Persian Jews break with tradition to break through in Hollywood

The generation of Iranian Jews who escaped Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.

Whether it’s producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came last year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film, “Crash,” won the best picture Oscar and generated nearly $100 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special, but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 45, whose four production companies have produced 26 independent films in the last four years.

Yari made his fortune in real estate development but is no novice when it comes to Hollywood. After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film, “Mind Games,” for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until five years ago, when he returned as a producer.

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.”

Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 31, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group. His production company, Element Films, has produced seven films in the last three years and is slated to release three more this year, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.

Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a L.A.-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.

“Documentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,” said Haim, 45.

In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, this summer will release the independent film, “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton. The film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small Midwestern town.

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the late shah’s regime.

Young Iranian Jews have also achieved moderate success working behind the scenes in television. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences customarily honors the behind-the-scenes toilers, and at last year’s technical awards ceremony, Lila Yomtoob, a sound editor on the HBO documentary, “Baghdad ER,” became the first Iranian Jew to win an Emmy.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Yomtoob, who now lives in Brooklyn. “But when I saw that I was seated in the sixth row, I had a feeling I was going to win.”

“Baghdad ER” chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone.Bahar SoomekhAfter completing film school in 2000, Yomtoob worked as a freelance sound editor on a variety of film and television projects, including “Two Weeks Notice,” which starred Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, as well as for the HBO series, “The Wire.” Despite her recent success, she said her family did not initially approve of her career choice in Hollywood.

“I would say that my decision to get into the industry was met with skepticism,” Yomtoob said. “My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers. My father wanted the same for me, but I went ahead and did it anyway.”

The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.

“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, a 30-something L.A. resident. “It’s so different than anything else, because in the corporate world, you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition, and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.”

Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films, including last year’s “Mission: Impossible III” and the horror thriller “Saw III.” Last year she also played the role of Margo in the ABC television series, “Day Break.” She said she has been showered with support for her career from other Iranian Jews.

“Wherever I go, people I don’t even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community,” Soomekh said. “It’s unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me, ‘It’s always been my dream, and I’m living vicariously through you’.”

Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 17, was a regular in the 2005 season on the Fox television series, “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.

“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner, because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”

Ahdout made his acting debut four years ago in the acclaimed film, “House of Sand and Fog,” which was about an Iranian family in the United States, starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley. In 2005, Ahdout also played the role of Ike opposite Forrest Whitaker in the independent film, “American Gun.”

A Century of Strasberg

Lee Strasberg, who shaped three generations of actors, playwrights and directors, was born 99 years ago, and to mark the upcoming centennial, his heirs are burnishing his legacy in Los Angeles and New York.The man who introduced “method acting” to America and taught the likes of Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, John Garfield, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and hundreds of other luminaries, was born Israel Lee Strassberg in the Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.He arrived in New York when he was 8 years old, made his professional acting debut in 1924, co-founded the legendary Group Theatre in 1931, and, after a Hollywood interlude in the 1940s, co-founded the equally famous Actors Studio in 1950.

In the 1960s, he reached out to a larger public by establishing the Lee Strasberg Institute, first in Los Angeles and then in New York. Today, 18 years after Strasberg’s death, his work is carried on by his wife, Anna, as artistic director, and son David Lee as CEO of the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood and the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan.

Teachers at the bicoastal centers, with a combined student enrollment of nearly 1,000, perpetuate “The Method,” in which actors are encouraged to use their emotional experience and memory in preparing to “live” a role.

Anna Strasberg has a pithier definition. “The Method is really so simple,” she offered in a recent interview. “It’s telling the truth of the character simply under imaginary circumstances.”

In Los Angeles, the year-long centennial celebration has been inaugurated with the formation of an in-house production company, called The Group at Strasberg (TGAS). TGAS is drawing its talent from both coasts and, the 29-year-old CEO hopes, will evolve into a permanent ensemble group.

“TGAS will carry on the tradition of the famed Group Theatre, which gave birth to such notable voices as Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets, among others,” said Anna Strasberg.

Its base will be the newly renovated 96-seat Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood, honoring the memory of one of Strasberg’s favorite pupils.

Two smaller 49-seat theaters are housed in the same building.

“Our mission is to produce new works from today’s bravest young theater artists in a fully produced season,” said David Lee Strasberg.

The season will consist of three shows and three workshops, with “Molly’s Delicious” by Craig Wright and directed by Dan Fields running through Dec. 3 as the opening production.

Strasberg also announced the appointment of Jay Dysart as TGAS’s director of production, and creation of a distinctive logo for the company.

Reminiscing about her husband before returning to her New York base, Anna Strasberg described him as an artist whose first thespian exposure was at the Yiddish theater and who worked with the Habimah Theatre in Tel Aviv in the 1960s.

“As a Jew,” she added, “Lee felt good in his skin.”

For tickets or more information, call TGAS at (323) 650-7777.