenging showcase for the novice thespian. In the early portions of the film, minutes pass where the only image on the screen is either his face or his point of view from the car window. Somehow Ershadi was able to make the simple shots of himself driving interesting. The 1997 film became a hit in the West and turned Ershadi into a full-time actor.

His low-key but expressive acting style has kept him working steadily ever since. Even through he was nearly 50 when he stared, he appeared on TV and in several films including The Pear Tree, Portrait of a Lady Far Away and Color of Friend.

Heís also demonstrated a remarkable range. His first role in a western movie is almost a polar opposite of Mr. Badii. In Swiss director Marc Forsterís adaptation of Khaled Hosseiniís novel The Kite Runner, Ershadi plays Baba, a successful and powerful merchant in 1970s Kabul whose life changes radically after the Soviets invade Afghanistan. Unlike Mr. Badii, Baba is a confident man who can stare down an armed Russian soldier into submission.

Babaís larger than life presence intimidates his son Amir (played as an adult by British actor Khalid Abdalla and as a child by Zekeri Ebrahimi). Father and son have a contentious relationship because his mother died giving him birth, and Baba sees little of himself in his offspring.

For his work on the film, Ershadi, whoís now 60, has received the lionís share of the praise and has been tapped as a potential Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor. For example, in Screen Daily, Tim Grierson states, ďBut The Kite Runner's strongest performance comes from Ershadi, who plays Baba with such simple decency that he becomes a towering patriarchal figure akin to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

Ershadi has been touring both to promote the film and to make viewers aware of the current situation in Afghanistan. He informs viewers during Q&A sessions after screenings that Afghanistanís plight has been ignored for too long, even in the Muslim world.

The actor is grateful for the notice heís received in the West, but heís always quick to acknowledge the culture and the industry that got him started. While he and other Iranian filmmakers have to follow strict religious rules their Western peers do not, Ershadi says the situation forces them to be more creative and to make films that no other country can make.

Lybarger: Last night you recounted how you had been recruited to be in Taste of Cherry. Would you be willing to repeat that?

Ershadi: Sure. No problem. As you know, Taste of Cherry
was my first film. One day I was driving in Tehran, and I had to stop at the traffic lights. I was waiting to get to the red light so I could go.

But it takes three or four minutes every time you stop at the traffic lights. I was thinking, and somebody knocked on my windows. I looked, and there was a gentleman. He said his name is Kiarostami. I knew his movies. I had seen them before, but I didnít know the person. So he said, ďMy name is Kiarostami. I am going to make a film. Would you like to be in it?Ē

I said, ďYes. Why not? I think it would be an honor for me.Ē So the day after, he came where I was working. He said, ĎI have to leave tomorrow night for the Locarno Film Festival. My assistant, who is another Iranian director, is going to take a video from you and bring it to Locarno.Ē

So the day after that, we did the tape, and after two weeks he came back and called me. He said, ďI want to make myself another tape.Ē So, we went with him. So, we did another tape. A week later, he called me and said, ďI choose you for the film.Ē So, I started from there.

Lybarger: Had you done any acting before that? Because I knew you went to Italy to study to be an architect?

Ershadi: Yes, Iím an architect no longer. That was my first experience. I didnít have any acting class. Nothing. I never thought I would be an actor.

Lybarger: In the fist minutes of the film, itís you either looking out a car window or someone looking at you. Youíre have to carry so much on your back.

Ershadi: Thatís true. We call it a road movie. You sit in your car, and you travel around. I was looking for something. You know what the story about. I was looking for somebody to do something for me.

That was my first film. Before we started shooting, I told Mr. Kiarostami, ďWhy did you choose me? Iím not an actor. I might ruin your film.Ē

He said one thing which gave me lots of confidence. ďIf thereís something wrong with my film, it wonít be your fault. Itís going to be my fault.Ē

So that gave me lots of confidence. He usually works with non-professional actors. And he knows how to treat them, how to talk to them, how to show the way because he doesnít want them to act too much. He wants to be natural. So that was easy for me to be natural.

I think it did well. It won the Cannes Film Festival for best film, I think (it took the Palme díOr).

Lybarger: It was interesting seeing you in that role after seeing you as Baba in The Kite Runner. The way you carry yourself in that film is much different.

Ershadi: When (Baba) was in Afghanistan, he was a very proud man, very strong man. Everybody knew him in Afghanistan as a great man, a charity man who helps other people. He opens the orphanage, making a school for kids, very rich guy in Afghanistan in Kabul in those days.

But after the Russian invasion, he had to move to Pakistan and then from Pakistan to the States. That changed everything. From that power, from that rich man, he has to work in the gas station.

