By Iman Sadri
Bijan Daneshmand is a highly sought after actor and filmmaker with a vast resume of Film + TV Credits. Bijan hails from a filmmaking background, where his mother acted in pre-revolutionary Iran. Daneshmand has shared the screen with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Glenn Close, and Tom Hiddleston. He has been directed by iconic filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Paul Greengrass. His casting in films such as Body of Lies and Munich is not by happenstance. Bijan’s authenticity and engagement as an actor in all of his roles is one of the many reasons his talent is always in demand. His latest film, The Persian Version, written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, won big at Sundance. In fact, almost all of Bijan Daneshmand’s feature films and television projects win multiple awards, consistently.
Bijan has worked with Shirin Neshat, shared the screen with Matt Damon, and stars on the number one show on Netflix, The Diplomat. He went toe to toe with Dave Bautista in Nowhere to Run and starred in Babak Anvari‘s Under The Shadow. His credits are part of award winning dramas, such as Tehran and he lends his voice to a multiple of BBC Radio projects. Not to mention the fact that Bijan’s first film project, 20 Fingers, won the Cinema Digitale at the Venice Film Festival.
Bijan has an eye for detail and approaches acting with a filmmakers vantage point. When he is not acting Bijan paints detailed geometrical and abstract paintings. He is an artist, so much so that his social media handle is @BijanArtist, – a moniker he epitomizes in the truest sense of the word.
To learn more about this prolific Persian we caught up for an interview with Bijan Daneshmand.
June 1, 2023
The Persian Observer : Thank you conversing with us. Please describe your early life, education and upbringing ?
Bijan Daneshmand: I was born in Tehran, enjoyed a good childhood; loving and kind parents. My brother is six years older than I am. My mother was an actress before she got married. She only acted in two films and was the leading lady in Yousef and Zuleikha, and Raahzan. I think part of the deal of getting married, was that she would stop her acting. She was hugely popular, and had gone to Paris for casting; I have old clippings from Paris Match regarding an interview she had there. So, I imagine it must have been difficult for her to make that decision, to get married, and cease acting. When I was about four or five, I have memories of going to sound studios for voice over and dubbing works. I would be standing next to her, looking up, in the cubicle, while she was delivering her lines into the microphone. When I was ten, my parents decided to have my brother sent to England to boarding school. They were worried that he would become a professional musician. He had formed a band with three friends in Tehran. So, when we were in London, and my mother was making arrangements for my brother’s school, I was asked, Bijan would you like to be in England with Bahman? I didn’t hesitate, and said yes. Next thing, I was placed in a strict prep school in South Sussex, and he was placed at a different school, for senior boys, in North Sussex. I was shocked, I had thought that we would be together. I was desperately homesick. What kept me going, giving me hope of sorts, was the idea, that during the holidays I would be going to Tehran, and one day, a long time away, I will finish my studies and return and live in Iran, serve my nation as my patriotic father used to say. It was a hard time. Then at age 13/14 I moved to senior school, Eastbourne College. There we had more freedom and the time was far more agreeable.
The Persian Observer : What were your favorite Films / TV shows growing up ?
Bijan Daneshmand : As a child, I loved Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, the James Bond films. In adolescence, I enjoyed films like 2001 A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby and others.
The Persian Observer : Many watch movies and films as entertainment. However, only a few choose to take the step and make a career in film. What were the inspirations that made you decide you could pursue a career as an actor/ filmmaker ?
Bijan Daneshmand : There was no plan. Let me give you a brief background. At the age of eight, nine, while still living in Tehran, I was to be in the school play. On the day of the performance, and that was only for one day, I totally flipped. I felt disoriented, fearful and absolutely uncomfortable. I told my mother. So, I ended up sitting next to my parents watching the school play, and another boy acting in my place. Cut, to about over twenty-five years ago. We as a family, with my then wife Lian, two children, Salma and Rahi, my mother, my brother’s family, and some friends, were in Maryland for a summer vacation at Deep Creek Lake. We used to waterski, hike, have barbecues, and go to the movies. One day, we were all bored. My brother had gifted to my son, Rahi, a video camera. We got into groups of three, and made short films. It was amazing fun, and hilarious. I got an incredible buzz, and unlike when I was about eight, I was now happy to act. On returning to London, I found a place in East of London; London Centre of Theatre Studies, and took night classes. Following that I took classes with Stefan Gryff, an actor and coach; he helped me with the camera. Then I discovered Philippe Gaulier in Paris, and attended his clown course. Somehow, one thing led to another, I did other courses, workshops, acted in several student films, and so on, and we are here.
