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June 23, 2009|Gina Piccalo

Shohreh Aghdashloo doesn't look like a fearless political firebrand. She arrived at a Studio City diner wearing an elegant suit, apologizing for being just three minutes late. But as Aghdashloo began talking about her latest film, "The Stoning of Soraya M." -- a compelling true story about an Iranian woman who was unjustly accused of infidelity by her husband and then stoned to death for the crime -- the outspoken Iranian expat emerged.

Aghdashloo, who left Iran during the nation's Islamic revolution in the late 1970s, hasn't flinched from roles that portray a less than flattering side of the Muslim world. After earning an Oscar nomination for her role as a pampered Iranian immigrant wife in the 2003 film "House of Sand and Fog," Aghdashloo spent a season on Fox's "24" depicting a terrorist and incensing Iranian Americans who believed it perpetuated stereotypes. Last year, she portrayed Saddam Hussein's wife Sajida in the BBC/HBO miniseries "House of Saddam."

On this evening, she passionately condemned the predominantly Muslim tradition of stoning, which she said millions of people around the world still believe is a just form of punishment, often with little in the way of a fair trial. To prove her point, she referenced the Koran, the Bible, quoted Mohandas K. Gandhi and Bertolt Brecht. She quoted her own mother too, a pious woman who stayed in Iran after her children left for the U.S., and all these years later still puzzles over her daughter's daring choices. And soon, Aghdashloo seemed to be addressing the fundamentalist Muslim leaders of Iran, who shortly after this conversation were accused of fixing an election that kept hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, leading to street protests and violent bloodshed.

"This is not right for a country that claims to have enriched uranium," she said of the practice of stoning, while leaning over the table and cutting the air with her hands. "This is really shameful. Having gone all the way through dealing with sophisticated technological gadgets, and a few blocks farther down you stone people? If you'd like to merge with the whole world, you have got to stop it. All we're asking pious Muslims is to get rid of their superstitions and traditions such as this one horrible, barbaric form of punishment."

This is the sort of public candor that prompted "Stoning" co-producer Stephen McEveety to call the actress "one of the bravest women I know."

But Aghdashloo, 57, considers this to be part of her responsibility as an Iranian with the freedom to speak up. She said she carefully considers the professional backlash and even the real violence that her portrayals of Muslim characters may provoke.

"Obviously, my family is not very supportive when it comes to these types of projects," she said. "They're afraid. My mother says, 'I don't understand why you are doing this. Why don't you think of your daughter or your family? Why?' "

Aghdashloo found her answer embedded in comments posted on the promotional website for the film.

" 'After watching "Stoning of Soraya M.," ' " Aghdashloo said, reciting a post from memory, " 'I am stunned and shocked and devastated, thinking how hypocrites can abuse the divine law.' "

In "Stoning," Aghdashloo plays Zahra, the doomed woman's aunt, whose courageous retelling of the 1986 event to France-based Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam produced his 1994 bestseller, "The Stoning of Soraya M.: A True Story," on which the film, which opens Friday, is based.

Aghdashloo portrays Zahra as an outspoken woman who wears colorful scarves, the product of an earlier generation of Iranian women who were unrestrained by fundamentalist Muslim law. She unsuccessfully confronts the men who conspire to kill Soraya. When Soraya's fate is sealed, she promises her niece that she will share her story with the world. Then she watches helplessly as a mob of men, including Soraya's own sons, bury her to her waist and pummel her with stones until she is unrecognizable. The portrayal took its toll on Aghdashloo.

"At some points, especially with the stoning scene, it became so real that I lost it," she said. "I couldn't stop crying. I had wound myself up, but I couldn't bring myself down. Every time I looked at the scene I couldn't stop myself. I had to get into the car, leave the set."

Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh and his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, wrote the screenplay with Aghdashloo in mind. But, as Aghdashloo recalled, Cyrus was concerned that she would be put off by the challenging nature of the story. She wasn't.

"I said, 'Stoning? As in, the act of stoning?' " Aghdashloo recalled. " 'Never mind about my sensitivity. I've been waiting for this for 20 years! Where were you?' "

"It wasn't about the agent or the manager or the deal," Cyrus Nowrasteh said. "It was about the subject. She also responded to the character on the page. She was uncompromising in her support and her belief. Her performance is extraordinary."

Aghdashloo read the script twice in one night, called Nowrasteh early the next morning and agreed to do it.

From there, the production came together rapidly, a fact that Aghdashloo considered a true miracle for a project filmed entirely in Farsi about the horrific death of an innocent woman.

But if Aghdashloo gets her wish, "The Stoning of Soraya M." will not only inspire the daughters of Soraya M. to come forward and share their story, but it will also move other women to speak out about the brutal tradition and help end it.

"Send it to the villages," Aghdashloo said. "Put it on the back of a donkey or a camel. Show it on a white sheet to the people who have not even seen television yet. That's what I hope."

--

calendar@latimes.com

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