“How to do a true portrait of life”: Interview with the stars of Leila’s Brothers
June 8, 2022
The third feature film by Iranian filmmaker Saeed Roustayi has been invited to the Official Competition of the 75e edition of the Cannes festival this year, where it won the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize.
What set Leila’s brothers Distinctly apart from its co-contestants for the Palme d’Or was the stellar ensemble cast that breathed life into the complex family dynamics at the center of the film’s plot.
We had the opportunity to speak to three of the Protagonists: Taraneh Alidoosti, who plays the titular Leila, Navid Mohammadzadeh, who plays cerebral brother Alireza, and Payman Maadi, portraying his impulsive counterpart, Manoucher. During a brief conversation on a scenic beach promenade, the stars shared their thoughts on creating authentic performances and the difficulties for actors in Iran.
We just spoke to your manager and he said you rehearsed for several months. During this time, did you have any comments on your characters?
Navid Mohammadzadeh: We talked about the film for two, three years before shooting. So we knew what we were going to do – it was all there. Of course, when we work, we work as the director wants we at; he is built. When we shoot the film, everything comes to life and we bring the characters to life. It’s not like a robot – we become these characters, we’re not ourselves. He directs us, but we become Alireza, Leila and Manoucher.
Payman Maadi: I did three films with Navid, with Saeed Roustayi and, you know, all these characters were different. Coming to these characters is different – one character differs from another. As Navid said, we talked a lot about this movie before shooting. A year before, I was even thinking about this character, Manoucher, and I talked a lot with Saeed, who is a great friend of mine. The thing is, with those conversations, the role changed. So especially for my character, we had this revised version in the script after our conversations and thoughts together.
There is a small but interesting change in semantics between the French title and the international title (Leila and his brothers versus Leila’s brothers). Do you think Leila’s family was misogynistic towards her?
Taraneh Alidoosti: Believe it or not, Leila definitely thinks that way. She says it perfectly: when fighting with her mother, she says: “You are the person who loves all your sons more than your only daughter. You hate all the women in the world. This is actually Leila’s dialogue. And we see that just because she’s a girl, everything has been taken away from her – her opportunities, her courtship, everything. The emotional things that happened to her… she’s younger than a lot of them, but still manages to be a mother figure to them.
I think if she was one of the brothers, everything would have been different; everything would have been easier for her. In this case, if Leila was a boy, he would be a hero. But it’s only because she’s the girl that she has to fight alone to convince these four men she loves so deeply – she has to convince them of what’s right for them.
What do you think are the pros and cons of being an actor in Iran?
PM: There is a general answer to this question: for any actor in the world, there are definitely upsides, and there are so many downsides. We all know fame is always good. You have so many possibilities, to be famous and to be in art, to create… You live someone else’s life, it’s everyone’s dream – you want to be someone else and you can play.
There are bad things, like you can’t do a lot of things normal people do. It’s a general thing – American, French, whatever.
As an Iranian actor, there are issues that no other actor in the world would understand: we have to consider so many other things; we have to be creative in many ways; we have to think about how to imply this and that. There are many difficulties to overcome, especially for women. For example, I also work in the United States. I have worked in many other countries but they can’t because they can’t play without a hijab. It’s our advantage – I’m not proud of it; you know it’s not just for women. It’s just a specific problem. There are so many other problems.
NM: We have a lot of problems: the relationship between men and women in movies – we can’t touch each other. The woman has to wear the hijab, and when you’re here, you have to be very careful, walk together, walk with another woman – even with your wife, it’s difficult to have a normal relationship here.
We live in an area, politically, geographically, with many problems and that could be great because we deal with those problems and then we can just act. But… Budgets for actors or actresses in the world: ok you can have a big house everywhere and nobody talks about it. But in Iran when you work and even if you earn money, maybe you can’t buy a house, you know? But everyone will assume and say that we have money, that the actors have money like in other countries.
Then, for example, here you have an out-of-competition movie but it’s a Hollywood movie, and all the media will be on that. We’re from Iran and we’re in the Competition but we don’t get that kind of attention – even though you’re doing the same work as other artists and actors around the world. And we do a lot, but we don’t have the attention because it’s like in the world, they want to have the attention in some areas and not in others.
We were in Venice, we were in Berlin, we had Oscars, but do we have the same media publicity that a Korean film, for example, will get?
I have eight or nine international prizes, but this is the first time that I can come to the Cannes festival in Competition. Art should be universal and should have no borders. But, as you can see, regions have borders, and so art has borders.
In a press conference, when you have an Iranian film, you talk about socio-politics, economics, but not about the film. Look, I have to talk about kissing my wife on the red carpet at the press conference. It’s because we come from this region, so we have to talk about it at a press conference and not about the film.
I told you these things but, by the way, we will stay in Iran and we want to work in this cinema, in these halls. We want to be in this country because it is for our people; because when they see our films or our plays, they see that we don’t take orders…
TA: We don’t have the same narrative that the system wants – so that’s probably the only hope people have. They can be represented in their culture, through films and art, through artistic values.
NM: It’s a culture war and we are the targets. It really comes from a system that wants people to be in front of us and not next to us. We are of the people and work for the people but when you go to social media this system tries to drag you into a war [against] our people, and that is not what we want.
Wherever we are, we are actually very happy, of course. But all the time we are anxious: what to say and what to do? What word should we use?
Traditional Iranian cinema, that of Kiarostami, is very close to Italian neorealism in its way of working with non-professional actors. What do you think of the situation of Iranian cinema today, as professional actors?
PM: This genre and this style of cinema is my own ideal performance, and I can tell you that I myself follow in the footsteps of these non-professional actors. Part of my homework, when I’m researching to get to where I want to be as an actor, is to watch documentaries, to watch movies like that. It is therefore not a cinema of yesteryear and we are not the future of this cinema. This cinema still exists.
Mr. Kiarostami himself has always said that his ideal for casting is professional actors, who can act like the non-actors – “since I can’t find any, I always bring in the non-actors to do the performances.” “.
That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s about reality and, you know, it’s about authenticity. It must be pure, authentic. If we can do something like that, and you believe in it, we do the right thing.
It’s not us or Kiarostami. All over the world, acting is changing. No one today acts like Humphrey Bogart anymore. We’ve always loved him, and we’ve always loved Katherine Hepburn and all those classic actors, but today’s acting has changed.
I think our ideal is to copy people. I copy you, the way you sit and the way you listen. We don’t copy Bogart, we copy normal people. We have to find the right person and get closer to these guys. We owe it to Mr. Kierostami and Mr. [Asghar] Farhadi, and so many of these great filmmakers. This is what they have dedicated to cinema: how to make not only good films but how to make a true portrait of life.
Leila’s brothers does not yet have a UK release date.
Read our review on Leila’s brothers here.
Read more reviews of our Cannes Film Festival 2022 coverage here.
For more information on the event, visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.