Iran's Rising Star

Scenes From A Life in Filmmaking

When she is filming the night scenes of her next movie, Iranian actress Mahaya Petrosian must quickly get used to working the night shift.

During the day, her mother disconnects the phone so her increasingly well-known daughter is not disturbed from her sleep. By midafternoon the emerging star of Iran's silver screen is awake and preparing for the next shoot.

Like many Iranians making do - or triumphing - in a changing society, the word "typical" does not apply to Miss Petrosian. "I don't answer the phone, I don't have time for that when we're working," says Petrosian, whose career has brought a string of thespian accolades. "We're on call all the time."

Iran's film industry has made great strides. Its international profile grew at the Cannes Film Festival last year, when Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami won the prestigious Golden Palm award for "The Taste of Cherry." Iran's own international festival takes place in Tehran during the first weeks of February.

Petrosian has played roles from a Bedouin woman in Egypt to her latest as an ill-fated Iranian singer who is forced to run a gantlet of shady characters as she tries to realize her dream of singing in the United States.

It's a satire with moments of black comedy, with a theme that appeals to young Iranian cinema-goers. In a country where some revolutionary billboards showing tough Islamic leaders and glorifying wartime martyrs are being slowly replaced by detergent advertisements, that theme fits well with Iran's gradual reopening to the West. Iran's President Mohamad Khatami has made overtures to the American people, suggesting a cross-cultural openness.

BUT for Petrosian, making the film is hard work. The set for the night scenes is a house in Iran's affluent northern suburb, which has been converted into a movie set. Petrosian is in a back room in front of a lighted mirror, wearing a head scarf as required in Islamic Iran, and being made up by an assistant who also wears a head scarf as she carefully applies makeup.

Production assistants scurry around the set before each new scene. In one, Petrosian is awakened from her sleep by a freak wind, then walks as the camera follows her on rails. She turns quickly and stares hauntingly at the camera with an intense look that Ingrid Bergman would understand. A sliver of light illumines her strong eyes.

Film is expensive, so actual shooting is done in a few takes, after the elaborate lighting - and Petrosian's look - has been perfected. Midnight is time to break for lunch. So as most of the rest of Tehran drops off to sleep, the actors and actresses sit in the makeup room and eat takeout meat and rice, with Iran's version of Pepsi-Cola.

"I love my job, but sometimes it is tiring and frustrating work," she says, sitting with her colleagues surrounded by props and costumes. The shoot will end at 6 in the morning, after sunrise.

"The Iranian actress is like other people and does normal things, because since the [1979 Islamic] revolution there has been a very different view of acting than in the West," Petrosian says. "Here people don't imitate, there is no trend of 'wannabe's.' It is the director, the plot, and the symbolism - what the film is trying to say - that are important.

"Iranians become celebrities not for their faces, but for what they do," she adds. "It doesn't matter if an actor is beautiful or not. If one's film is successful, people remember the scene, not the role."

Not that being beautiful hurts your chances of success. During a walk in Tehran's Laleh Park with her father, Zareh, a civil engineer, Iranian passersby were curious at a visitor taking photos of the pair.

"How do you do it?" asked one Iranian man, with a laugh. "If I were taking pictures of such a beautiful woman, I wouldn't know what to do!"

Petrosian makes two films or so a year, and each one takes a month and a half to shoot. Working nights, as she is doing now, is somewhat rare, but she still manages to squeeze in some social time - a walk and ice creams with her father - before the sun sets.

And as her family and friends will attest, she likes shopping for gold at Tehran's quality gold bazaars, pausing only briefly before buying a sparkling new ring.

Despite the trying-to-get-out-of-Iran theme of her current film, called "Help Me," Petrosian couldn't imagine living anywhere else. When she visited America for the first time last year, as lead actress in a stage production that played mostly to Iranian-Americans, she yearned to be home.

"I didn't expect anything, because I thought that Iranians in the US would not like our play, that they would go to America, change their lives, and not like anything from Iran," she says. "But we were surprised. They cried and were emotional and loved it. They said it reminded them of home."

"My dream has been to have Mahaya in one of my films," says Rassoul Molla-Gholipour, the director of "Help Me," who wanted Petrosian to star in his last three films. "She's a very capable actress, and may be the Jane Fonda of Iran."

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