'Shayda' Star Zar Amir Ebrahimi Talks With Her Persian Hollywood Agent

My Rep and Me is a recurring Culture Shift feature in which reps and clients from the same historically marginalized background sit down to discuss the chemistry and business advantages of their special connection, in order to underscore the importance and benefits of diverse representation.

UTA partner Keya Khayatian and actress-filmmaker Zar Amir Ebrahimi are both from Iran but left the country under somewhat traumatic circumstances: Khayatian as a child with his parents fleeing the Islamic Revolution and Ebrahimi in 2008 when she ran afoul of the conservative regime and faced blacklisting and imprisonment. Now based in France, the latter has rebuilt her career and in 2022 became the first Iranian performer to win best actress at Cannes with her role as a journalist investigating a serial killer targeting sex workers in Holy Spider.

It was at the 2023 Sundance premiere of Ebrahimi’s latest film, Shayda, in which she plays an immigrant mother in Australia determined to escape her abusive marriage, that she finally met Khayatian, whose roster already included successful Persian clients including director Asghar Farhadi, author Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Succession’s Arian Moayed.

As Shayda opens this weekend courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, Khayatian and Ebrahimi talked about the mutual benefits they derive from their working relationship, the small but growing Persian community in the film industry and the urgency of creating art and telling stories that speak to perilous conditions facing women in their homeland.

How did you come to work together?

Khayatian: We met at a party for Shayda at Sundance [in 2023]. I represent Noora Niasari, who wrote and directed Shayda, and I’ve been a fan of Zar’s since I saw Holy Spider and had been aware of her work and her background.

Ebrahimi: The same for me. Keya, especially because of his Persian background, is very well known in the community. And Noora, even before Sundance, was always like, “You have to meet Keya. He’s a wonderful person, wonderful agent.” I also knew of Keya from him and UTA representing Marjane Satrapi and Asghar Farhadi. From the very first second we met, it felt like we’d known each other for a very long time. Maybe that comes from our Persian background.

Khayatian: We got to dance together that night. For the first time at Sundance they had Persian music at the afterparty for the Shayda premiere and my brother, mom, nephew and sister-in-law were all there with me, and Noora and her mom were there, and Zar was there, and we all got to dance Iranian-style at this big party for opening night of Shayda at the Sundance Film Festival.

Ebrahimi: It was a family feeling.

How common was it to find fellow Persians in the industry when you were coming up?

Khayatian: I’ve been at UTA for around 28 years, and when I started in Hollywood, I was one of the only Iranians. When you’re the only person in a field, you really want to find others that you can connect to from a similar background because you can’t help but sometimes feel like an outsider. I remember as a child, seeing someone like Firooz Zahedi whose photographs were in Vanity Fair and thinking, “Oh wow, he’s Iranian and he’s in entertainment.” So having people I could look up to when I started was very [important].

Ebrahimi: When I arrived in France, no one was there to help me. My best friend now, Golshifteh [Farahani], arrived six months after me. Even with her Hollywood project [Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies opposite Leonardo DiCaprio], she had this feeling of being alone. We needed each other; we needed to hold our hands and just move on [from Iran] together.

Zar, what has having a rep who understands your cultural background meant to your career?

Ebrahimi: What I share with Keya is very different than what I share with Laurent Grégoire or Georg [Georgi], my French and German agents. It’s good to have their outsider vision, and I really appreciate it because they sometimes see things that I don’t see. But Keya, from the very beginning — from the first discussion we had at that Sundance party when I told him about my story and the movie I’m going to make about it [Honor of Persia] — I just felt that he got everything. I didn’t really need to explain a lot. It’s a very tough industry and there are these moments when you think you are doing all this for nothing, and no one sees you and understands you. Even if they say they do and they try, at the end of the day they don’t. I feel so lucky to have this team of people around me, and Keya is like the last piece of the puzzle. Since we began working together, he brought me this hope that we can go further in my career, because maybe he understands better than others.

Khayatian: We do work in teams at UTA, and [Ebrahimi’s team includes] Billy Lazarus, Houston Costa and Jessica Kantor [in the independent film group], who by the way is also Iranian.

Keya, what do you get out of working with clients whom you personally resonate with?

Khayatian: Really strong women have always populated my life, starting with my mom and including many of the artists I represent, like Zar and Noora and Marjane. Especially given the women’s movement in Iran, I do feel really strongly that what Zar is bringing is something we really need to hear right now.  [I’m gratified to help share] the beauty of the people and the culture. It’s like when people have Persian food for the first time and are wowed by it. So many people have seen Persepolis and have remarked on the cultural impact that book has had; it’s taught in schools. Also, as a gay man, I’ve seen that happen for clients I represent like Ron Nyswaner, who wrote Philadelphia — that was such an incredible moment for culture to open its eyes about gay people — and Fellow Travelers, which also really impacted things culturally this past year. That’s what I gain personally: seeing people’s eyes really open to a broader sense of the diversity around us.

Speaking of the political conditions facing women in or from Iran, how does your more intimate familiarity with this type of cultural situation help guide a client like Zar?

Ebrahimi: Great question.

Khayatian: I have clients who have made projects that might risk their families and their loved ones and are risky propositions on a personal level, but I think artists are risk takers, and Zar certainly is a true artist in that sense. I let my clients know about all the different elements that might come into play on a project, from inception through release and advise them about all the things to consider at each point, but it is always their decision. The joy that I get is from seeing someone make a decision and being proud of it and seeing it play out in the right way. At the same time, my job as an agent is also to be there if something goes wrong, to protect my clients and make sure they know I’m there to do everything I can to help them no matter what happens.

How have you now seen the Persian community within the industry change or grow?

Ebrahimi: It’s very small, but after all this pressure [in Iran], especially this last year, I feel more and more people, at least from cinema, are moving to Europe or the U.S. I have many friends from the industry who are over 40. Sometimes you think it’s too late to change your home and country and start another life from zero, but I think we are kind of inspiring them. Many times I’ve heard from people from different cultures and nations, not only Iranian people, that my award in Cannes inspired them. They just thought, “You can do it.” When I see Keya, where he sits today in his career, he gives me this hope that I can move on too.

Khayatian: Over the span of my career, I’ve been lucky to meet artists like Zar, like Marjane. I remember being in Cannes and having read Persepolis the comic books, seeing a poster for Persepolis and then finding out that Kathy Kennedy was actually producing an animated film based on that. [Celluloid Dreams founder] Hengameh Panahi, who passed away last year, was the sales agent for that film and was Iranian, and I suddenly felt, “There are artists that share my background that are emerging.” Persepolis won a jury prize, and Zar when she was in Cannes for Holy Spider won a prize, and so being able to see a culture whose cinema is celebrated outside of its own country and seeing artists emerge from that background is really, really special.

I’m the co-chair with Alma Har’el of the MENA & WANA alliance at the [film] Academy. We’re actually the alliance with the most members not in Los Angeles or the U.S. — so it’s a small group, but it’s growing. I was very happy that Zar was able to go to the new member reception in London, and because I’m involved in the MENA & WANA alliance, Dilcia [Barrera], who runs international [members relations] at the Academy, was so excited to meet her and create connectivity where before there might not have been some. I’m also really thankful for all the allies; there are many executives who are not from this culture but are genuinely interested in and recognize the talent. It’s people who mentored me in my career, people that I can now mentor or peers that have known me and are no longer under certain kinds of misconceptions about Iranian culture. Yes, there’s a lot of work to do, but we’re in a position to do that work.

To recommend a client-rep pairing for My Rep and Me, email rebecca.sun@thr.com.

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