But still heís a proud man. You can see heís still a proud man. Thatís a good thing because thatís how he finds his love for Amir. He shows his love because heís always loved Amir. But he doesnít see himself in Amir.

When they came to the States, he was still a proud man, but now he learned how to show his love for his son.

Lybarger: Are you conscious of how you hold yourself when you act?

Ershadi: Yes, because the transition between when you are young and when get older you have to show that transition even in your body, not just in your acting, in your body. We didnít even have rehearsal for that because it comes very naturally to me.

I knew Iím a sick man. I have to act physically as an old man, not just my face or the makeup as they make me older. Your whole body has to respond to that moment to be old.

But when you see the young Baba, you can see his shoulders because heís strong. In the book, it says heís six-foot-eight, with big hands and wrestling the bears. I am not that tall. I donít have big hands. But I think I could do it because I felt it inside. I felt-six-foot-eight in here (points to his chest).

So, thatís why he chose me because the first time I met (Forster) I told him ďIím not six foot eight. I donít have big hands.Ē After that I realized why he chose me because he saw inside me, six-foot-eight.

Lybarger: I watched the way you played the scenes with the actor who played Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada). I was struck by how with just a few physical gestures you were able to tell viewers there was something closer between them than merely that you were the father of his best friend.

Ershadi: You realized it? I donít. Maybe because the first time I saw Hassan, Ahmad Khan, I saw him in Beijing. As soon as I saw him, I knew. He has something in his face. I read everything in his face. That chemistry comes right away between me and the other kid as well, but with Hassan more. And it shows in the film.

But thatís the story of the film because you canít (openly) express your love for Hassan, but you have to show it in your eyes, in your acting. You love Hassan, too. I think I did. I donít know.

Lybarger: You actually went to Kabul to convince Mr. Forster to hire you. Is that correct?

Ershadi: I did go to Kabul, not to convince Mr. Forster because as I told you I thought I was not the right person for that role. I went to see Marc Forster. And they wanted me to go there, but as soon as I got there, I told Marc Iím not the right person. I didnít want to convince him because he saw Taste of Cherry. Thatís why I reasoned he chose me for that role.

And he liked it very much, the way I was acting. Heís a little bit similar to Kiarostami. He doesnít want too much you know acting, acting. It was to be simple, natural, which you saw the movie. The kids are very natural. Thatís why the acting was great, really. I think in real life the actors who played both Hassan and Amir in real life have the same (characteristics as the book) in their personal life.

I didnít go for convincing him. I just went to talk to him. I was thinking about another role, which was (family friend) Rahim Khan (played by British-born, American actor Shaun Toub). I thought Iíll go talk to Marc Forster. If Iím not the right person for the Baba role, so I might talk to him and get the other role.

Lybarger: What were the conditions like in Kaubl when you went there?

Ershadi: Actually, that was almost two years ago, maybe less than two year ago. The situation in Kabul was much better than it is now. The time they were casting the kids, the situation was much better, but now itís getting worse in Afghanistan.

In those days, we didnít have any suicide bombing. But now these days we have suicide bombings in Kabul. Itís too dangerous for the kids (Khan and Ebrahimi).Thatís why they want to get the kids out.

Lybarger: You had lived next door to Afghanistan in Tehran when the Taliban were committing some of their worst atrocities. Were you aware of what was happening because Iran had always been opposed to the Taliban?

Ershadi: Thatís true. They always opposed the Taliban. Even now, they oppose the Taliban because the Taliban doesnít represent the real Islam, the way they are doing the things. This is not Islam. So, I think the Iranian regime always opposed the Taliban.

Lybarger: I had also read in a book by Ahmed Rashid about what had happened during their rule. I had read about how the Hazaras in Herat had really been massacred by them.

Ershadi: Because the Hazaras are Shia. Theyíre not Sunni. The Taliban are Pashtun and Sunni, so thereís a religious conflict between Sunni and Shia. Hazara people in Afghanistan look different than Pashtun. The Pashtun people have the power, and the Hazaras are mostly workers, mostly they work very hard. We have lots of Afghan people in Iran right now, all Hazara. We donít have any Pashtun in Iran.

Lybarger: Was it difficult to have the right vocal mannerisms or the appearance to portray a Pashtun.

Ershadi: No, that was not difficult. I could act another character. I think the Pashtun people are much more strong. When Baba says to his son, ĎThe General is Pashtun. Be careful.í That means they have some (strong) ideas about the relationships between young people. The way of thinking of the Pashtun people and the Herati people are different.

The Herati people, because they are Shia, the way they look is different than the Pashtun people look. But both of them are Muslim. They are Sunni; they are Shia. But it was not difficult for me to be Pashtun.

