Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, opens today. The film is a passion project for the US comedian and talk show host, and it stars a Mexican actor, Gael García Bernal, playing the role of Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was arrested in Iran and spent 118 days in detainment there.
Stewart told the Huffington Post this week that he initially approached the film as a “purist,” insisting at first that the dialogue be in Farsi, spoken by actors who had been actual prisoners. He gave up on that, though, deciding, “I had to own my inauthenticity. I’m not Iranian. And … this will be simplistic and reductive to someone there.”
It’s just as well. While Iran boasts a big film industry, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any actor living in Iran to work on the movie, says Siamak Ghahremani, the director and co-founder of Los Angeles’ Noor Iranian Film Festival, which showcases work by Iranians and Iranian-Americans. Stewart is hugely unpopular with the Iranian government given his past criticism of the country—for a local, it would have been dangerous to play the lead in a movie that involves Stewart and critiques Iran, Ghahremani says.
Stewart did cast well-known Iranian actors in supporting roles, as Bahari’s mother and sister in the film, for example. He told the Huffington Post that while he saw Iranian actors for the lead role, Bernal brought something unique to the table:
“The thing about Gael that I thought—and it was immediate—Maziar has this sort of ability to maintain mischief, even when he was under this incredible duress. And it was very difficult for the actors that we were bringing in to capture that somewhat intangible mischief behind the trauma.”
Perhaps one reason it was hard to find that sense of levity is that so many Iranian actors in Hollywood are used to playing villains—often they’re relegated to these kinds of roles, on shows like Homeland or The Blacklist. That can be frustrating for comedians like Maz Jobrani, who joked about the problem in a 2010 TED Talk.
Jobrani actually might have been a good pick for Rosewater. His feature film credits are sparse, but the film is supposed to have an current of comedy, and Stewart of all people should know the value of bringing a comedian into a role with more serious undertones.
Ghahremani thinks there were plenty of other Iranians to choose from. His pick for Rosewater would have been Navid Negahban, who played Homeland villain Abu Nazir. He’s a great actor and bears a likeness to Bahari, Ghahremani tells Quartz.
Shaun Toub, who has also played a villain in Homeland, would have been Ghahremani’s second pick. Toub is perhaps a bit old for the role—he’s 51 now and Bahari was in his early 40s when he was detained. Bernal is 35. (Ghahremani also suggested Toub as another option for the father role.)
Bahari, who was involved in casting, tells Quartz that he didn’t care about nationality when choosing the lead. “I didn’t have a preference for an Iranian actor,” Bahari explains over email. “The ideal actor had to be agile enough to go through a series of emotions at times. He had to have a good understanding of the political situation in Iran, and journalism in general.”