Homayoun Ershadi's strange trip to stardom

Homayoun Ershadi
Homayoun Ershadi stars as 'Baba' in "The Kite Runner." He had a long career as an architect before becoming a film actor.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Homayoun Ershadi is an architect. He graduated from an Italian architecture school in 1970 and plied the trade in his native Iran for a quarter century.

Then one day he took what turned out to be a fateful drive across Tehran. He stopped at a traffic light and lost himself in thought.

"So I was thinking and thinking and suddenly I heard somebody knocking at my windows," Ershadi says.

Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) and Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) celebrate after a victory in the city-wide kite fighting competition in "The Kiterunner."
Image courtesy Dreamworks Picture (photo:Phil Bray)

He rolled down the window. The man introduced himself as Abbas Kiarostami. He is a famed Iranian film director, well known for using non-actors in his films.

"And he said 'I'm Abbas Kiarostami, and I want to make a film. Would you like to be in it?' And I said 'Yes! It's a great honor.'"

That film, called "Taste of Cherry," won the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997.

"So that's it. I have been (an) actor since then," Ershadi says.

Ershadi made several films in Iran, but now he has a major role in one of the most anticipated films of the year. He plays 'Baba' the father in Marc Foster's adaptation of the bestselling book "The Kite Runner."

Homayoun Ershadi as 'Baba' in "The Kite Runner." Homayoun Ershadi says he pointed out that the character in the book was physically much bigger than he is, but he says director Marc Foster found he was "6 feet 8 in his heart."
Image courtesy Paramount Vantage

The story follows the friendship between two boys growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan and how the bonds they form last through generations, despite the horrors of war. Homayoun Ershadi says he had read Khaled Hosseini's book some months before the producers asked him to audition.

He says the themes of friendship, guilt, forgiveness and redemption touch everyone.

"This is the first film which is talking about the family relationship. Not just the war, Russian invasion, Taliban, bin Laden, al Quaeda. It's a family film," he says. "This is the first time it is coming out of that part of the world."

Shooting a Hollywood movie was a new experience for Ershadi.

For "Taste of Cherry" he says the entire cast and crew consisted of 10 people, driving in two cars in the hills just outside Tehran.

On the set
Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada ("Hassan") and Zekeria Ebrahimi ("Amir") talk with director Marc Foster on the set of "The Kite Runner."
Image courtesy Dreamworks Pictures (photo:Phil Bray)

For "The Kite Runner" they couldn't do any of the filming in Afghanistan. Much of it was done in China, starting at studios in Beijing.

"In China we were, every day on the set maybe 200, 300 people -- not including the extras, because sometimes we had 500 people extras, 400 people extras," he says.

Then the crew moved to the city of Kashgar in northern China, not far from the border with Afghanistan.

"They had the option to choose Morocco, Turkey, South Africa, but they chose this part of the world because the landscape, the architecture is very similar to Afghanistan," Ershadi says. "As a matter of fact when the kids arrived in Beijing, they were very homesick you know. But when we went to Kashgar they said 'Oh! This is Kabul!' They liked it very much because it was very similar to Kabul."

The kids he is talking about are the three young Afghan boys at the center of the story. Ershadi calls them remarkable.

"They are not professional actors, that was the first time they were acting. Even the first time they were coming out of Afghanistan," he says.

Hassan and Amir
Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada ("Hassan") and Zekeria Ebrahimi ("Amir") play good friends about to face adult challenges in "The Kite Runner."
Image courtesy Dreamworks Pictures (photo:Phil Bray)

The boys have been at the center of recent concern about the film. They returned home to Kabul after the movie wrapped.

But the story involves a rape.

Word got out in Afghanistan and with the resurgence of the Taliban, there was worry for the safety of the young actors and their families.

"The Kite Runner" producer Bill Horberg says now the film is in release, they have been brought to the U.S. just in case.

"It's not intended to be exhibited in Afghanistan," he says. "I mean there's actually very little cinema infrastructure there. But the suspicion is that a bootleg or a pirated copy of the film will make it into that culture and however it got seen there, people might choose to exploit it in some way."

Despite this concern both Horberg and Homoyoun Ershadi hope the film will give audiences a view of ordinary Afghani people and the stresses they have faced in recent years.

"Maybe this film will change their mind and see differently the muslim people, the Afghan people. I hope," says Ershadi.

Homoyoun Ershadi is now looking forward to working on his next film, but he is also sanguine about his life an actor. He has had some success he says. But if it does not work out, there is always architecture.

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