When they are forced to move out of their flat, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young couple living in Tehran, are forced to move into a new apartment. However, once relocated, a sudden violent act, somehow linked to the apartment’s previous tenant, dramatically changes the couple’s life, creating a simmering tension between them, even as the acting couple prepares to star in an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Writer/Director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past), a master at exposing domestic discord through his multi-layered films, explores the psychology of vengeance and a relationship put under strain in his powerful new film, The Salesman (Forushande). Time magazine named 44 year-old Asghar Farhadi one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world in 2012, after his film, A Separation, won the Oscar and Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as numerous other awards. The Salesman is his seventh feature. I sat down with Farhadi and his translator in Los Angeles just before the president issued his executive order that is preventing him from attending next month’s Academy Awards.
Danny Miller: Your films are all so original — sometimes shockingly so. Did you start with the idea of contrasting what this couple is going through with the production of Death of a Salesman that they’re performing in, or did that idea come to you later?
Asghar Farhadi: For a long time I’ve been wanting to make a film that had something to do with the theater. I started with the basic idea of a couple working on a play and then something happens in their lives that prevents them from appearing on stage.
How did you end up choosing Death of a Salesman?
I read a bunch of plays when I was trying to come up with what this couple was working on. I read a great number of plays until I got to Death of a Salesman. I had read it 20 years earlier, but after rereading it I knew this was what I had to use. There are so many connections between this play and my story. For example, the old man we see at the end of the film with his wife is basically an Iranian Willy Loman. I started to see the play as a kind of a mirror to the story that happens to my main characters. The main thing that my story and the play have in common is the theme of humiliation.
Is playwright Arthur Miller well known in Iran? Was that an existing translation of Death of a Salesman or one you created for the film?
Arthur Miller is very well known in my country. Every few years there are new translations of Miller’s play available in Iran. I think the last Arthur Miller production I heard about in Iran was a year ago — there are several production of American plays in Iran every year, they are very relevant to us and important.
Your two leads, played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, give such extraordinary performances in this film. Hosseini is amazing but I can’t stop thinking about Alidoosti’s quiet and complex portrayal — so many layers. What’s your style with working with your actors — do they participate a lot in developing their characters?
I work a great deal with some of my actors, with others less so. I’ve worked with Shahab on several films so we’ve come to know each other’s language. We did have a great deal of rehearsal for this film but it might interest you to know that the main thing I worked with them on was playing the parts of Willy and Linda Loman. It mattered very much to me that they should appear like real theater actors. The person I probably worked with the most was the actor who plays the old man who comes in at the end of the film. This character could have been the Achilles heel of my film — his acting had to be just right. What’s important for me is that audiences watch my films and feel like they’re seeing life. I always tell my actors to imagine that they are in a documentary!
Our two countries have had a complex relationship, God knows, including now. Another thing that I love about your movies is that it gives more Americans the chance to see Iranian characters who are 100% relatable and living lives so similar to our own. When you’re making your movies, do you consciously think about how they might be perceived in other countries?
Yes, I am always aware of this but the reason I make films is never to demonstrate that we are like other people. In my opinion it’s certain politicians and the media that have constructed this erroneous image. And there’s certainly a segment of the Iranian population who may have erroneous impressions about Americans. When you look at these two peoples through the lens of politics, you end up with a very one-dimensional perspective. But it’s very interesting — in terms of emotionality, I find that Iranians and Americans really resemble each other.
As much as I completely related to this film and these characters, do you think there might be things about the story that we don’t get the same way because of differences in our cultures?
It’s possible that certain audiences may see some things as palpably as Iranian audiences. The sense of shame is something that is present for humans everywhere, but I feel that in my country and in some other countries in the East, it’s stronger. So, for instance, when the woman doesn’t directly explain to her husband what happened in the bathroom, I think it’s something that may be more understandable to an Iranian audience than it is to an American audience.
Oh, that’s so interesting. I think that many of us may understand that scene but in a totally different way — using our awareness of how trauma can close people down emotionally, but not as a cultural thing. Another thing that I love about your movies is that there’s never a black and white good versus bad, all the characters are way more complex than that. When you go to screenings around the world, do you get different reactions related to the morality of what’s happening in the story?
The feedback I’ve received in America and Iran is very similar. There are also some differences in opinion with both audiences. In American and Iran, some audience members judge the main character for his desire for revenge and in the moment that he slaps the other man. But some people in both countries say that’s the very least he should have done. But I found in Europe, for example, most of the people in the audience were completely against the slap.
That’s partly why I’m saying that Iranians and Americans perhaps resemble each other more in terms of their emotions, I often have very similar reactions to my films in both countries as opposed to other parts of the world.
I first saw the film just before our recent election and since then I’ve been thinking about it differently, including the whole Willy Loman ethic that’s going on that led to our current situation. Coming from a country where I assume you’ve had similar issues with your government, do you have any advice for those of us now who are in disagreement with where we’re headed?
There’s only one way for the world to become a better place — and that is for humanity to be placed at the very top and for everything else to be placed below it. Without that, the world will never be a good place. When ideology is at the top of the pyramid and then humanity, the first thing that happens is that it divides the people into two distinct camps: Muslims and non-Muslims, Christians and non-Christians, and so on. Or imagine that politics is at the top and humans are beneath that. That will again start dividing people into camps: Americans, Mexicans, Iranians, Blacks, Whites, Immigrants, etc. I think that all of our struggles should be working to place humanity at the top of the pyramid.
And a great way to do that is through art. I hope that filmmakers like you continue to help us get out of our polarized stances a little bit and look at human issues that cross all barriers.
I hope that the this period ends up being a positive, beneficial experience for American society as it tries to become acquainted with itself.