Interview : Afsaneh Dehrouyeh, Tyrant
Photo credit : Karina Lidia
British-Iranian actress Afsaneh Dehrouyeh starred in Fressia, Britain’s first film about Islamophobia where she played the part of Muslim activist Khadija. She’s now starring as the strong willed university student Mahdiya Kattan in Season3 of the much loved Middle Eastern drama Tyrant. The storyline of the series develops around a man who is the dictator’s youngest son. Along with the members of his American family he returns to the Middle-East, to his home country, torn apart by a horrible war.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Driven, creative, easy-going, dorky, and empathetic.
You’re currently starring in Tyrant. We’d love to know more about your character, and the show…
Tyrant is set in a fictional Middle Eastern state called Abuddin. It depicts the culture and politics of the Middle East, but with dramatic effect for entertainment purposes. It portrays the power struggle of a diplomatic country and how that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, from the local university and the palace, to caliphate territory.
Mahdiya is a student at university. She’s incredibly fearless and mature for her age. She wants more than a normal life, she wants to see change in her country and she wants to see it quick. This causes her to feel bitter and angry towards the world when we first meet her in Tyrant. She is lost and searching for her calling in life. You’ll have to tune in and see how this affects her!
Can you relate to any of the characteristics of your character Mahdiya?
I can relate to her drive and how passionate she is about the things she believes in. If she really wants something, she will keep fighting until she gets it.
Were you a model student when you were studying, or a bit of a rebel?
I was neither. I’ve always been creative, so I enjoyed Drama, Art and English and those were the subjects I was good at. I was terrible at Maths and Science and I remember struggling a lot to concentrate.
“When I was at school I never felt like I was allowed to dream less or aim higher than anyone else and that’s the way it should be.”
How does the experience of working on a TV show differ from that of a movie? What do you enjoy most about being a part of Tyrant?
The pace is much faster and you tend to get less takes. It was a very supportive working environment, you really feel like you’re part of a family. Mahdiya’s circumstances change constantly, which resulted in a lot first experiences for me. There was plenty of research to be done and I was constantly challenged so I don’t know what more you could want out of a job.
Growing up, did you have the support and encouragement of your family to follow your dreams?
It was hard at times, but I understand that loved ones are going to be concerned about you deciding at the age of 10 that you’re going to strive towards one of the hardest, cut throat professions in the world. I think it took a good few years for them to realise that I was never going to change my mind. Since then, it has been nothing but support.
Did you have any role models growing up?
I looked up to Audrey Hepburn and I still do. My mum bought me Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I was hooked on her from the first scene where all she is doing is eating a pastry outside a shop window. She has a certain elegance and grace about her that is rare to find. I love watching her on screen, I love how she comes across in her Oscar speech, I love that she served as an ambassador for UNICEF, I love her style and the way she carries herself. She’s just perfection in my eyes. I wish we were all still walking around in elegant dresses, gloves and beautiful hats. What a woman.
How important do you think positive and diverse role models are to encouraging kids of all backgrounds to aim high and follow their dreams?
I would say it depends on the individual’s experience. When I was at school I never felt like I was allowed to dream less or aim higher than anyone else and that’s the way it should be. Having diverse role models would certainly make you feel like your dreams are more attainable. I didn’t have Shohreh Aghdashloo, Nazanin Boniadi and Golshifteh Farahani when I was a kid, but even having them now has given me hope in times of frustration. I think there are far more visible role models now, but until they’re on the front of magazine covers and being cast just as must as everyone else, we still have work to do.
“Having diverse role models would certainly make you feel like your dreams are more attainable.”
You starred in Freesia, the first ever UK film to address Islamaphobia. With hate crime on the increase in the UK, do you think we should be doing more to educate people on these subjects, and doing more to ensure movies like Freesia reach more people?
Absolutely. Films like this need to be reaching as many as possible. I think it’s the perfect tool to educate and raise awareness in schools. I’m so proud to be a part of Freesia. It’s such a fantastic concept and listening to feedback from audiences who felt affected by issues in the film was very moving. I think it needs to be reaching audiences and schools worldwide and we need to be creating more work like this. I believe that watching how a hateful situation can affect people of different ages and backgrounds and the consequences it has, could actually make people think differently.
Do you see yourself as an activist?
I’ll always stand up for my beliefs and do whatever I can to support of them. I have been to peaceful protests before and have been pleasantly surprised by how it can make a positive impact on someone’s day. However, I don’t think that just protesting is enough to make the changes that we want to see.
Do you think there is more work to be done to ensure gender equality in all areas of the TV/movie industry, and wider entertainment industry?
I have seen a lot of casting breakdowns for one beautiful model actress surrounded by male characters. That’s never fun. I have been lucky so far; I haven’t felt discriminated for my gender during an acting job. Bar work yes, acting no. But of course there are many reasons why there is more work to be done, such as the pay gap. I love David O Russell’s work, he’s a fantastic example of someone who writes and makes films that have depth to their female characters.
In the UK BME representation across TV, film, and the performing arts is around 5%. Why do you think this % is so low? How can we get this % higher?
I think it’s disgustingly low because there are not enough productions being made that allow casting to be diverse. So, the only way the percentage is going to increase is if more productions are made and funded which give BME actors these opportunities. There needs to be more diversity in the stories we are producing, but I also think there are lot of Caucasian character breakdowns that could be played by anyone.
“I’ll always stand up for my beliefs and do whatever I can to support of them. I have been to peaceful protests before and have been pleasantly surprised by how it can make a positive impact on someone’s day.”
Have you ever experienced or witnessed sexism or racism in the industry, or outside?
I have never had any experiences in the industry but I have in my personal life. I just find it funny though, because it’s sad for them that they have been raised to hate in that way. It’s not their fault; it’s upbringing and a lack of education and that is what needs to be addressed. I just forget about it unless I need to draw inspiration from it creatively.
You’re producing a short-film, ‘Only Human’. Can you let us know more about the film?
I co-wrote, co-produced and also act in the film. It exposes loss, isolation and humanity in the lives of two young women, a century apart. It’s set in 1916 and 2016, exploring differences and similarities between World War One and the present day. Both young women face the trauma of their younger sibling running away to hostile climates, whilst trying to maintain normality in their every day family life back in Britain.
We begin submitting it to film festivals worldwide very shortly. Fingers crossed!
Is there a time when you’ve had to pinch yourself and ask, ‘Is this all really real?’
Every time a goal becomes a reality I seem to ask myself that question. It’s weird when something you fantasise about for years happens, because it feels like another fantasy.
What’s your proudest career moment to date?
Getting to work on Tyrant was the proudest moment of my career so far; I got to work with people I have admired for years like Howard Gordon. I’m also very proud of the fact I managed to make my own short film. There were so many obstacles in our way that there were times I wasn’t sure we would manage to raise the funds and make it happen, but I’m so relieved that our dedication paid off.
Tyrant airs on FOX UK