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‘I’ve got an amazing amount of love from Iranians; they love the show’

Josh Mitnick
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Published: 28 September 2020

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The new Israeli TV spy series Tehran, which premiered on Apple-TV+ last week, has struck a chord with its tension and portrayal of Persian Jews. One of the show's stars, Iranian-Jewish actor Shaun Toub, tells Josh Mitnick about its impact and what the role means to him

THREE YEARS AGO, the TV series Fauda became an international hit for Netflix by chronicling a unit of Israeli undercover soldiers tracking Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

Last Friday, AppleTV+ answered with its own Israeli-produced spy thriller, Tehran, about a young female Mossad agent - Tamar Rabinyan - sent to Iran to take down the country’s air defences so Israeli Air Force planes can attack the country’s nuclear program.

When the eight-part  season aired on Israeli public television in June, earning positive reviews, it seemed as if reality was imitating fiction, with news reports surfacing about Israeli-Iranian tit-for-tat state-sponsored cyberattacks on each other’s critical infrastructure.

Attempting to humanise a country which Israel and many in the West view as a pariah nation, Tehran relies on Farsi-language dialogue and the heft of Iranian-born Hollywood acting veteran, Shaun Toub.

The 57-year old Jewish actor, whose on-screen credits range from Homeland to Iron Man and Seinfeld, plays the lead role of Faraz Kamali, the Revolutionary Guard intelligence chief who doggedly pursues Rabinyan (played by Israeli actress Niv Sultan) as he struggles with separation from his wife who has travelled abroad for brain surgery.

Because agent Rabinyan’s family is Iranian, it allows the series to probe the predicament of Israel’s Persian Jews, caught between the longing for their mother culture and the rough reception in their adopted country. This tension is familiar to Toub, who remembers Jewish prep school in Tehran and the reception given to family members in Israel.

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Toub conceded that, at first, he baulked at the idea of working on an Israeli production. What won him over was the script, and the multi-layered character of Kamali. The series was created and written by Moshe Zonder, an alumnus of the Fauda team.

The series producers selected Athens for the on-location shots of the city where Toub spent part of his childhood. The production brought together Israelis, Iranian expatriates and Greek production company workers. On the actor’s Facebook page, one Tehran-based fan of the series praised his performance as “brilliant” but noted that rooftops in the portrayal aren’t as cluttered with satellite dishes as the real-life Tehran cityscape.

The son of podiatrists whose family owned the Dr Scholl’s franchise in Iran, Toub grew up in Manchester, England before his parents moved back to Tehran when he was eight. When he was 13, he moved abroad permanently to Switzerland for school, and then, two years later, to the US.

Days before the series’ international premiere, Toub made some time to speak with The Jewish Independent about his Iranian Jewish roots, and his involvement with the Israeli production.

From ages eight to 13, what were your memories of Iran before you left?
It’s a beautiful country, I must say. It's nothing like today, unfortunately. But it was safe, it was beautiful.

Do you remember your home neighbourhood in Tehran?
We lived in the north, in the nice area of Tehran.

Did you go to a Jewish school there?
Actually, I did. I went to Ettefagh [A prestigious co-ed school that attracted students from other religious minorities] for four years before I left.

What was the Jewish community like before the revolution?
It was very safe for Jews, and we had no issue. At the time, the Shah was very adamant about making sure that the Jewish and also Christians and whomever were totally protected.

How did you get involved with the Tehran project? Is this your first Israeli-produced project?
Yeah. I’ve been in the business for 33 years, in Hollywood from the beginning. And [working on an Israeli production] was a surprise to me. And actually, being Jewish as well, it was a wonderful experience to be on an Israeli production.

At first, though, it took us about three-and-a-half months to finally come to terms, because, being a Hollywood actor, I wasn't quite sure how it's going to be. And, I have to say, it turned out to be a fantastic experience, and they were wonderful.

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Do you have family in Israel?
I have a couple of cousins there. But not many. My mum is one of 10 children, so we have a very big family. I have 54 first and second cousins in LA. So, 95 percent of us are here. It’s a big community, as you know.

What was your reaction to the script and how it portrays the longing for Iran of Persian Jews in Israel? Was that familiar to you as a Persian Jew in the United States?
A little bit, because I had gone to Israel quite a few times, and I remember when I was 13, I went to Israel, and I remember there was a stigma about being Iranian in Israel. They used to say, “Parsi, Parsi.” I just remember that [slang] for some reason. And I think that Tehran has changed the perception in Israel of Iranian Jews. I’m happy to say there’s a lot of love there now.

What was your reaction toward the character you portray, Faraz Kamali?
You know, at the end of the day, for me it's the words. It’s the script. In the beginning, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do an Israeli production. But then, they sent me the scripts, and then I started reading the first [episode], and I said, “That's really interesting.”

Then I read the second one, and the third one, and the fourth one, and I was really intrigued because I was quite surprised at how well it was written and how interesting it is. And, you know, I don't like one-dimensional characters. I started reading about Faraz, and I knew what I could bring into the role.

The complexity of Faraz is interesting to me, the humanity of him, and all the characters. So that piqued my interest, and then we started talking. And Danny [series director Daniel Syrkin] came to LA, we had dinner and we talked. And we just we just hit it off. I knew that he's going to be able to let me do my thing with how Faraz is, and how I would portray the character.

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Do you think that a humanising portrayal of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Chief can help break through the barriers of conflict between Israel and Iran, and maybe between the US and Iran?
I can only hope because, the hope for all of us who did this show was trying to see if we can bring people together. You know, at the end of the day, people are just people. It's a very balanced show. That's what I love about the show. And, and maybe, just maybe, he will change some people's minds.

I was concerned about the role I’m doing.  And, you know, I’ve got love from the Israelis who have watched it, and I’ve gotten love from the Iranians who have watched it. So, it's a blessing.

What are some of the reactions you’ve heard from Iranians inside of Iran?
Incredible, incredible. That's what’s surprising because, I thought there may be some backlash. But I have got to tell you, it’s just amazing the amount of love that I've gotten from the Iranians in Iran. They love the show.

That seems unexpected that an Israeli screenwriter and director could portray Iranians in a way that they identify with it.
It’s really unexpected, because they thought, ‘Oh, it is an Israeli show.’ At the beginning, they would say it’s a Zionist show. And then, once they watched it, they really fell in love with it. I get texts all the time saying, ‘we can't wait for the second season’.

Have you ever acted in a mostly Persian-language production?
Not exactly.

What was that like?
The thing about the show that was amazing was that we had Iranian actors, we Israeli production - the director and the [director of photography] were Israeli, and then we had the Greek cameramen, and we had a whole bunch of support from the Greeks. And it was just a love fest.

Israeli espionage drama aims to understand its staunch enemy Iran(SMH)


About the author

Josh Mitnick

Joshua Mitnick is an independent journalist who lives in Tel Aviv. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Jewish Week.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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