Payman Maadi revels in his home country's cinema as well as good Hollywood roles

Payman Maadi has starred in an Oscar-winning movie, and has recently played in a film opposite Kristen Stewart, but his career and his notion of success go beyond conventional boundaries.

"Iran is a country with a rich culture, a strong tradition of literature and poetry, and that affects the movies that are made there" 

He's interested in working in Hollywood, he says, but not at any price. ''I am waiting for roles that I love.'' He doesn't think he needs to play ''bad guys or Arab terrorists''. And he has no intention of being drawn away from Iran. He's strongly committed to working and making films there.

An actor and writer, his directorial debut, The Snow On the Pines, is the opening night feature at the Iranian Film Festival: it's one of a strong selection of movies showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from November 7 to 10.

Maadi was the male lead in A Separation, Asghar Farhadi's powerful, intimate family drama, which won an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2012.

He has since been cast in a couple of Hollywood productions, including the forthcoming Camp X-Ray, in which he plays an inmate of Guantanamo Bay (Twilight star Stewart plays an American soldier). He took the part, he says, because ''the screenplay was amazing''.

He wrote The Snow On the Pines because he wanted to tell the story of a woman faced with a particular dilemma. ''I wanted to stay close to one of these women, and watch her try to stand on her own two feet, without breaking, without doing the things people expect her to do.''

His central character, Roya (Mahnaz Ashfar), is an intelligent urban woman, a piano teacher whose students play Scriabin and Chopin. But her world is also quite confined: her students come to her home, and she doesn't have a driver's licence. She goes for a walk every day, she says, because otherwise she'd go mad. Then, when something changes in her life, he says, ''she discovers that there's another world outside''.

Maadi chose to shoot in black and white, using a hand-held camera. ''The coldness of this life and the atmosphere of this house is portrayed better in this style,'' he says.

There are ways in which this is a universal story, Maadi believes, but there are ways in which it's not. In Iranian society, for example, there are often restrictions imposed on a woman who is separated or divorced, he says: in many quarters, she's not expected to have any kind of independent life.  

The Snow On the Pines, in a low-key, restrained way, questions this. After a local festival screening, where it won an audience award, the film was kept from a wider release for 18 months because pressure groups were uncomfortable with the way he depicted Roya's situation.

The Snow On the Pines also raises issues about the responsibilities of friendship; Maadi says he's fascinated to see the different ways audience members respond to that aspect of the film.

Overseas success definitely opens doors for filmmakers and actors, he says. ''It allows the artist to travel with the film, to fly around the world, to talk to people and share their experiences.''

Social dramas such as A Separation, and The Snow On the Pines give viewers an image of people in Iran ''that's different from what they see in the media or read in the newspapers''. And some Iranian films that have been festival hits overseas, he adds, don't necessarily reflect the lives of ordinary people.

For him, Iranian cinema is varied, complex, hard to categorise. It's a country with a rich culture, a strong tradition of literature and poetry, and that affects the movies that are made there. More than 100 films are produced each year, some very commercial, or very specifically Iranian. And there are a lot of strong films, he says, that don't necessarily suit the overseas festival aesthetic.

''There's a new generation, and I'm very optimistic about their future too.''

He has several films coming out in the next few months, and an HBO pilot, but right now, he's preparing for a theatre role. For an actor, the stage is a perfect discipline, he believes. And in Iran, he says, theatre is going through a period of growth.

He's playing Vladimir in a production of Waiting For Godot that's being staged in Tehran. ''Seven months of rehearsing, seven days a week. And I'm working on the script for my next film, and waiting to see where these other films are taking me.''

He's prepared to be patient, he says: it's the way he's always worked.


- By Phillippa Hawker for The Age