The Night Of’s Payman Maadi on Middle Eastern Stereotypes in Hollywood and Getting Past the Censors in Iran

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Photo: Gary Gershoff/WireImage

Payman Maadi was writing his own films when renowned Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi threw him a curveball, asking him to act for the first time in one of his movies (2009’s excellent About Elly). But things really changed for the 46-year-old Iranian, now one of the country's most celebrated actors, when he teamed with Farhadi again two years later as the lead actor in A Separation. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012, and Maadi took home the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival. Maadi's role in A Separation caught the attention of American filmmakers, and scripts for Hollywood projects started rolling in. Most of them were for “dumb" movies, as Maadi puts it, but the first one to actually interest him was The Night Of (which began production in 2013 with James Gandolfini in a starring role, but was delayed due to his death). In the HBO series, he stars as Salim Khan, a Pakistani taxi driver who loses his business after his son, Nasir (Riz Ahmed), takes his cab out the night he is accused of murder. In an interview with Vulture, Maadi talked about why this was the first role he chose to take, refusing to play stereotypical Middle Eastern characters, and getting past the censors in Iran.

How did you get your role on The Night Of?
The Night Of was the first project that came to me [after A Separation]. Before it came on the air, I had three, four other movies I did in the United States, like Camp X-Ray. There was a big gap between the pilot, which we did for HBO, and the rest of it, about two years. The creator, Steven Zaillian, told me he saw A Separation, and he loved the movie and liked my performance. So he found my manager, and my manager called me: "There's this HBO show. They want you for one of the leads."

I love the story of the parents on this show and I wish we had more scenes with them, because I think their story is so interesting.
When we read the script, I liked the story very much. It was one of those stories I really wanted to share with Iranians. Playing a parent, this was the first time I was doing something like that in the U.S.. I'm coming from Iran, and this was a Pakistani family in New York. So I had to do some studies. Riz Ahmed and I traveled a lot — we went to some stores, we talked to taxi drivers.

What kinds of conversations did you have with taxi drivers?
Most of the time we were in the cafes they usually go to. I was speaking with them about many things, but you don’t really need any inside information. You just talk with them so you learn the accents, so you don't sound stupid or funny. My wife on the show, Poorna Jagannathan, and Naz, Riz Ahmed, we became very close with each other, and we still are today. We became very intimate so it was like a kind of family, and that helped a lot.

Had you gotten other offers before The Night Of?
Not offers, but some scripts, and for some I had to do auditions. But this was one of those roles you don't do auditions [for], it's an offer. So if you accept it, you get it. Before this I had received some other scripts, but I didn't like them.

What did you not like? Did you encounter a lot of Middle Eastern stereotypes in the scripts you were getting? 
There are two kinds of hesitations I have when I read scripts. One is, like many other actors, you must like the role, the script, and want to be a part of the project. And other times there are political movies, movies I don't like to watch, let alone participate in making them. Movies that focus on a specific religion, specific countries — political movies that are actually dumb movies. And other times there are some other movies that suit me, where I am okay with the script and the role, but you have to refuse it since you're living in Iran as well. So you have to be very careful.

So if you get a script that you like but it has things that might jeopardize your situation in Iran —
Movies that become problematic are most often those movies I myself would rather not do. So it's not because of fear or something. Not at all. But you have red lines that so many others don't have. You have to be mindful of that, too.

In Iran, have you encountered any difficulty with the roles you’ve taken in the U.S.?
No, not at all.

I’d read that you prefer not to play Iranian characters in Hollywood films, unless the character is a good person.
Exactly. You know, that's how it works in Hollywood. Usually they make a lot of films with Middle Easterners as bad people. Sometimes the Chinese are the bad people, sometimes the Russians are the bad people, sometimes the Arabs are the bad people. So I don't want to play bad-guy Arab terrorists or Iranian saboteurs. If they offer me an interesting Iranian character, why not? I’d like to do that. But as long as it’s not anything that insults the people in Iran or the Muslims in the world. I don't like to be the representative of this kind of stuff.

It seems like you've been very careful to pick roles that are not like that. But have you gotten offers for Iranian characters like this —
Yes. A lot. I have been offered to do a lot of movies, like Iranian or Arab characters, with terrible characterizations. I saw the movies like a year afterward, and most of them were the most stupid movies I'd ever seen, you know?

