Iranian Actress Sheila Vand's Path to Argo Ran Through UCLA and Experimental Steampunk
Say the word "starlet" in polite conversation and risk conjuring up an image of Lindsey Lohan's mug shot or Amanda Bynes toking up in traffic. For aspiring young actresses in the thick of it, however, the indignities that pile up tend to be less tabloid-ready -- pointless general meetings, indifferent casting directors, and the fact that nobody takes you seriously until you're successful, but to be successful, you need someone to take you seriously.
"The Catch-22 is that you can't get an audition because you don't have a million credits, but you can't get credits unless you can get an audition," said UCLA-trained actress Sheila Vand, who made her studio film debut last Friday in Ben Affleck's hostage drama Argo.
For non-white actresses, the frustrations of Hollywood can come compounded by a lack of variety when it comes to roles. For women of Middle Eastern descent, negotiating that lack can be particularly irritating.
"I'm blessed because I'm Iranian and I speak Farsi fluently, and that has become a portal for me in this industry," Vand said in an interview last fall, just before she flew to Turkey to shoot her scenes for Argo. But, she added, "I feel lucky that I've never been asked to play a terrorist. I think a lot of Middle Eastern roles are often associated with the public's narrow view of Middle Easterners. My friends are tired of that. They're capable of so much more."
Ben Affleck's third directorial venture traces the true story of six State Department workers who escaped the American Embassy in Iran during the radical student uprisings of 1979. Vand plays the small but crucial role of Sahar, a housekeeper at the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran who, for one excruciatingly nail-biting scene, holds the fate of the six in her hands.
"She's the first to really suspect that these guys are Americans," Vand said. "She has a moment of decision, and, for me, it's really important that this scene exists. I'm really happy I get to play an Iranian who shows a different side of the story, and who shows that there were many during that time who were embarrassed and ashamed of what was going on."
Vand also narrates the first few minutes of Argo, which recap the events that led up to the Iran hostage crisis. She called that aspect of her role particularly meaningful -- interspersed with archival footage and illustrations, these moments detail a rising enmity between the U.S. and Iran that stems as much from the duplicity of the American government as it does from other factors.
Vand began acting as a teenager growing up in Palo Alto, where her mother and father moved after immigrating to the states from Azerbaijan. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in theater and directing in 2007. When Hollywood failed to come calling, she sidestepped the problem by continuing to pursue the the experimental theater she'd embraced in college.
Portrait of the Architect in Ruins, which she created, directed and starred in for the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 2008, fashioned itself as an avant-garde theatrical interpretation of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, told through animation, film and water. In 2010, Vand helped to create Sneaky Nietzche, an interactive steampunk-themed musical performance featuring a 40-person ensemble and a full band. The show went up in L.A.'s warehouse district, and enjoyed an encore appearance last Halloween at LACMA's Muse Ball.
In the midst of all this, Vand landed her first major stage role, pulling double duty as the younger sister of a soldier and a prostitute in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The play opened at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles before moving to the Mark Taper Forum and on to Broadway, where it ran from March until July 2011. In New York, Vand put herself on tape for Argo and got a callback for a movie currently a near-unanimous front-runner for a best picture nomination.
For Vand, who had never traveled to the Middle East, shooting Argo turned out to be a sort of homecoming. When her mother and father flew out to visit her on set in Istanbul, they told her stories about the history of their relationship that they'd never shared with her before.
"They had gotten married the week before the events that take place in the movie," she says. "They had just gotten their visas to come to America when the hostage crisis happened. All of the Iranian visas were taken away -- they got trapped in the country for another five years."
Originally, Vand had planned to visit Iran with her parents after the shoot, but the Iranian on-set coordinator told her to get the idea out of her head. The political climate was simply too dangerous. Instead, she and her parents toured Turkey, visiting the underground cities in Cappadocia and following the Silk Road to Rumi's grave in Konya.
In the interim between the wrapping of Argo and its premiere last Friday, Vand collaborated with the painter Alexa Meade on a series of performance art pieces exhibited in Zurich. She's also begun a series of seven filmed self-portraits exploring the James-Lange theory of emotion from the 19th century (which states that emotions are a result of physiological changes in your body). In November she'll start shooting an independent Iranian vampire Western, which she calls, "a stylistic cross between Sergio Leone and David Lynch." She is also working on two screenplays.
"I feel a little silly being another actor trying to write," she told me over the phone just after Argo wrapped. But, she went on, "Part of the learning curve is getting over the fear of putting stuff out there. People are more forgiving when you're 26 than when you're 36, so now is the time to jump off that cliff. It's only going to get scarier."
As for finding more studio film and television roles, Vand said she didn't want to guess what Argo might bring. Her plan, for now, she said, is to continue auditioning and creating her own work.
"I have a friend who is 10 years older than me and 10 years more experienced than me who told me 'I hate to break it to you, you're never going to feel like you've arrived,'" she said. "I remember feeling relieved, thinking, 'Oh, I can stop looking for this moment.'"