Nine Non-Iranian Actors Who Have Played Iranians

Mexico’s Gael García Bernal and Denmark’s Kim Bodnia play Iranians

Comedian/TV show host Jon Stewart recently made his directorial debut with Rosewater, based on the memoir by Maziar Bahari. So who did he cast to play the two main Iranian players in this Tehran-set drama? Non-Iranians. He's not alone: although there are a few Iran-born actors working in Hollywood – House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo and Iron Man's Shaun Toub are the best known – whenever a script features a Persian character, filmmakers typically cast outside the Persian community. Here are nine examples.

  1. Gael García Bernal. Mexican star Bernal was chosen by Stewart to play Bahari in the film. As Bahari's interrogator, Stewart cast Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor of Russian-Polish heritage. At least Shohreh Aghdashloo has a part.
  2. Jake Gyllenhaal. Who can forget the blockbuster flop Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? I'm sure Jake Gyllenhaal would like to. The Jewish-Swedish actor, born and raised in Los Angeles, played the Persian prince of the title.
  3. Gemma Arterton. The English actress was cast opposite Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia. In fact, the movie's cast list suggests that, aside from a group of musicians at the end of the credits, no actual Persian actors were employed in the film, which was shot in Morocco anyway.
  4. Alfred Molina. This British thespian, thanks to a swarthy complexion passed down to him by his Italian mother and Spanish father, has played all manner of nationalities, from Peruvian (Raiders of the Lost Ark) to Mexican (Frida) to Russian (Letter to Brezhnev) to Cuban (The Perez Family). But he's played Iranians more than once, most notably in the hysterical Sally Field thriller Not Without My Daughter, but also, naturally, in Prince of Persia – and his "Rahad Jackson" character in Boogie Nights may or may not be Iranian as well.
  5. Ben Kingsley. The quintessential non-Iranian Iranian. The Indian-British actor has played Persians no fewer than three times, in House of Sand and Fog, something called The Physician, and of course Prince of Persia, because why wouldn't he?
  6. Marina Sirtis. You know her as Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the Greek-blooded British actress played an Iranian woman in the 2005 Oscar winner Crash. (Shaun Toub played her husband.) She played one again on Grey's Anatomy.
  7. Mark Strong. Yet another English actor, the bald-pated Strong excels at playing bad guys (see 2009's Sherlock Holmes for starters). His pan-European looks are courtesy of an Austrian mother and an Italian father (Strong was born Marco Salussolia). But he did indeed play an Iranian agent named Mussawi, who tortures George Clooney in Syriana. (To be fair, Mussawi might have actually been Lebanese; it's not clear in the film.)
  8. Rodrigo Santoro. This Brazilian star is most familiar to US audiences as Xerxes, the effeminate, bejeweled Persian king, in 300. I have nothing more to say about this.
  9. Cliff Curtis. Curtis, a New Zealander with Maori heritage, is one of those guys like Alfred Molina who can portray all manner of dark-skinned characters. He played Latinos in Colombiana, Training Day, Fracture, and Blow; he played an Arab in The Insider and an Iraqi in Three Kings. Curtis finally got his turn at an Iranian role in the quickly-forgotten, Crash-like patchwork drama Crossing Over. Congratulations, Cliff.