The Persian Observer : Who were your favorite actors / actresses growing up who served as inspiration ?
Bijan Daneshmand : Sean Connery, Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier, Omar Sharif, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Alain Delon. I can go on.
The Persian Observer : Describe 20 Fingers, and highlights from the project ? Expand on the process of acting and producing the same film ?
Bijan Daneshmand : 20 Fingers was a special project. As I was the producer, and the person acting opposite me, Mania Akbari, was the director. At first, in Tehran, we had plans to act only in one scene together, and had other people in mind to perform the other six scenes, or vignettes. We met with some actors. They were hesitant, for their own reasons. We started the shoot with a very small crew, a DOP, Touraj Aslani, with an assistant, and Mohammad Shahverdi for sound, with an assistant. We were mobile, quick to work and make our decisions on the spot. The film was shot in about twelve consecutive days. The final cut is 74 minutes, which was able to be defined as a feature. We had no idea how it would do. I had never produced a film. On my return to London, I wrote to festivals, such as Venice and Locarno, as the timing allowed an application to be made to them. Incredibly, the film was invited to both. At that time digital films were a new idea. At Venice, that year they had made a new competition section purely for digital films. I thought about the two festivals at length, and chose Venice. The digital section jury was headed that year, 2004, by Mike Figgis, and the film won the Best Film at Venezia Digitale. A huge honour. The outline of the story was Mania’s idea, and together we were able to improvise, albeit in a controlled manner, in the sense that we knew what needed to be mentioned or discussed in each vignette. Imagine having bullet points of ideas and subjects that have to be addressed, and leave it to the actors to deliver those lines in their own language and style. Having said that, there is a scene inside a car, at night, while we are driving, a dog or a wolf runs along and in front of the car, and we improvised and referred to it, the audience sees her, the animal, and it feels as though it may have been planned, but really, it just happened and was unexpected. The challenge when the director and producer are also acting opposite one another is that there isn’t anyone to comment, guide, direct. We had to act and be our own critics. Sometimes this can go wrong. One has to be careful, be truthful, observational, and not biased to one’s own opinion too much, and say ‘oh this is great’ just because it felt so or seems so, one has to step back and be objective and look at it afresh, then decide whether what was shot or performed was good for the purposes of the story.
The Persian Observer : Describe A Snake’s Tail and the process of writing and directing a feature film.
Bijan Daneshmand : A Snake’s Tail was an experiment. I wrote, directed, produced and acted in it. I had it shot with the help of a friend Paul Cronin, a documentary film maker. I had met Paul at Kiarostami’s workshop in London, organized by the Iran Heritage Foundation, Channel 4 and the Lycée Français. It was a very interesting and useful experience attending the one week workshop. Thirty people were selected from about a thousand applicants. Kiarostami was generous with his time and patient in dealing with us. A kind humble man.
A Snake’s Tail was made over a period of eight days. I played three characters. The idea was to explore and see if the script made sense, whether the story worked and had a logical journey. It was really just a study. What I had in mind was to make a higher budget version of it involving several actors, including Omar Sharif as the spiritual opium smoking cleric. The story is about a middle-aged man in London, who discovers his father dead in his apartment. At the funeral, the cleric/mullah invites the man to his house and introduces him to opium and the poetry of Rumi. The younger man falls in love with the poetry and in time becomes addicted to the afternoon opium sessions. It is about identity, addiction, vulnerability, contradiction, and friendship. When this experiment was shot, and edited together with the help of the then film student Babak Anvari, I showed it to a producer friend, and the head of the then Notting Hill Film Festival, Andy Isaac. He took it on and submitted it to Cannes market, and various international film festivals. It won Best International Feature at the Bare Bones Film Festival, a festival for films on a budget of less than $1 Million, where the writer, director and producer are the same person. After making this experimental version of A Snake’s Tail, I did not go on to make the higher budget ‘proper’ version. I felt this work has already been made, and it is the ‘proper’ one, whatever that means or implies.
The Persian Observer : Describe Women Without Men and highlights from the project. How was it working with Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari ?
