The story of how The Kite Runner’s Homayoun Ershadi got into movies is a bit like those fanciful tales of stars and starlets discovered by casting agents while sitting at the soda counter in Schwab’s Pharmacy. Only in Ershadi’s case, he was driving his Range Rover through the streets of Tehran, when he stopped at a traffic light and was startled by an unexpected knock on the window. The knock came from the acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whom Ershadi knew by reputation, including his penchant for casting nonprofessional actors in prominent roles. “I’m making a new film,” he told Ershadi, an architect who had recently moved back to Iran after a decade living and working in Vancouver, Canada. “Would you like to be in it?” And just as simply, Ershadi said yes.
“That was a Tuesday, I remember,” Ershadi, who speaks fluent English, recalls dryly during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “By chance, I was in the right place at the right time. I had to stop at the traffic light. I think that was luck.” Or perhaps fate, or a little of both.
Starring Ershadi and his Range Rover, Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry would prove to be an auspicious debut for its unlikely lead, as well as the film that fully enshrined its director in the world-cinema pantheon. Premiering at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, it became the first Iranian film ever to be honored with the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, for its poetic depiction of a suicidal man, Mr. Badii, driving the streets of Tehran searching for someone willing to throw dirt upon the grave in which he plans to lie down and die. Onscreen in every scene — at one point, staring at his own shadow as it fades into the ground — Ershadi was as integral to the film’s success as Kiarostami himself, a fact acknowledged by the dominant presence of the actor’s long, sad face on the movie’s poster.
“He is a very special person, working with whom was a real pleasure,” says Kiarostami via e-mail. “A very decent and modest fellow, which are rare qualities these days! I have to admit that, even though usually I don’t like to watch my old movies, each time I see Taste of Cherry, I enjoy his presence on the screen. He has such a truthful and agreeable presence.”
It was that presence that Kite Runner director Marc Forster had in mind when he asked Ershadi to audition for the role of Baba in the film version of Afghan novelist Khaled Hosseini’s runaway best-seller, no matter that the character described on the page differed considerably from Ershadi’s own physical appearance. “I was very surprised,” says Ershadi, “because in the book, Baba is a big guy, and usually they go by the book for these things. They sent me four pages of dialogue in Dari, so I had to find some people in Iran to teach me how to speak Dari. Then I went to Kabul to see Marc, and I said, ‘Why did you choose me? I’m not the right person. I’m not 6-foot-8, my hands are small.’ I loved the book, so I didn’t want anything to happen to the book. I even took some photos with me of other Iranian actors, so that I could show Marc some other options. But he just said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’ So I read my lines and that was it.”
In contrast to the melancholic Mr. Badii, Ershadi’s Baba is a vibrant, larger-than-life figure — a sometimes-stubborn but loving father who spends much of the story encouraging his introverted son, Amir, to stand up for himself, and who, in one memorable scene, bravely faces off against a Soviet soldier as he and Amir are fleeing Afghanistan for America. It’s a superb performance, as well as the emotional center of an often doggedly literal and contrived piece of filmmaking.
“There were about 28 different nationalities present on the set, speaking different languages: Chinese, Dari, English,” says Ershadi. “It was a very good experience for me. I learned many things about making movies outside Iran.”
More trips abroad may lie in the actor’s future, depending on the outcome of his recent Hollywood auditions — a process, he admits, he’s still getting used to. “In Iran, it’s not like here,” he says. “We don’t have agents and managers. So, usually, a director or his assistant calls you directly, and that means you’ve been chosen for that film. I’m not familiar with auditions. My audition with Marc was my first, and since then I’ve had other auditions with directors here in America. Over there, they call you up and you just have to bargain about the salary.”
Back when he was an architect, Ershadi was partial to the Art Deco style, in which he designed buildings as well as furniture. Nowadays, he’s resigned himself to the demands of a movie career. “I had to stop doing architecture, because movies are a full-time job,” he says. But even so, he continues to draw on some of the same tools he once used to design skyscrapers and residences. “In architecture, you have light, you have volume,” he says. “You have the same thing in the movies. Both of them are art. You have to be creative in both of them.”