I came to this world of cinema because I loved art. I still do. It's a better world when you have art in it, when you connect with people. When you make a movie like A Separation, and travel all around with it, you make connections with people. It’s the same when I see a beautiful Chinese or Mexican or European movie — I feel myself getting close to these people, and for me it becomes a better world. So that's what I like. And there are dozens of those movies in the world. So why would I get involved with movies I don’t like?

The movies you’ve done in Iran, like A Separation and About Elly, are such beautiful, human stories. In Hollywood, you've also chosen roles that are telling human stories — in Camp X-Ray, you star as a Guantanamo prisoner who strikes up a rapport with a prison guard, played by Kristen Stewart. But it’s also a political film. Do you see the value in making political films when there’s the possibility it will make a positive difference in the U.S.?
Yes. When I read Camp X-Ray, I fell in love with the story. As you said, that was a good reminder that it’s possible to do good political movies. It was a great character, and I was able to give him some angles, some vision, some dimensions. It was a movie all about humans — about conversations between two people from two absolutely different worlds, when you think they cannot even make a second of conversation with each other.

In roles like this, where it is political, have you ever been uncomfortable with a particular scene, or with how they're portraying Middle Easterners in a more subtle way?
Sometimes on sets there are misunderstandings, where the director, for example, doesn’t know the difference between Iranian people and Arabs. And when you say that Iranians are not Arabs, they ask you, "Aren't you Muslim?" And you say, "Yes. But that is totally different." Sometimes they ask me to say, "Say this word, say this line in Arabic." And I say, "I don't speak Arabic." And they say, "But you are Muslim, aren't you?" So sometimes I just say, "All right, give me the line, and give me five minutes.” I find some Arab person on the set and I rehearse the line with them instead of convincing them that I cannot speak Arabic. [Laughs.]

I'm curious about the career path to acting and filmmaking in Iran. I know you studied metallurgic engineering at first, but how did you move into the film industry?
It's just like every other place in the world: If you want to do something good, it's hard to get it. You have to suffer, you have to be very patient. In Iran, it's a big country, movie-wise. They make over 100 movies per year. They have won every single prestigious and important award worldwide: Cannes Film Festival, Venice, Berlin, the Oscars. It's an important country for movies, and we have a lot of issues, but these difficulties always make me more creative. They make me work harder, be more motivated, and more serious.

How would you describe the filmmaking climate in Iran right now? In terms of censorship and potentially getting the movies you want to get made. It seems like the government also likes that Iran is very good at making movies — it's a source of pride.
Yes, it is. After being in this business as a writer for 14, 15 years, I know how to write movies that don’t have any conflict with the system. I don't write anything for anyone else. I don't listen to people to write what suits them. I write my own stories. I have to fight sometimes. You have to write and make something that doesn't have any serious political or challenging issues with the regime or government. We cannot make love scenes like you do in the West, but when they say, "You cannot do this," you can put it in in a more beautiful way. It becomes more artistic.

I’m definitely not saying censorship is good, but censorship is not strong enough to keep artists from what they want to say. We use it sometimes as a tool. I've been in so many countries and I speak with so many artists around the world, and they have more serious difficulties than Iran. Making movies in every place in the world is a very difficult thing. And to us, censorship is not a difficulty. It's just how it is. We had Abbas Kiarostami, we have Asghar Farhadi, and we have a lot of other great filmmakers in Iran making their movies in the situation you are naming.

Will you be collaborating with Asghar Farhadi again?  You seem to have a good creative partnership.
Of course we will do something in the future. We are very close friends. We are very happy working with each other.

You mentioned Kiarostami, who passed away last month, and was celebrated around the world. How did people react to his death in Iran?
It was a big loss. It affected me more than I was expecting because I was close to him. I liked him very much. I was visiting him when he was in the hospital, but it was news to me. He died too soon, and he was a brilliant person so it was a big shock. The grief was so huge. People are still in shock. I'm still not very comfortable talking about that loss.

In terms of working in two countries, in the U.S. and Iran, do you ever have any concerns about being able to continue doing that? I know Golshifteh Farahani was banned from Iran a few years ago. Do you ever worry about something like that happening to you?
I'm not at all. I have my boundaries. As a human, or an artist, we all have our own boundaries, our own red lines. Everyone has the right to make decisions for themselves, depending on what their boundaries are. For me, no, I don't think that I have any difficulties. Definitely, I will. It's not easy to work in both climates. Of course it's not. But I’m not concerned. If they ban me from doing something, I'd do something else. I'd put my concentration on acting in some other movies, or I’d write. I have something in my mind to direct. Having different options makes you feel more safe.

This interview is edited and condensed.