Bijan Daneshmand : A little background. Around the year 2000, Shirin had an exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, in Hyde Park, featuring her films Turbulent, Rapture and Fervour. I found the work incredibly moving. I visited the gallery on several occasions. In a kind of an inner dialogue; I said to myself, ‘I would love to work with her, one day’. Then, in 2004, when 20 Fingers was completed I met Shirin and Shoja in New York. A couple of years passed, then in 2006, through my agent, I was asked to attend a casting session in London. So, what I had thought and hoped once, was now actually taking place. Some time after that, I was asked to go to Berlin for the final casting. Then another trip to Vienna for costume, and finally in Casablanca for the shoot. Amazing, I am working with Shirin and Shoja. How was it working with them? A joy. Very tiring, we used to wrap around 4am sometimes. Dead and still standing. They are both very particular and demanding, and yet have a wonderful gentle way of getting what they want from their performers in terms of the acting. I was lucky to have my daughter, Salma, and my son, Rahi, visit me in Casablanca. They are both in the film. Salma in the cafe Naderi scene, and Rahi is one of the soldiers presenting medals at the Officers Club scene. I love the idea my kids and I are in a film together.
The Persian Observer : Describe Two & Two, and describe the process of acting in a short film.
Babak Anvari is one of the finest young directors on the planet. This is no exaggeration. Babak helped me with A Snake’s Tail, at the time I believe he was finishing his final year of filmmaking at university, in London. He had already made a few strong short films with his collaborator DOP, Kit Fraser. Babak called me, we met, and went through the script of Two & Two, Do Ba Do. He used his credit card, invested and built a classroom in a warehouse in London. I think it was possibly part of one of the Music channel studios. So, there was this box, literally, the classroom, built in wood in the middle of a vast space. He then needed young Iranian pupils. He recruited them all from an Iranian school in North London. I think it was shot over three days, a long weekend. He is absolutely focused on his work, knows what he wants, and allows some diversion to explore alternatives, a pleasure to work with. The film was made. Soon after, it was nominated for Best Short at the 2012 BAFTA Awards. A very powerful short film. It’s gone viral on some websites and platforms, in one place I noticed it had more than 11m views. Although it’s in Persian language, the film has a universal appeal and engages audiences globally.
The Persian Observer : Describe your experience of working on the film Under The Shadow ? Highlights from the experience.
In this feature, I act as the university director, opposite the wonderfully talented Narges Rashidi. Babak and his producers, Lucan Toh, Emily Leo and Oliver Roskil, created the film in a small house in Amman, Jordan. The roof was ripped open, and a rocket placed in it. They made an amazing film, again the DOP was Kit Fraser. The budget was not huge for such a great film, but they made it, everyone was extremely happy to work together, and the film went on to win the BAFTA Film Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Once again, I can say, Babak knows what he wants in terms of his story telling, and makes it, gets it done. He has his vision and the talent to actually realize it.
The Persian Observer : Elaborate on your web series The Bahrami’s and the inspiration for the project.
Bijan Daneshmand : In January 2021, the first lockdown was taking place in UK. One evening, I was having a telephone conversation with Rouzbeh Akhbari. I had acted in a feature film project for Rouzbeh and his collaborator Felix Kalmenson a year earlier in Tbilisi, Georgia. During the conversation, I shared with Rouzbeh, that I had an idea of shooting a project on the laptop, split screen format, can we do this using Skype or WhatsApp or another platform? He suggested Skype. We spent a few minutes uploading Skype and exploring how to record two people simultaneously on the screen. I then asked Rouzbeh to act as my son in the story, he kindly agreed. Told him about what goes on in the first scene, in terms of several points, and we recorded it. I did use improvisation, but strictly with the knowledge that we knew the points we had to hit/ refer to. I did not give an entire script to the actors. On the day of recording, I would discuss the scene with the actor, mention the most important issues. Record it, if it worked then great, if not, let’s look into it/ retake it. Sometimes the actors would divert from the main story line as they were improvising their dialogue, and then I would have to intervene and discuss, and take it again. I find with this process the participants do not have to learn lines, they are fresher, more lively, spontaneous, and truthful. Also, they had no idea how the story was going to end and could not act or react as though they knew the final plot. This helps it have a more realistic look. It was made entirely on Skype, except the opening scene, where I am walking on the street for a few seconds, where I used an iPhone, it took about four weeks to make. I asked other actor friends and non-actors to contribute, and we ended with 4 x 30 minute episodes. Loaded them on YouTube, and without any publicity, marketing or any Instagram page or any other form of advertising, other than sending the YouTube links to friends, the web series was hugely popular with Iranians. It has English subtitles too. Due to its popularity, we were motivated, we still had lockdown, and a couple of weeks later, we made the next four episodes. So, finally, it has ended as 8 x 30 mins episodes. It was submitted to various web series festivals, and was honoured at several. The story of The Bahrami’s, is about a young man Daniel, in search of his real father. He has contacted my character’s son, Kami, played by Rouzbeh Akhbari to put him in touch with Javad, the uncle, played by Tahmores Tehrani. Javad is in denial that the young man might be his son, and the story unfolds.
