Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo became familiar to American audiences with her Oscar-nominated role in House of Sand and Fog. Along with prominent TV roles in the series 24 and Smith, Aghdashloo's films include Maryam, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, American Dreamz, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Lake House, and now, The Nativity Story, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Hardwicke, once a sought-after production designer (Three Kings, Vanilla Sky), has found success as a feature director (Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown). I spoke to Aghdashloo and Hardwicke at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: I think many people might look upon this project as unlikely for the both of you. What motivated you to take on this project, and was personal faith an issue—either positive or negative—in making that decision?
Catherine Hardwicke: You can go first. (Laughs.) Go.
Shohreh Aghdashloo: (Laughs.) No. I will wait for you.
Catherine Hardwicke: Well, I grew up, Presbyterian Church, south Texas, Mexican border—building these cool little Nacimientos at Christmas. I loved Christmas, you know—all the stories and the songs and the star and all the magical elements of it. And I really did not think any deeper about it—like I didn't even go to the first level, like "Mary and Joseph were Jewish." I didn't even think that deep about it, you know? And I think that when I started reading Mike Rich's screenplay, it was pretty interesting, like "Wow. Mary is a person...a young girl dealing with these kinds of issues. And the community was not supportive of her and freaked out. And Joseph sees her come...back pregnant, and he knows he's not the Dad. It just started drawing me in. And I did more research—found out she's thirteen or fourteen years old, according to all scholars—I'm like "Wow." You know, it started kind of really intriguing me, thinking, "What an interesting journey." I would learn so much—it'd be so scary and cool to try this. (Laughs.)
Shohreh Aghdashloo: Well, I was born a Muslim and I have to confess that I'm a student of all religions. I love studying religions. After all, religion is a part of our culture, upbringing, geography and environment. When I first read this story, the screenplay, I loved it. I loved—I was mesmerized by the simplicity of it all. This is the way—this simple story—and yet the most ambiguous one of all. Mankind's history should be told in a simple way. And my approach wasn't like this at all; it was more of a cultural/historical approach...
G: After making three films that focused on teenagers, are you jonesing to do, like, maybe a retirement village story?
G: But seriously, do you look at yourself as kind of a youth director, or did it just sort of happen that way?
CH: Well, you know, of course, all of them had adult characters that were really important, like Holly Hunter is very important in Thirteen, and Heath Ledger and the adults and parents are important in Dogtown, and this one, really Mary's the only teenager. And you have fabulous Elizabeth, and her parents, and Joseph, who aren't teenagers. So you know, it's kind of unfair, it's kind of a joke [when I call it my]..."Teen Trilogy". But the next movie I want to do doesn't even have a teenager in it. Weird.
SA: Can you tell us what it is about?
CH: Yeah, it's about—I don't know if you guys have heard of The Monkey Wrench Gang...? It's kind of like an eco-activist film about these four eccentric characters. It's written in the 70's—the book—that really loved the American Southwest, like around the Grand Canyon, and they're fighting to save the land. And they're funny, and it's like an action/adventure comedy about the environment...
G: You said that your grandmother was an inspiration for...your interpretation of this role, right? What qualities did she have that you wanted to capture?
SA: Well, when I first started doing this research on Elizabeth, I was told that the only place she is spoken of is in the Gospel of Luke. And I also discovered an "A to Z" to Bible with 3500 characters, including Elizabeth, which was very helpful. And while going through it, I realized that she was a selfless, giving, generous, kind woman with a heart—beautiful love and passion for humanity.
CH: Nothing like Shohreh. (Laughs.)
SA: Nothing like me.
SA: I remembered my grandmother was the same way. She used to drag me all the way to the slum area...rice, candies, chocolates, soaps, so on and so forth. And all the time I was nagging, "Grandma, these are heavy. Grandma!", but she was just going ahead and making me to follow her. She's still doing it. So when I arrived at the character and realized that the character reminds me a lot of my grandmother, I just—she still lives in me. I believe in what Lion King says when he tells Simba that he will always remain in his mind. My grandmother is in my mind all the time. There's no day when I do not think of her. So the minute I realized that the two women are so similar to one another, I just simply asked Grandma to take me to Elizabeth. And I said it out loud. I said, "Grandma, please take me to Elizabeth." And she did. And all I did, I tried to stay truthfully to what the character was, what Catherine wanted me to perform, and what the writer expected me to bring about in this character.
CH: Now, here's my opinion. It's a little bit different. Really, that's Shohreh herself. You know, when she first walked into the room to audition, she had such an amazing spirit and toler—you know, she talked about this movie as a message of tolerance and love. I was just like—
SA: I loved it!
CH: She walked out of the room; I'm like "She has to be in the movie. Even if she plays you know, a priest, she has to be in the movie."
SA: I loved it, I loved it.
CH: She just had that spirit, you know.
SA: She kept asking me..."Why do you want to be a part of this cinema?" And I'm saying, "I'm mesmerized at its simplicity and its excruciating resemblance to today's world. I want to be a part of this. And I was hoping. I was praying it would happen.
CH: And when she left, I'm like "You have to be in it." Because I think really so many of the actors did bring that feeling of like a connection to the film. People didn't only do it as a job. I mean, they felt some kind of a spiritual connection to the role, which is what made it kind of great working on the film.
