Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Mehrnaz Mohammadi is a 3rd Year MFA Acting student in the USC School of Dramatic Arts. She spent a substantial part of her life in Montreal before moving to Los Angeles and — before committing herself to acting — she worked as a graphic designer, set designer, costume designer, painter and teacher.
It could be said that Mohammadi has a tough time settling down and making decisions, but when she does, she does it big.
In the recently concluded MFA Repertory 2017 season, she performed a total of five roles in three concurrently running plays, including the lead Antigone in Paula Cizmar's "Antigone X" and three wildy divergent roles in John Rubenstein's direction of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer prize winning, epic, "Angels in America — Part One: Millennium Approaches."
"Angels in America" interweaves themes of homosexuality, AIDS, politics in the Reagan era, Mormonism, Judaism and faith at large – in sum, most of the complexities and hypocrisies of American life at the time. The issues have changed somewhat since then, but such human fallibilities as hubris, deceit, willful ignorance, and the desperate need to be loved and immortalized persist. "Angels in America" was called a masterpiece when it premiered, and by every measure it now endures as a classic.
In USC's MFA Acting production, Mohammadi captured – and held — attention, starting with her throttling deep-voiced eulogy in the opening funeral scene. When a play begins with an ending ("…all the old will be dead," are the Rabbi's final words of his monologue) it places a huge onus on the actors to build the promise of a drama that will take many turns (not all of them depressing).
In addition, Mohammadi filled the roles of Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Porter Pitt, showing her tremendous range and depth.
Sitting down with her for coffee under the shade of the trees at 'Nature's Brew', Los Angeles, provided an opportunity to talk about these roles and why she has chosen theater for her profession — or, rather, why it chose her. We were also able to talk about what it is like to move to this country from other distant lands (Iran and, in the case of this interviewer, India) and the shock of discovering racism and sexism in America that is remote from its glossy "land of the free" and "pursuit of happiness" reputation around the globe.
"Angels in America" is a very moving play and focuses on a lot of social issues like homosexuality, addiction and political hypocrisy. How do you think theatre plays a role in tackling social issues in general?
Theatre for me is a mirror of what society is. We're just literally holding a mirror to the audience and make them look at it for a couple of hours. Theatre is a safe place for people to experience themselves and see humanity and experience humanity. Playwrights like Tony Kushner write plays which are an exact image of what society is going through.
How is it any different from films? Do you the audience gets the message better through theatre than through film?
We're removed from the experience in films. In plays, the audience is connected to you and they feel something. It's hard to ignore another human being right in front of you going through something.
You were born and brought up in Iran. Is there anything you learned about America after coming here?
I thought I understood what racism is, but coming here was a complete shock to me. I can't even begin to understand it. It's so heartbreaking and so real. It's something I can't even explain to anyone else unless they live in the U.S. Also, I realized I'm right in the middle of it too!
The second thing I learned about was religion. I always thought Americans in general are atheists but they are more religious than I could've ever imagined. I think God is very important here. I think it's all Eastern propaganda which shows the Western world in a negative limelight and we get a different image of America.
Did you want to be an actor throughout your life or was it something that came to you?
I wanted to be an actress all this while. I always loved acting ever since I can remember. Even as a kid, I really loved acting.
When did you start acting?
I started acting in 2009. I tried to get into acting much earlier also, but then it just didn't happen. I didn't have support from my family. It just wasn't easy while I was still in Iran.
What would you say was the biggest obstacle you faced?
Overcoming the fear of accepting that I wanted to be an actor. It takes a lot of courage to say that you want to be an actor and to go out and pursue it. When I finally decided to be an actor, my foreign accent was a problem. I didn't speak a single word of English when I first went to Canada. I had to learn the language and then work on my pronunciation and articulation. Also the industry isn't as big in Canada. I wanted to reach a bigger audience.
How did you end up in L.A. then?
I never really thought about L.A. I always thought about New York. And then I got into USC and I was just like "Oh, L.A.!". I was always an East Coast girl.
What did you learn from "Angels in America"?
The one thing I learnt is that America is a beautiful place. It's very hard to bring people from different ethnicities and genders and issues and put them together in one place and tell them to live together. Joe's transformation and all those people crashing in "Angels" is so similar to what's happening today with Muslims and Trump and Mexicans and undocumented citizens. It just has to happen every few years but ultimately we're all still together. And that's the great thing about America.
America rejects, but then it also takes. It's a cycle and it repeats every decade. "Angels in America" was written in the 80s but we're living it all over again. America is a beautiful place but you can't have one without the other. And hopefully we all contribute to it!
Do you think all the roles you've played influence and guide you as a person?
Yes, definitely! Being faced with their fears and their anxiety and their happiness is like me in that situation. I'm forced to think what I would do in that situation. Often times there are some things that are more challenging than others. For example, I had to bury my brother in "Antigone X." I knew I would die if I did it but I also knew it was the right thing to do. I had a hard time stepping into that. I know I have it in me but it's scary to show it to people. There are things that are touchy for me, and I don't understand why people would do it but then just being an actor I understand why they would do it. And then you learn how to just be neutral and not judge. We're always learning something.
What're your plans after graduation?
Haha, Sleep! Actually I just signed with a management company so they're going to find me an agent after showcase. I really want to completely settle in LA though. My partner and I are getting an apartment and then I'll start looking for a job and all. Life is going to be really chaotic as an actor and I just want to have a stable base in LA. Usually May to July is like a resting day for actors. All the shows are casted and they start shooting in July.
I have some ideas for web TV, and I'm hoping to have a YouTube channel. I want to find what I want to say as an actor- my own voice. I would also love to create work. I love to write and I'll make sure it films. I would love to direct. I can say I'm a very good director and cinematographer so I'll focus on that too.
Correction: this story previously misstated Mohammadi's major. Mohammadi is an MFA Acting student in the School of Dramatic Arts, not in the School of Cinematic Arts as previously stated.
Contact writer Parth Aggarwal at email@example.com