Javad’s wife, Maryam, is played by the gifted Marjaneh Sabouri. She acts the part incredibly well. I was contacted after the show went online, people commenting about how truthful and highly engaging her performance was. It’s all dialogue, as the actors are facing their screens and having their conversations, so for Persian speaking audiences it is easy to listen to, and also watch. For non-Persian speaking audiences, it is a little difficult just to listen as they won’t understand, and perhaps challenging to watch 8 episodes reading subtitles. I was helped for the music by Jon Banks and Fairborz Kiani. It was made with an absolutely zero budget. The Bahrami’s was the kind of project that just happened, thanks to the lockdown. It kept us busy and sane. It was a story I had in mind for years, and finally made it. Afterwards, I received calls from friends and others saying they have had similar stories in their families. I have been approached to re-write it as a TV show, however, I feel I have made what I wanted to make. Let’s move onto new works.
The Persian Observer : Congrats on The Persian Version, how was it working with Maryam Keshavarz ? Describe your character and how the role came about ?
Bijan Daneshmand : Sometime in 2020, I was asked by my agent to make a self tape for the role of the father, in The Persian Version. There were two scenes which I prepared for, made the tape and sent it to my agent. I didn’t hear anything back, Covid-19 happened, fast forward two years to 2022; my agents asked me to make another tape- which I did. All went quiet, then I was contacted directly by Maryam, and her casting director Lindsey Weissmueller, arranged a Zoom chemistry test session. The main characters; Leila played by Layla Mohammadi, and Shireen played by Niousha Noor, had already been cast. So, the test was to see if I was an appropriate husband to Shireen and father to Leila. We read some lines, and the last scene we did, an emotional one, got the participants of the Zoom meeting moved, and some of them in tears. I was selected.
The actual project took part mainly in Istanbul, Turkey. Maryam is creative, extremely clever and full of energy. Before the shoots, she would get us together, the actors, and we would meet for lunch, dinner, and go to Niousha’s apartment, where there was a large roof terrace. There, we would enjoy each other’s company and rehearse, read parts of the screenplay. The film is about Leila and her family, and several other characters. These sessions resulted a beautiful bond between the actors, and great comfort in being at ease on the day of the filming of the relevant scenes. I have seven sons and a daughter in the film, I felt very close to them, and during the shoot genuinely felt like they were my children. Maryam is another one of those directors that knows what she wants, but is also able to listen, explain, and sometimes be welcoming to any suggestions or input by the actors. Really great person to work with, highly creative and energetic.
The Persian Observer : Describe your work in Munich, Body of Lies, Green Zone, The Night Manager and the series, Tehran ?
Bijan Daneshmand : I am hugely honoured to have been selected for these films and also The Night Manager, and Tehran, TV shows, albeit, my parts were not huge. I agreed to take those roles because more than anything I wanted to work under the directorship of Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Paul Greengrass. I learnt something from each of them. Spielberg makes you feel as an Oscar winning actor. He welcomes you as though he has known you for years, acknowledges you. He may only have refreshed what your name is just before the scene, but he really does make you feel appreciated. Ridley Scott was great fun, down to earth and a perfectionist with his lighting, I worked with DiCaprio and met Golshifteh there; both highly talented. Paul Greengrass, with his particular style, hand held camerawork, a very clever and well-read person, highly concentrated on his work. Had the chance to work with Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Raad Rawi and a bunch of other great actors, some of our scenes were deleted as the final cut would have been ridiculously long. In The Night Manager I was directed by Susanne Bier. I had seen her films before, and had dreamed of working with her, and it happened. I was acting opposite Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Alistair Petrie, and Nasser Memarzia. Susanne is highly creative, lets you get on with it. There was a highly charged scene I had with Hugh; my $300 million dollars had disappeared. She allowed Hugh and I to do it our way. The scene works well, full of anger and suspense. So, I think.
In Tehran, directed by Daniel Syrkin, shot in Athens (pretending to be Tehran), I was honoured to act opposite Glenn Close. I had watched Season 1 and had been impressed by the manner it gave validity of arguments or case from both sides. It wasn’t a totally biased story as some shows or films are, and yet it was interesting, contemporary, and suspenseful.
