In roles in HBO’s “Succession” and “A Doll’s House” on Broadway, politics are never far from mind for the Iranian American actor.
The actor Arian Moayed has an old passport photo that he usually keeps in his wallet: a black-and-white image of a small, darling boy with big dark eyes, wearing a whimsical sweater.
We had been talking for nearly 90 minutes when he mentioned it. I’d asked if he remembered anything from his earliest childhood, in Iran in the 1980s.
“The thing that I remember the most is fear,” he said. “The feeling of fear. Everywhere.”
Then he told me about the picture. It’s him at 5 or so, shortly before his family immigrated to the United States in 1986. He described the look on his face — “real angry” — and his memory of sitting for the photo: how his mother, her hijab slipping, kept urging him in vain to smile.
“And on the car ride back,” he said, “I told my mom that I thought that the camera was a gun and I was at a firing range. Because in Iran, on television, they would be showing public executions in the news.”
So. The little guy in the sweater, trying to be brave, thought he was about to be shot.
At 43, Moayed is a million miles from the fraught reality of that frightened child. He is widely known to fans of the HBO drama “Succession” for his recurring role as Stewy Hosseini, Kendall Roy’s old friend. And he is currently starring on Broadway as the ultra-controlling husband Torvald Helmer in “A Doll’s House,” opposite Jessica Chastain as Nora, the wife who walks out the door.
Still, Moayed likes to keep the photo close.
“I always want to remind myself that this is where it all came from,” he said.
It was late April when we spoke at the Hudson Theater, on West 44th Street in Manhattan, and the show’s six Tony Award nominations were yet to come — the one for him, for best featured actor in a play, his second. His first was for his Broadway debut, as a sweet Iraqi topiary artist turned wartime translator, opposite Robin Williams in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” in 2011.
Moayed’s Torvald could not be more different. A lawyer tapped to run a bank, he micromanages his wife, monitoring what she eats and spends. At once chilling and comical, he speaks to Nora in a voice soft as a cat’s paw, muscles and claws hidden just beneath the fur. He does not take her seriously as an adult human being, ever, yet he seems totally unaware of his own fragile vanity. He is the kind of man it is dangerous to laugh at, because ridicule infuriates him.
It is an insidiously knowing portrayal of one of the great terrible husbands of the stage. But Moayed, who grew up in a suburb of Chicago and spent most of his career pigeonholed into Middle Eastern roles, hadn’t been sure he wanted to play Torvald at all.
“I had no relationship with ‘A Doll’s House,’” he said. “When I moved to the city in 2002, the only roles available for me were being an ensemble member in some sort of Shakespeare regional theater thing, or playing a terrorist. ‘A Doll’s House’ and Ibsen was like: Oh, that is a category of things that’s never going to happen for me.”
The British director Jamie Lloyd had other ideas. After seeing Moayed in “Bengal Tiger,” he noticed him over the years consistently giving standout performances — as the scheming Stewy in “Succession,” of course, but also in YouTube clips of the Off Broadway two-hander “Guards at the Taj” (Moayed won an Obie for that, in 2016), and in the film “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” as Peter Parker’s enemy Agent Cleary.
Gearing up to stage Amy Herzog’s “A Doll’s House” adaptation on Broadway, Lloyd spotted Moayed on a list of possible actors for a different role, but sensed that he was “more of a Torvald than anything.”
“My feeling was that he’s clearly someone who doesn’t mind being unlikable,” Lloyd said by phone. “Because he knows that there’s a reason for it. And he’s so compelling as these unlikable characters.”
What initially intrigued Moayed about this version of “A Doll’s House” was Herzog, whose short play — “Gina From Yoga Two, Is That Your Boyfriend?” — he’d acted in at the Off Broadway incubator Ars Nova in 2010. Like Torvald, his character in that play was a species of creep, though in an interview Herzog described Moayed as “the menschiest person” and “definitely the furthest cry from the actual Torvald that you could find.”
“His feminism is not a posture,” she said.
When Lloyd asked her opinion of casting Moayed, she added, “I just knew, I knew he could do it.”
What swayed Moayed about the role was the metaphor that leaped out at him from Herzog’s script. When he first read it last autumn, he was flying from Budapest, where he had been shooting a movie, to Berlin, where he was attending a protest against the Iranian government’s repression of women and girls — part of a movement led by Iranian women and girls.
