By Iman Sadri
March 11, 2021
Sepideh Moafi is one of the reasons this blog is in existence. To profile Persians who are making big waves in Hollywood. Sepideh’s name has appeared on the list of credits on Prime Time hit shows such Blue Bloods, Nurse Jackie and The Black List, to name a few. And these are just appetizers in a growing filmography filled with many entrees. Sepideh appeared on Notorious on ABC and Falling Water and the award winning film The Killing of Two Lovers. Moafi’s career really took off when she became a feature in The Deuce – a gritty HBO drama set in 1970’s Manhattan. Co-Starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Sepideh starred as Loretta in the hit show that ran three seasons. Sepideh then landed a coveted role in the hit revival The L Word : Generation Q on showtime. A show, which is no stranger to Persian actresses. The original run, The L Word starred fellow Persian thespian, Sarah Shahi. Generation Q also stars Persian actresses Mercedes Mason and Arienne Mandi.
Iman Sadri : Please describe your early life, education and upbringing ?
Sepideh Moafi : I grew up in an incredibly loving, supportive family. My parents and sister were forced to flee Iran in the years following the Revolution & during the Iran/Iraq War, so I was born in a Refugee camp in Germany before coming to the U.S. I was bullied a lot for just about everything. This affected my ability to pay attention in class, so teachers said I had a learning disability, and tried to pump me with ADD medication, but that just made me more anxious. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I enrolled in chorus to knock out some fine arts credits, and my high school choir director asked me to stay after class one day. He vocalized me and said that I had a voice and I should take voice lessons. I’d always loved classical music, but it wasn’t until we started working on the oratorio ‘Gloria’ by Antonio Vivaldi that I was bitten by the bug and became obsessed with music and singing. My GPA went from a 2.9 to a 4.5, and within 2 years I had full ride plus grants to SF Conservatory of Music where I began my journey as a classical musician/opera singer. I eventually grew curious about acting in theater sans music. My acting teacher at the time told me I had “it” and should audition for plays. I got a great response and started working as an actor in theater, playing roles like Juliet in Romeo & Juliet, Luisa from The Fantasticks, Rosalind in As You Like It, etc. I applied to grad school on a whim. I did the URTA’s, which is basically like 20 grad acting programs that audition at once and I got interest from all of them. I went to visit UC Irvine at their callback weekend and fell in love with the people and the program. I remember asking my sister if I should wait another year to audition for all the big programs like Yale and Juilliard, since I’d missed those deadlines. My sister said: “Sep, you don’t need a program to make your name, you’ll make your program’s name.” That’s always stuck with me, and I apply it to every aspect of my life. We place so much value on companies, institutions, organizations to validate us and give us permission to be successful, when ultimately, if you can tap into the courage and fearlessness it takes to do what you love and puts you in your element, along with endless hard work, patience and an intuitive sense towards what is uniquely true for you, you can be unstoppable. I did the 3 year MFA program at UCI, and got my reps from our big 3rd year showcase. There was never a question of LA or NY for me, I always knew I wanted to move to NY, so I did. Within a month of moving to NYC I started booking film and TV stuff. My base is still in NY but I travel a lot for work, mostly between here and LA (where we film The L Word: Generation Q).
IS: What were some of the early inspirations that led you towards a career in Film /Television ?
Sepideh Moafi : I never imagined myself in the film/TV world. It wasn’t something I aspired to, and I never even saw it as an option. The first job I remember wanting was to be a film director. I was inspired by Spielberg and Ford Coppola, and their ability to make dynamic, sometimes fantastical worlds real. When I found music, I found such a sense of belonging. I think it had to do with the fact that it didn’t matter what you looked like or where you came from. In music you work to secure a technique that allows you to express the full range of how you feel and interpret the music. At the time my biggest musical idols were Maria Callas, Glenn Gould, Teresa Stratas, Placido Domingo, Herbert von Karajan. Shakespeare pulled me into theater. I’ve been very inspired by the work of Anna Magnani, Brando, Niels Arestrup, Émilie Dequenne, Juliette Binoche. I have to say that watching James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in ‘The Sopranos’ seduced me into wanting to do TV. I’d rarely witnessed people in American TV or film who looked and acted like real people, and who weren’t afraid to reveal the raw, uglier sides of life and of themselves. That was what made me think, oh, yea, I can do that. I believe in that. It didn’t look Hollywood heroic, it looked like the real stuff we all witness and experience in life. David Chase is brilliant. What a fearless storyteller, un-phased by people pleasing. I really admire that in people in general. He has entire scenes (many silent ones) that may not be so dramatic, but show how it is in real life. I knew I wanted to be part of those kinds of stories.
IS : Which films growing up had the most impact on you and why
Sepideh Moafi : ‘The Godfather’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Princess Bride’, ‘Fox and the Hound’, ‘Vertigo’, then in my late teen years I discovered and became obsessed with Alejandro González Iñárritu. I think with many of these films there’s a version of the hero’s journey, but with a black sheep as the protagonist. I’m so sensitive to the underdog’s experience, maybe because I always felt like an outsider so I found it comforting to see people (or animals and aliens!) in their journeys often end up with a happy ending—something I later came to question. I think it was Orson Wells who said a happy ending depends on where you end the story. With the Iñárritu gave me my first taste of non-linear, soul-shaking storytelling that explores human conflict, pain and complexity, and without the happy ending. Another film that had a huge impact on me was ‘Children of Heaven’ by Majid Majidi. My family and I watched that film dozens of times. I can’t think of another movie I’ve recommended more. Talk about capturing the realness of life—the beauty and the pain. It’s stunning.