SA: Great cast and ensemble. And from all over the world. Ireland, England, France, Germany.
CH: Like twenty-three countries: Kiwi, Guatemala, Trinidad, Cameroon, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria. Yeah, everybody had the most interesting stories.
SA: I've worked thirty years. Thirty years. Never had a chance to work with so many good actors at once.
CH: And exotic.
CH: Really fun, yeah!
G: Did you work out the backstory with the actor playing your husband, Zechariah?
G: What did you decide about how you two had come together?
SA: We talked a lot about this relationship. I had decided that she must have loved him. Not only because she was a kind woman, but also because she never, never turned away from her faith. The fact that God is not merciful upon her to give her a baby when she's young and can cherish and take care of the baby better than her old days—cause you know, she's pregnant in her senior years. Although God has not been merciful upon her, still she does not let go of her faith. And that tells me that she was a true believer. Because true believers, those who have faith, they would—no matter what happens, since they have suffered it, they would never ever turn away from their beliefs.
CH: And that he loved her.
SA: And he decided that he loved her. So we had no trouble.
CH: And there's was kind of a beautiful love story too. I love that scene where you see them together with the baby—it's pretty cool.
G: It seems like both of you got in touch with a lot of the cultural aspects of it...And, in watching the film, it seemed there was a concerted effort to show us the way of life—
G: Traditions, I suppose is what I'm trying to say. So could you both talk about what sort of research you did in order to tap into that historical, cultural aspect?
CH: Nazareth boot camp! You guys heard about that, right?
CH: That was the number one crash course in—
SA: Crash course, indeed. Yes.
SA: Sessions of diner codes, and carpet weaving—
CH: Goat milking!
G: But you didn't say, "Drop and give me twenty."
CH: No. I said, "You're not going to get a close-up!"
SA: I love it. I love especially the goat milking.
CH: Yeah, no, it was actually fun because you've got to kind of drop away from all of our gadgets and imagine—you know, most movies, people are—you find activities to do with your acting. But almost all the normal activities are off-limits. There's no TV. There's no hanging out at a bar, drinking. No cigarette smoking. You had to do what people really did and really be grounded, which was pretty much work all the time, if you were a peasant—you were like, you know—you see every scene: Elizabeth's oiling the pestles, she's grinding the wheat for the bread. Everybody's busy, surviving. That was one of the many things we did to educate ourselves...
G: The tagline of the film is "Experience the True Meaning of Christmas." I'm sure people have been asking you: what is the true meaning of Christmas?
CH: Well, I didn't write that tagline. (Laughs.)
G: It's a fair question, isn't it?
SA: It's that holy atmosphere in the air—that you can feel it. For the rest of the year, all you're in touch with is the—in every hotel or motel, you go to the room, there's a nightstand by the bed—if you go to that drawer, you would see a Bible in it, for the rest of the year. But in Christmas, you actually feel it in the air and that's what I love about it. Especially when you're at places where it's cold.
CH: Yeah. But also I think what they meant is—the other thing is Christmas has turned into a whole commercial extravaganza now. You know, sometimes on the last days before Christmas, you can almost get in fights at stores trying to get the right stuff, and you can get totally harried and everything. Did I get enough presents for everybody? But, you know, is that really what it's about? And maybe you can take a moment, go into a dark theatre, and just say, okay, where did it start? And try to connect with the spirituality. I guess, you know?
SA: And when you're shopping and shopping and shopping, buy that one extra gift for that waitress who's waiting in the corner of the restaurant.
CH: Or give it to somebody that needs something special Christmas morning.
G: Do you think that the film will appeal to non-Christians as much as to Christians?
SA: It will definitely empower the imagination, and therefore they would enjoy it. They would come out satisfied. That's what I'm hoping for.
CH: Yeah, and I feel like the relationship between Mary and Joseph is pretty universal—like, you know, relationships going through these obstacles, in their case, you know, helped things happen, but that made her love him more when he stood up and when she stood up and said, "There's a will for this child," he saw that strength in her and he loved her even more. It like deepened through the film. So I think that's like a universal thing. We all wish we could have a relationship like that. We wish we could have a Joseph or a Mary in our lives. Yeah...
G: There's something that I was curious about when I watched the film...the Magi are portrayed—they're serious, but they're also comic relief, right?
CH: Yeah, sometimes.
G: I was curious if that was the screenwriter's flourish or something that you brought to it?
CH: That wasn't in the first draft that I got. But, you know, as we started thinking about it, it was like imagine if you were three guys that were used to your kind of like think-tank palace, and then you decide to go on a nine-month-long camping trip with camels. Things are bound to get on your nerves about your buddy. In fact, when we did our rehearsal, I made them ride—well, we didn't have the camels, but I made them ride donkeys for like five miles. And boy, it came out! Fur was flying!
CH: "But his donkey is better than mine! The other one is faster!" (Laughs.) So it kind of comes organically in some ways, too.
SA: And remember, it takes the Wise Man to make a fool of himself.
SA: It's not easy. I can't do that—
CH: What did you think about the Wise Men? Did you think we were too funny?
G: No, no I didn't think it was too funny. I thought it balanced the film a little bit to have that.
CH: I thought it was a little bit helpful. Because you kind of need to laugh. Of course we want to do everything because we are human...
CH: Yeah, thank you...
SA: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of The Nativity Story, click here.]