The story of Nora, freeing herself from the gilded cage of her marriage to a profoundly self-centered man, reverberated with him on a societal level.
“I’m reading it, and all I see in this play is Iran,” he said.
Moayed stopped in London for a chemistry meeting with Lloyd, and they took a long walk through the city, where an Iranian protest was happening in Trafalgar Square. Moayed recalled saying that he didn’t want to play Torvald as a “chest-out” chauvinist, someone who would physically threaten his wife.
“If you see that onstage, it’s very easy for a male to be like, ‘Well, that’s not me,’” he said.
What interested him was subtler: investigating what he called “the micro cuts” that men inflict on women — in Torvald’s case, while cooing adoringly.
“If you show humanistic qualities,” Moayed said, “you get a lot of people to look at it and be like, ‘Oh, I wonder if I do that.’”
For the audience, the production can work on multiple levels: as a wake-up call for unwitting misogynists, as a catalyst for breakups, as an echo of awful exes. And, based on what Moayed has heard from Iranian friends and family, also as the metaphor he perceived.
The parallel is so clear to his mother, he said, that she is convinced — albeit mistakenly, Lloyd confirmed — that his being Iranian is why he got the job.
Moayed was born in 1980, the year after the Iranian Revolution ousted a secular, autocratic government and ushered in a theocracy. His oldest brother Amir was already in Illinois, and when Moayed’s family joined him there in 1986, his other brother Omid came along. But their beloved sister, Homeira, who had taken care of young Arian in Iran, had married there. It took 17 years to bring her over.
Moayed’s initial interest in acting may have come from noticing how much his parents, middle-aged newcomers to a strange country, laughed at the classic Hollywood films they introduced him to, like Charlie Chaplin comedies and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“Subconsciously, I think I was trying to mimic that and just release a little bit of the tension that was inside of that traum—” He stopped himself before he finished the word. Then: “Well, it was traumatic. But that turmoil that was those first 10 years or so.”
Stewy, Moayed’s loose-cannon capitalist in “Succession” — a performance that got him an Emmy Award nomination last year — is also of Iranian descent. Early on, Moayed and Jesse Armstrong, the series’ creator, talked about which wave of immigrants Stewy’s family might belong to. Moayed, whose father was a banker in Iran, preferred his own.
“I said, I think they came in the ’80s, which means that he came under duress, lost a lot of money,” he said. “I just like that trajectory, that Stewy climbed the ranks real fast. And was good at it, and went to a bunch of fancy private schools, got in somehow and became friends with Kendall, and then the rest is history.”
Both Stewy and Torvald are centrally concerned with money and the acquisition of it. Moayed, in contrast, is intrinsically political. Around 2006, he decided that he wouldn’t play terrorists — insalubriously for his bank account in the heyday of “Homeland” and “24.”
He believes passionately in the notion of artist as citizen, and in using art to “move the needle forward,” as he likes to say. For him, that applies to teaching and making theater with Waterwell, the New York City arts nonprofit he co-founded in 2002, but also to acting in shows like “A Doll’s House” and “Succession” — a series that, he said, demonstrates “how capitalism really is skewed and there shouldn’t be a few people that own all that money.”
His perspective would come as a surprise to the finance-bro Stewy fans who, encountering Moayed in the real world, frequently, fruitlessly invite him to do cocaine with them.
He is not that person — even if Stewy is the character who shook up casting directors’ perception that Moayed should play only Middle Easterners and humorless, heavy drama. A whole spectrum of creepy-guy roles has opened up to him, Torvald among them.
He does get to channel his inner mensch, though, in the new Nicole Holofcener movie, “You Hurt My Feelings,” as he also did in “The Humans,” a hit on Broadway in 2016.
But if Moayed could do something as an actor that he’s never had a chance to? He would dip into a genre he loves, ideally with his “A Doll’s House” co-star.
“Jessica and I, we’re both like, ‘We should do a romantic comedy together,’” he said.
His favorite is “When Harry Met Sally,” but he’s thinking more along the lines of “Romancing the Stone.”
“A romantic comedy adventure,” he said, “would be some real friggin’ fun.”