By Natasha Phillips

Israeli espionage thriller “Tehran” has been watched by viewers around the world and now been snapped up by Apple TV Plus, following its debut on Israel’s Kan 11 network this summer.

The eight-part series follows Jewish-Iranian Tamar Rabinyan, played by Niv Sultan, a Mossad agent tasked with deactivating a nuclear reactor in Iran.

Co-created by Moshe Zonder, the writer behind the award-winning series “Fauda,” Zonder’s latest drama explores the tensions between Israel and Iran, and the at times existential struggle felt by Iranians living inside the country.

In “Tehran,” Rabinyan goes undercover to neutralize Iran’s air defense systems and stop Iran from getting an atomic bomb. As she tries to find her way in an unfamiliar country — Rabinyan was born in Iran but has grown up in Israel — she meets Iranian intelligence officer Faraz, played by Shaun Toub, who has to confront ideological demons of his own.

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Shila Ommi, who plays Faraz’s wife Naahid, spoke to Kayhan Life about what life was like on the set of a geopolitical thriller.

Shila, what did you take away from the series?

I had a breakthrough! I experienced pushing through my fears, and got so many blessings out of it.

When I auditioned for this project, I did it out of respect for Shaun Toub, who had suggested me for the role. But I was terrified of the thought of acting in ‘Tehran,’ absolutely petrified.

As an Iranian actress who lives in exile, and loves her countrymen, I had no idea how being part of a political TV show created by Iran’s — alleged —enemy would impact my life. I felt some anxiety about that.

Once I met Danny Syrkin, the director, I was like cool water on a burn. He took Shaun and I out to dinner to discuss the show. I love how much Danny Syrkin adores Iranians, he really roots for us! And of course, when I finally got to read the gorgeously written script, I realized that this was an intricate story that was so much more than an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

It’s the age-old theme about choosing your loyalty. I love that the lead is a woman. I am so grateful that I fought the fear. It’s really changed me as an artist.

How did you get the role of Naahid?

Shaun Toub and I starred in an episode of the Apple TV anthology series ‘Little America’ last year. I had met and worked with Shaun the year before that, when we played husband and wife in Chelsea Winstanley’s (Jojo Rabbit) directorial debut, ‘Little King.’

As we were filming ‘Little America,’ we were both facing challenges.  Shaun was going through a personal crisis, and I had an accident a day before the first day of filming that could have stopped me from continuing on with the project.

Possibly because of these challenges, Shaun and I really rooted for one another and have become good friends since. When he signed on to ‘Tehran,’ he suggested me to the producers. I was so touched, and really wanted to make Shaun look good for recommending me, so I worked very hard on the audition tape, and got the part!

The series touches on recent political events in Iran – did that affect the atmosphere on set?

Many of the political events that have taken place over the last few months in Iran had not yet happened when the series was written, they had not happened when the protest scenes in the show were filmed, and they had not happened when I was on set working on my scenes in Season 1. Those events put me in an almost debilitating state of depression when I got back to LA after my work was done.

Were there any funny moments during filming?

There were a lot of sweet moments.

Every one of the cast and crew were delightful.

It was a lot of work for me. I was stressed out having to memorize and prepare brand new scenes that were given the day before shooting. I don’t know how TV actors do this all the time. Hats off! It’s brutal.

Which actor have you enjoyed working with the most?

Shaun Toub is always a pleasure to act with. He is so funny and takes things lightly, which is a breath of fresh air for a nervous Nellie like me.

I also loved working with Minashe Noy! What a beautiful, available, grounded actor and a seasoned stage actor. He was doing ‘Waiting For Godot’ before ‘Tehran’ and I had the pleasure of taking a day trip to see Athens with him.

What is your best acting memory? [SPOILER ALERT]

The scene where I get kidnapped was the most fun for me. Not only did I get to speak French, but I got to act with the crew!

One of the things that made me want to do this project is that it was totally independent and made on a relatively low budget. Those projects are the best because of the artistry and ingenuity that’s tapped into in order to get the job done with limited funds.

All the actors in that scene were behind the scenes people! I got to act with the costume designer, Debo Ohana, who played the nurse pushing my wheelchair, the production designer, Yoel Herzberg and producer, Eran Kotski, who played the kidnappers, and the casting director Michael Koren, who played the doctor in the van. It is so much fun acting with non-actors because they have so much fun and take things lightly. Now if I could only learn to do that.

What are your plans for 2021? 

I am currently in the middle of editing and directing my first feature film, written by my two closest friends, Mastaneh Moghadam and Maryam Sayyad.

It’s a modern-day version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in Persian with English subtitles — hopefully, if I get to it.  We filmed the entire project Covid-proof, meaning no two of the five actors were ever filmed on the same day. We shot them all on green screen, and now we are stitching the shots together to make it look as if the actors are speaking to each other.

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the pros tell me that it is normal to feel pressure producing these projects. Of course I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this were it not for my creative partner of 10 years, Hitoshi Inoue. I have only ever directed theater, and he is teaching me so much about directing film. And, bless my husband for not divorcing me, as I have turned the entire house into my film studio.

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