Lybarger: While the two boys were Kabulis, youíre from Iran, Mr. Abdalla is British, Mr. Taghmaoui is French, and I thought it was interesting you were all playing Afghanis.

Ershadi: Actually, we were 26 different nationalities on the set, and different languages to have the translators: Chinese, Dari, English. We were in the western part of China in the state called Xinjiang. And 95 percent are Muslim there. And they speak another language. They donít even understand Chinese. They speak a language which is very close to the Turkish language.

We were 26 different nationalities. For me to learn Dari was a little bit easier than for Mr. Abdalla. I met him the second time we went to Kabul. I met Khalid Abdalla there. The chemistry came right away. I told (people) this is my son because I have one son and one daughter, but now I have two sons and one daughter. That relationship was established there and still continues.

Whenever his father came to visit usóhe came to China; he came to L.A. two weeks agoówhen he leaves he always says, ĎI leave Khalid to you. Take care of him.í Iím his second father now. And with the kids, it was very easy to connect with that relationship because they are very talented guys, and they are very intelligent. And that was just the first time they were acting. They were very natural. I love the kids. They are marvelous.

Lybarger: You had fallen in love with the book. Did somebody give it to you to read for a role?

Ershadi: No, I read it about two or three months before I started the movie.

Lybarger: Why did you develop such an attraction toward the book?

Ershadi: Because that was the first time they were talking about Afghanistan without saying about war, Russians, Taliban, Bin Laden, al Qaeda. It was a family story, which was full of love, forgiveness, friendship, guilt and desire for redemption.

And I thought this is not for Afghan people. This a human experience for everybody because regardless of what culture you have, what religion you have, these themes are human. So, I loved the book because of this, because everybody has a secret. I read this nor for my age, but the young people. When they read this book, they will learn many things from this bookóhow to keep your friendship, if you make a mistake, how to redeem your mistake, you know.

That book, I couldnít put it down. Two nights, two days until I put it down. Itís a family story. It explains really (well) every relationship between father and son. I think the book says that in the end, there is always a way to be better.

Lybarger: I think itís one of the few times mainstream western audiences have encountered a book or a movie that describes the culture of Central Asia, thatís written by somebody thatís lived there.

Ershadi: Thatís true. As I said, this is the first film from that part of the world that doesnít talk about other things. It just talks about the families. The author (Khaled Hosseini ) is Afghan himself. He lived in Afghanistan. He knows the culture. He knows the problems. He travels many times in Afghanistan, so he touches the problem. He feels the problem, and he brought it (out) in his book. That is one of the reasons itís very popular because not just the American people, but the whole world know nothing about Afghanistan. They know something from the media. But this book opened their eyes to look at Afghanistan in a different way.

Lybarger: Obviously, youíd like to see the film draw greater awareness to whatís going on over there?

Ershadi: Yeah. I hope so, and there are lots of organizations around even in the States there are organizations that are doing a very good job to get help for the Afghani people. Now they are hiring teachers in Afghanistan, 500 teachers. They are sending 500 laptops for the students. Itís, so if you want to tell the people they can go to the web site and see.

Lybarger: This is the first European or American film youíve been involved in. Is that correct?

Ershadi: Thatís true.

Lybarger: How did that differ from what youíd done in Iran?
Ershadi: Lots of differences. But first of all, for Taste of Cherry, we were only 10 people. The whole crew was only 10 people: two cars, ten people. Every day we were going to the set for shooting.

And now even the big projects in Iran, there are 30 or 40 people around. But with this project (The Kite Runner), we were up to 200, 300 people on the set.

The technology which we are using in Iran, itís about 30 years old. We donít have this modern technology for shooting movies. It now the start of the new technology in Iran, but all the Iranian films they are shooting with old technology.

And I think that is the reason some foreign people, who are involved in the movie industry, if they want to come to Iran and shoot with that technology, they canít do it. But if an Iranian comes to the States or Europe, they can very simply adapt to the new technology. But you canít go back 30 years ago and start shooting. I think that shows how the Iranians are willing to make films. And even with the old technology, you donít even have to imagine these films shooting with the old technology. So, weíre very different.

Lybarger: A lot of people have said that filmmakers like Kiarostami have to be more creative than American or European filmmakers in how they deal with certain subjects because theyíre forbidden.

Ershadi: Thatís true. But I think that sometimes it works better when you have some restriction because you have to think about how to bring in a new subject because otherwise you canít make a film.

In Iran, we have lots of restriction because of our religion, so if you want to make a film, you have to think about that. You are not open to all subjects because we donít have sex; we donít have violence. We donít have 90 percent of the stuff you are now seeing. Sex, violence, war, we donít have those kind of things.

