Peyman Moadi, the star of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated Iranian domestic drama “A Separation,” is finally at peace with himself and his career.
Along the way, though, he gave up his youthful ideas of studying film in New York, heeded his parents’ advice by getting a degree in a subject he didn’t care for — engineering — and wrote five very commercial movies in Iran.
“But I was suffering all the time because I didn’t even like these movies,” said Moadi, 41, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I was one of the best writers in the country, but it wasn’t enough for me.”
So he started writing and directing short films that, he said, did well at festivals. He had written a feature film and wanted to direct it. But scripts need to be submitted to the government for approval before filming begins, and he wasn’t able to receive permission. Around the time he started to write another script, one of his short films caught the eye of Farhadi, who asked him to act in his 2009 ensemble movie “About Elly.”
“This was the first time that I was thinking seriously about acting,” Moadi said over coffee at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “I love Asghar’s movies, so I was feeling that I would be in good hands. We became friends, and I received good feedback for my acting at the festivals.” “About Elly” was Iran’s submission for an Oscar in 2010.
The two then began collaborating on a screenplay for a film that was supposed to shoot in Berlin. Then one day Farhadi called Moadi to say he felt compelled to put their screenplay on the back burner so he could write “A Separation,” about a couple who have split up. At the crux of the pair’s rift is that the wife wishes to immigrate to another country with their daughter in search of a better life, but the husband doesn’t want to leave behind his 80-year-old father, who has Alzheimer’s. Along the way, economic and religious issues also come into play.
Moadi didn’t have any hard feelings about Farhadi putting the breaks on their film: “I said forget everything if you think you have to do it. .
“After some months, he sent me the screenplay,” Moadi said. “He wanted my opinion. Afterward, he came to me and said, ‘I want you to play the role’” of the husband.
In the meantime, Moadi had completed a screenplay and was about to make his feature directorial debut. “Asghar told me, ‘Leave your project. Put it away and do my movie and then go make your movie,’” recalled Moadi. So he did.
“A Separation” has won countless international awards, including the Golden Globe for foreign language film. In addition to being nominated for the foreign language Oscar, the film is also nominated for original screenplay — the first time an Iranian film has been nominated in a screenplay category.
The accolades have taken Moadi and Farhadi by surprise. During production, Moadi recalled, Farhadi would constantly ask him whether people outside of Iran would be able to relate to the story. “This is a very Iranian, Persian story,” said Moadi. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I am sure that you will have a great story about humans.’”
Paul Malcolm, film programmer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, said that Moadi’s performance is the center of the film. “Even though we see his character making bad decisions we can sympathize with him because they are honest decisions,” Malcolm said. “While I think a lot of the push and pull of these tensions are more pronounced in a country like Iran, it is a situation that a lot of people around the world can relate to because this is the nature of our global society right now.... We all make mistakes and bad decisions, and sometimes that leads to hurting the people we care about.”
The writing laurels for “A Separation,” Moadi said, have been a particular validation of the film’s universality. On the day of the interview, Moadi and Farhadi were in town to pick up a prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., which named “A Separation” the top screenplay of 2011. “This is more important than acting awards,” Moadi said. “I told Asghar, ‘You write a Persian screenplay. They don’t understand a word of your screenplay and they give you the award for best screenplay. This means they get your story. This means language doesn’t matter.’”
Though it’s hard to imagine now, “A Separation” almost wasn’t put forward by Iran for Oscar consideration. Farhadi told The Times in December that the movie met with considerable resistance by several factions of Iran’s selection committee. Even before that, production of the film had been halted by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for 10 days after Farhadi made a speech at the House of Cinema Film Festival in support of such Iranian filmmakers as Jafar Panahi, who had been banned from making movies. The film was allowed to proceed after Farhadi apologized.
Moadi believes audiences around the globe have connected so strongly with the film for multiple reasons. “It is like a Hitchcock thriller. There is no bad guy and no good guy. Everybody can find themselves in one of these characters.”
The plaudits from big-name Hollywood types have been equally thrilling, he said. “Meryl Streep [praised us]. Steven Spielberg said it is one of the best movies he’s ever seen,” Moadi recalled with incredulity. “Bob Dylan said it was magnificent.”
Moadi was born in New York City, where his father was studying law. By the time he turned 5, his father had completed his degree and moved the family back to Tehran.
A self-proclaimed “movie lover,” Moadi’s dream was to return to New York to study film and meet his idol, Woody Allen. But after Moadi completed his two-year military service, his father insisted that he study metallurgical engineering at the Islamic Azad University at Karaj. “My family was telling me that metallurgy” was a good profession, he said.
A year into his studies, he returned to New York City. “They had a rule that we could deposit money and go six months out of the country and get back in and continue at the university. I went to New York. I wanted to study cinema at New York University. But I had doubts.”
Despite his cinematic dreams, Moadi — much like the characters in “A Separation” — found it difficult to extricate himself from family obligations and expectations. He returned to Iran and finished his degree.
Moadi satisfied his artistic side by writing short stories. In 2000 he turned one of those, “Swan Song” into a screenplay, which became a hit movie, Moadi said.
After he finished filming “A Separation,” Moadi did go back to directing his own film, “Snow on the Pines.” The drama, about a woman turning 40, premiered last week at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran.
“I am not in it, but a lot of beautiful actors and actresses are in the movie,” he said. “It was a very good experience.”
Times contributor Gary Goldstein contributed to this report.