IS : Which film-makers, actors / actresses had the most impact on you and why ?
Sepideh Moafi : I mentioned a few before, but I’d add Majid Majidi, Jacques Audiard, Alfred Hitchcock (I was obsessed with Hitchcock films in high school!), Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem. I really respect all actors. We’re athletes of the heart. It can be emotionally, psychologically and physically taxing. I personally tend to be drawn to actors who allow an audience to have an experience through them as opposed to actors who show us their every thought and feeling. I also love seeing a detachment from what may be acceptable and/or pretty, and the fearless pursuit of what is authentic to the character, story and the moment. I love artists who risk everything and surrender fully. Harold Guskin calls it “exploding the moment.” I think I’m innately a boundary pusher, I like to test limits. I’ve always been a rebel and have always questioned everything. I guess I’m attracted to artists who have a similar appetite for the unknown, spontaneity and mystery, and in this case directors and actors who inspire me to be even more fearless.
IS: Please elaborate on your role of Loretta on The Deuce. The process of auditioning for the role / experiences / highlights that stand-out / experience of working with James Franco + Maggie Gylllenhaal, + David Simon ?
Sepideh Moafi : Getting ‘The Deuce’ was definitely a pivotal moment in my life and career. I got into this industry because I loved being able to explore different worlds through stories, and dive into all the hues of humanity. I mentioned David Chase, but others storytellers in TV who inspired me were David Simon and David Milch, so getting the opportunity to be part of a show that shared my artistic core values was like a dream come true. I initially auditioned for Candy (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and I remember thinking I could knock that role out of the park. After watching Maggie’s riveting portrayal of the role for the first time in the pilot, it was crystal clear that the role was destined for her. You still have to believe you can bring something unique to the roles you go in for. Otherwise, what’s the point? They called me back for Loretta. I had come close to another David Simon show the year before, so while I knew they liked me, I was still very nervous (and I usually don’t get nervous at all!). I got to the final callback and did my sides for Loretta. They laughed at a choice I’d made to have Loretta mispronounce a word, and David made a comment about how that choice along with my thick Puerto Rican-Bronx accent was exactly right for Loretta. They made an offer that afternoon. I vividly remember my first day filming. I walked on to the 1971 Times Square dressed to perfection set and started to cry. It was larger than life. I also just couldn’t believe that the young bartender who was barely making ends meet, who’d get home from her shifts to watch four episodes of ‘The Wire’ had ended up on that set. I was supposed to be in all episodes but ended up booking a series regular on another show in LA (‘Notorious’) and the producers for the LA show wouldn’t allow me to come back to NY to do the season finale of ‘The Deuce’. They had to change the storyline for Loretta, since her arc depended on what happened in that season finale. I was devastated, but our producer Nina (Noble) assured my team that I’d be back. I went back for second season while doing a series regular on ‘Falling Water’, but then for the third and final season, I was able to come back as a regular (on ‘Deuce’). That show gave me my artistic family. Even though we filmed our last episode a year ago, everyone still supports and looks out for each other, we still hang out and FaceTime. I met some of my closest friends on that show, but the most unique thing about that group was that everyone was there to make great art; from the cast to crew to creatives to craft services. Everyone. I got to work with some of my favorite actors, many of whom I didn’t even know before the show was created. We got to work with the best of the best; our D.P.’s, Cameramen, producers, design teams, writers, everyone involved. It was one of the most satisfying artistic, ensemble experiences of my life.
IS : What more Hollywood can do to include Iranian characters in upcoming films / series ?
Sepideh Moafi : I think it’s important to create stories that are uniquely Iranian, that share the beauty of our culture and heritage; that celebrate the warmth, generosity, community-oriented people. And I’m ultimately more interested in seeing stories that don’t categorize us based on race. I want to see my incredible, versatile Iranian and Arab colleagues get leads in blockbuster and indy films that have nothing to do with race, and everything to do with being a human in the world—stories about love, adversity, purpose, loss, triumph. I’d love for Hollywood to normalize seeing Iranian, Japanese, Arab, Black, Pakistani, Vietnamese (the list goes on…) humans as leads of big shows and films the same way they have with white humans since Hollywood was created. I think we’re at a moment in history where, contrary to what it may look like, we are desperate to connect through what we have in common. Hollywood has the power to create trends, to tell masses of people who to love and why we should love them. It has the power to normalize diversity without accentuating it so much. When I walk down the street in NY I see people from all different racial, socio-economic, cultural backgrounds. When I meet someone, I’m interested in who that person is, how they see and think, what they feel. We are too focused on the shell of our identities. I hope Hollywood can continue to normalize diversity and focus on the relatable aspects and connectivity of our stories.
Follow Sepideh Moafi on Social Media @SepidehMoafi