HOLLYWOOD - As Homayoun Ershadi tells it, he was an architect in Iran driving down the streets of the capital, Tehran, one day when he pulled up to a red light and heard someone tapping on his car window. He turned his head to see one of Iran's most famous filmmakers wishing to speak to him.
"I am Abbas Kiarostami," the man said, as Ershadi rolled down the window. "I want to do a film, and I want you to be in it."
The next day, the director arrived at Ershadi's office. The two men talked about acting, and then Kiarostami mentioned he was leaving the next day for a film festival but that his assistant would be around if Ershadi could come and take a screen test. Three weeks later, he was chosen to appear as - what else? - a driver in 1997's
A Taste of Cherry
The chance encounter at the stoplight would take Ershadi, who studied architecture at the University of Venice in Italy, graduating in 1970, into a second career acting in films, TV series, made-for-television movies, and short films. Today, the 60-year-old actor is costarring in one of the season's highly anticipated dramas:
The Kite Runner
Based on Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel
of the same name and directed by Marc Forster, it tells the story of two childhood friends whose lives are torn apart in a divided Afghanistan on the verge of war in 1975. After two decades of living in America, one of them, Amir, returns to his homeland, which has fallen under the harsh rule of the Taliban, in a quest to find his friend's son.
The book sold eight million copies and garnered a loyal fan base that DreamWorks, which produced the film, and Paramount Vantage, which released it Friday, are counting on to fuel the box office.
Ershadi is cast as Baba, a Kabul businessman who flees to the United States with his young son (Zekiria Ebrahimi) when the political climate in Afghanistan turns treacherous.
Ershadi said he didn't think he was right as Baba when Forster invited him to Kabul to read for the part.
"I thought the book was fantastic, but I'm shorter" than the character in the book, he noted. "I'm not that big a guy. I took some pictures of my friend, and I sat down and I told Marc, 'I think I've got the right person for you. I have a picture of another Iranian actor who can do the part.' "
One can only imagine what Forster might have thought, having an actor who comes in to read for a role suggest someone else.
The director asked him to read a section of the screenplay in which Baba is hospitalized.
Forster said the power and simplicity that Ershadi brought during that reading convinced him that he was right for the part.
"The thing that is so amazing about him is that he is so natural," Forster said of Ershadi. "A lot of actors rely on their technique, and he only relies on his heart."
Dealings between directors and actors can range from best buddies to do-it-my-way-or-the-highway screeds, but to hear Forster and Ershadi talk, they simply relied on each other's innate competence in getting the job done.
"We sat down and read the script together and talked about it. He explained what he wanted. That was it," Ershadi said. "Maybe sometimes he told me, 'Don't do too much with your hands or fingers' because I'm always doing like this." He demonstrates by gently jabbing a finger in the air. "I have a habit of pointing."
Ershadi has not given up architecture, explaining that he developed high-rises and townhouses in Vancouver, the Canadian city where he lived for years after fleeing the revolution in Iran in the late 1970s. His children and grandchildren still reside in Vancouver, although he chose to return to Iran in 1991. He owns an art gallery in Tehran with his sister and brother.
He avoids discussing the political situation in his country, describing as "so far so good" the questions posed to him by American journalists. Indeed, he appears eager to answer any question put to him. "As long as they don't ask me about politics," he says.