Having said that, these films mentioned, together with The Night Manager, and Tehran, all relate to the Middle East, or Iran, and its issues. The way the stories are constructed and how Middle Eastern and Iranian people are cast and portrayed is not always in my personal view correct and accurate. But, it’s Western films, funded by Western people, and I am a part of the overall final product. If we want to show Middle Eastern people, or Iranians in a different way, we need to make a move; write the stories, raise the funds and make it. No nagging here. I am selective of the projects I act in, they do have to meet certain criteria of being legitimate in terms of what they are showing or saying.
The Persian Observer : Congrats on The Diplomat – a Top 10 Show on Netflix. Describe your character of Rasoul, highlights of working on the show and how the role came about ?
In 2022, I was requested through my agent to make a self tape for the role of Rasoul Shahin, the deputy foreign minister of Iran. I liked what I read. I don’t like the way the West often sees and portrays Iran as 100% negative. Yes, much can be done to improve Iran, by ourselves, us Iranians. I take the view that no person, or entity, is totally good, or totally bad. This statement may be not in agreement with many, but we don’t have the time here in this interview to expand on that, or explain better what is meant by that. So, going back to the story line, I was pleased to see that they wanted an character Iranian that spoke English fluently, may have been Western educated, held relatively reasonable diplomatic views, and have Hal, acted by Rufus Sewell, as a friend.
So, I made the self tape, and didn’t hear anything for about a month a two. I was in Istanbul for Maryam’s project, The Persian Version, when I received the offer. The director was Simon Cellan Jones, well experienced talented filmmaker. They had made a lot of research about the role and the episode that I appear in seems to work well.
The Persian Observer : Describe your process of getting into character and the keys to memorization ?
Bijan Daneshmand : Getting into character? Well I think it’s important to see what he does repeatedly, what he says as in his language/vocabulary, what his motives are, and any other signal that helps portray the person, makes him different from others. Memorization- for me there is no short cut. I read over and over, write the lines several times, make drawings of what is happening in the scene, I record and listen. Whatever it takes, until one reaches a point, that the words can just roll off the tongue. I have been living outside of Iran since I was ten- I learn Persian lines so much faster. It is incredible.
The Persian Observer : If you could work with any director who would you work with and why ?
Bijan Daneshmand : In no particular order: Soderbergh, Scorcese, Ali Abbassi, Atom Egoyan, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Almodovar, Wes Anderson, Yorgos Lanthimos, Paul Thomas Anderson, Saeed Roostayi. Why? Watch their films.
The Persian Observer : If you could work with any living actor or actress – who would you work with and why ?
Bijan Daneshmand : In no particular order: Morgan Freeman, DeNiro, Ryan Gosling, Daniel Day Lewis, Michael Caine, Ali Nassirian, Isabelle Huppert, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Jack Nicholson, Mahershala Ali, Payman Maadi, William Dafoe, Brian Cox, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Saeed Poursamimi, Navid Mohammadzadeh, Catherine Deneuve. Why? They are brilliant, watchable, engaging.
The Persian Observer : If you could work with an actor / actress who is no longer alive, who would you want to work with ?
Bijan Daneshmand : If there was a magic genie, I would say: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Gene Wilder, Robin Williams, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw, Brando, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Paul Belmondo, James Mason, Audrey Hepburn, Alan Bates, Richard Pryor, Mohammad Ali Keshvarz, Richard Burton, Alan Rickman, Omar Sharif.
The Persian Observer If you could play a biopic of any historical figure who would you want to portray ?
I would like to play historical figures such as Reza Shah, Mossadegh, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Gandhi, Krishnamurti.Bijan Daneshmand in the trailer for Infidel (Image Credit IMDB).
The Persian Observer : What more can be done to get Iranians into Film + TV ? And what more can be done to have more Persian themed centric characters and projects ?
Bijan Daneshmand : Getting Iranians into film? They must want it to happen, and there are plenty that do, and as time is passing we are noticing more and more fine actors and film makers of Iranian origin. I can’t comment about Persian themed centric characters and projects. All I know is that nothing will happen unless you get on and make it happen. As is said, just do it. When you make films, when you make art, things happen, the making is very important. If we sit and talk nothing much happens, not totally true, but I think you understand my message; write it, shoot it, make it, doesn’t matter if it’s not your masterpiece, keep on making, irrespective of the outcome or reward. The reward is you expressed your art, you made something which tells a story you want seen.
Follow Bijan Daneshmand on social media @BijanArtist