The Expanse has earned its critical acclaim and burgeoning fandom by a number of means, namely through its engaging writing, its clarity amidst a gigantic setting and the intriguing and spiky political climate that defines its universe. These elements are all integral parts of its success, however the quality and diversity of its cast is at the apex of all that is good about the sci-fi series. And perhaps up high on that esteemed mountain is Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian-born, Oscar-nominated actress who plays the extremely powerful, influential and deliciously Machiavellian character Chrisjen Avasarala. Avasarala, a UN executive from Earth who works tirelessly towards preventing all-out war with Mars, has been lauded by fans and critics alike for her complexities, scheming and ruthlessness in her pursuit to defend the Earth at any cost.
For such a multifaceted character to work, Shohreh tells us that preparation and embodiment for the role is absolutely essential.
“Before filming begins I do thorough research on the non-fictional characters I portray. I use all available resources… as I did with my character from House of Saddam.” says Shohreh, who played Saddam Hussein’s wife Sajida in 2008 HBO mini-series House of Saddam (a role she won an Emmy for).
Whilst Avasarala is a fictional character, Shohreh says she drew from many real-life people to help shape the character’s portrayal.
“I close my eyes and try to envision my character before I start breathing life into them. Indira Ganhi, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton were the first politicians who crossed my mind when I tried to envision Chrisjen Avasarala.”
It must be noted that, whilst Shohreh’s portrayal is utterly immersive and organic – in addition to being, well, just superb, the means of reaching that level of believability as an actor requires a deep understanding of a character’s makeup.
“Being organic is all about understanding your character and not judging them. Finding the common elements in your character that relate to you. I call this part ‘wearing the skin of my character.’ Most importantly, be true to yourself, don’t act – live the character.”
Shohreh’s passion for acting and the many characters she’s portrayed is obvious and energising, and it is clear that she selects roles that interest her.
“Avasarala’s intelligence, wittiness, political knowledge and zest for life appealed to me most. Also, the fact that portraying such a larger-than-life character on an American TV series would bring a ray of hope to my fellow actors in the Middle East so that they, too, will be able to act in the international acting arenas.”
I first saw Shohreh in the groundbreaking TV series 24 back in 2005; she was magnetic. While the Kiefer Sutherland-starring series was my introduction to the actress, other audiences were perhaps familiar with the hard work Shohreh put in on the road to the mainstream.
“When I first arrived in the United States in 1984, I knew I was not the “girl next door” in the film industry. I knew I had to wait. Coming from a theatre background, I decided to establish a Farsi speaking Theatre Company with the help of my husband, Houshan Touzie, who is an actor, stage director and playwright. We produced five plays in ten years and took them on tours around the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia. Then I was discovered in 2003, portraying the character ‘Nadi’, the beloved wife of Colonel Behrani – played by Sir Benjamin Kingsley – in the film House of Sand and Fog. 24 gave me the opportunity to showcase my range of acting to a global audience and it is still one of my all-time favourite television shows.”
The change in the Hollywood climate since her roles in House of Sand and Fog (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination) and 24, specifically for actors born in the Middle East, is clearly a topic near and dear to Shohreh’s heart.
“The landscape of Hollywood has changed tremendously since the days when Middle Eastern actors would only get offered roles portraying terrorists. We are breathing diversity here in America, and we are now seeing more of its reflection on the silver screen.”
Shohreh has acted in a number of sci-fi roles now, including a role in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond as the awesomely-named Commodore Paris. In discussing what sets The Expanse apart, she points to what appealed most to her when she considered the role in the first place.
“The authenticity. The show has received good reviews, but one of my favourites is one that was written by a scientist, claiming that The Expanse is the most accurate version of the future he has seen in the last two decades. And, of course, the diversity on the show. The Expanse has one of the most diverse casts on American television.”
If you’ve not experienced Shohreh at work (for shame, get to it!), you won’t know that she has one of the most incredible and distinctive voices you’ll ever likely hear. Her wide-ranging C.V. also includes voice-acting roles in smash-hit video games like the Mass Effect series and Destiny.
“I love voice-acting roles, especially working on video games. I love it when people tell me that I am in their games. Voice acting is very challenging because it’s mostly based on the actor’s imagination; very similar to working on a science fiction film or TV series. It’s also rewarding for the fact that we don’t have to go through hours of make-up and hair – or wear costumes!”
Whilst extremely busy, Shohreh is nevertheless warm and enthusiastic in her responses. She is philosophical and realistic about what she hopes the future may hold for her character.
“A peaceful state of mind. Avasarala’s ultimate wish is to see the Earth in peace and harmony. But will such a day come around in her lifetime?” Shohreh ponders aloud. “This is a question only time can answer.”
Shohreh is similarly concise and introspective on what the character’s desire to defend and protect the Earth means to her.
“It feels great to protect Mother Earth. It feels right to wish to eliminate the enemies of the Earth, as much as it feels painful to lose people whom I love and to witness betrayal of the people whom I trust.”
As a fan of the show, I for one cannot wait to see what the writers have in store for Avasarala. I truly hope that – whatever it may be – it means even more screen time and jagged, thought-provoking plotlines involving her unrelenting commitment to protect our planet.