So, it helps the Iranian directors, especially the young generation to bring the new subjects. I think if you donít have the restriction, sometimes you go to the normal subjects. Everything will be like other peopleís. Iranian film, itís about relationship, love, those kind of things. You donít see those things you see in foreign movies.

Lybarger: I donít know if youíre aware of this, but youíve gotten a lot of rave for your work in the current film.

Ershadi: The Kite Runner? I donít know. Many people came to me and said my performance was good. I donít know.

Lybarger: Youíd been singled out in some of the prominent American trade journals. Have you been getting any offers from Western filmmakers since youíve been working in this film?

Ershadi: Yes, but one of them was for Ridley Scott for the latest film he was doing (Body of Lies). They called me three or four months ago through the casting agent in London They sent me some lines. I sent them a tape. Ridley Scott saw that, so he wanted to meet with me personally. So I came here to Los Angeles about three or four months ago, and I had a meeting with him, but three or four weeks ago, I got a letter from my manager saying they chose an English actor for that role.

That movie is with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. My managerís out there doing something, so I donít know.

Lybarger: When youíve been at these screenings, itís probably the first time people have seen somebody from Iran, outside of what weíve seen in our media. Itís almost like youíve become an ambassador.

Ershadi: They donít ask me that much about Iran, though. Actually, not so far.

Lybarger: Have you read much of the work of Marjane Satrapi? She has a new film about her time in Iran called Persepolis.

Ershadi: Iíve read the book. I havenít seen the film.

Lybarger: That was the first time Iíd encountered anything from Iran. It was so interesting to me because it shows how complex Iranian culture is and how long it goes back. When I saw 300, I read all about the Persians, and I learned that they had an administrative system that was so far ahead of the ancient world.

Ershadi: Youíre talking about 300. I havenít seen that. I donít really want to see that?

Lybarger: I donít think you really need to. Itís interesting if you just want to see people fighting, but the Greek historian Herodotus had noticed what a great administrative system the Persians had, and how weíre taking a lot of their advances to world culture for granted now.

Ershadi: I havenít seen the film, but what you are saying is true. The Persian kingdom was big. Because some parts of Greece and the Roman were part of the Persian Empire. In 300, I donít think they explain it very well. So thatís why I donít want to see that movie.

With Marjane Satrapi, I think that what she did is a very nice job, but I donít think it represents 100 percent of the situation in Iran because I think maybe we have a problem with the government and with other governments.

The system is there, and we believe in the system. The fight between governments doesnít bother us because you have this government today, and the next day, you have another government, so the relationship will be changed.

I think still the people in Iran are safe. They are very safe because itís the only place in the world you can walk in the street and not be scared of a suicide bomb. Everywhere in the world, you have to be careful of where you walk. Maybe something happens. But in Tehran, itís very safe.

I think what Marjane Satrapiís explaining is the first days of the Revolution because in those days, many things happened. But now, itís getting much better. So I think the people are very happy in Iran.

Lybarger: Sheís living in Paris right now. So what sheís talking about in the books and in the movie is not what youíre seeing?

Ershadi: This Kite Runner puts on the map Afghanistan, even for Muslim people. Because whenever we say we are Muslim, everybody looks and says, ďAre you terrorist?Ē No, we are not terrorist. We are human being. So it puts on the map, Muslims to show that Muslims are human beings.

I think Marjane Satrapi went out, I donít know how many years ago, but in those days, yes, maybe they had some problems with the government.

Lybarger: Hasnít there recently been a parliamentary election where President Ahmadinejadís faction lost seats?

Ershadi: He lost the seats, but thatís the government. Itís not the regime. The regime is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Everybody believes in that. We believe in that because if I donít believe in that,
I have to leave my country if I am against it. The law is there. You have to accept the law. The nature of human beings is when the law is working for us, we like it. When it doesnít work for us, we donít like it.

If I donít like your law, here in the States, I donít have to stay here. I have to respect your laws. Even if foreign people come to Iran, they have to respect our law. The women, they put on the scarves.

What Iím saying is in Iran, Ahmadinejad is the government. He stays four years, maybe another four years. But it depends on how he works for Iranian people. He lost some seats, not in the Parliament, because the elections are going to be next year. But he lost in the city hall elections, but not for the Parliament. Thatís government. One day, the government loses. One day, they gain. It has nothing to do with the regime. The regime is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which we believe it, and we have to respect the law, whatever it is.

Lybarger: Thank you very much.

Ershadi: Sorry that my English is not very good so I could provide more explanation.

Lybarger: Thatís OK. If I was really smart, Iíd be asking the questions in Farsi.

Ershadi: (laughs) Iíd love to answer in Farsi. Then, I could explain more.

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originally posted: 12/12/07 14:14:45
last updated: 12/12/07 14:44:36
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