Ingenue in Exile: Why a Hollywood Star Can't Go Home

Farahani has always fought for what she believed in. As a student, she spearheaded a protest because her school was unheated. At 16, she cut off her hair and dressed in boys' clothes so she could ride her bicycle through Tehran. Farahani comes from an artistic family, with a father who is a theater director and a mother, sister and brother who all act or direct. "There was just one profession I wasn't supposed to pursue -- acting," Farahani says, laughing.

Her family wanted her to be a musician, a pianist. She attended the conservatory in in Tehran, practicing Mozart, Schubert and Bach -- "Preludes and fugues, pretty difficult stuff," as she says. She also spent a year learning German, in preparation for studying in Vienna. But shortly before she was due to depart, at age 17, Farahani told her parents she had different plans.

She had already defied her father's ban on acting by taking a role in a film when she was 14. By her early 20s, she was married and acting in one Iranian film after another. Some of these films were banned in the country, but that only made them more popular on Tehran's DVD black markets and at international film festivals.

The film that would change Farahani's life was "Body of Lies," a Hollywood thriller with British director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") at the helm and Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading roles. Scott was looking for a young actress from the Middle East to play a large supporting role, as a nurse with whom DiCaprio's CIA agent falls in love.

A Groundbreaking Role

A couple weeks later, Iran's authorities having been surprisingly cooperative, Farahani sat waiting in Los Angeles. She didn't have the role just yet, but if she got it, she would be the first Iranian actress to work for a Hollywood studio since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent US Embassy hostage crisis. Her case put the managers of Warner Bros. on the spot, since the American embargo against Iran technically prohibited such a collaboration.

But Scott stuck by Farahani. The studio consulted with the State Department, and eventually a compromise was found, with Warner Bros.' London branch signing Farahani's contract. Shooting took place in Morocco, including a scene in which Farahani, without a headscarf, sat next to DiCaprio by the shore of a lake and stroked his hand, thereby taking leave of her good Muslim upbringing.

That sequence isn't included in the movie, in which Farahani is always seen in either a headscarf or nurse's cap. But an online trailer for "Body of Lies" included a couple of seconds of footage showing Farahani without a headscarf. For some of Iran's morality police, that was grounds enough to stage a scandal.

Farahani was headed to London, this time for a Disney production with the fitting title "Prince of Persia." But at the airport in Tehran, authorities confiscated her passport, citing a court file they said existed on her.

That was the start of "a nightmare," Farahani says. She was repeatedly summoned to interrogations with the court and with the secret police. What was she doing with the "Great Satan," the United States? Was "Body of Lies" CIA propaganda? The accusation that she had compromised national security hung in the air.

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