Actress Shila Vosough Ommi fled her native Iran as a youngster following the 1979 revolution and subsequently resettled in America with her family. Though unable to return to her homeland, Ommi’s professional career as a storyteller has been about reminding other members of the Iranian diaspora about their homeland’s rich culture and heritage.
The Los Angeles resident currently has fourth billing on the hit Apple TV+ series Tehran, an espionage thriller that has been compared to 24 and The Americans. The plot centers on Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), a young Jewish woman born in Iran but raised in Israel who is a Mossad agent and expert computer hacker covertly stationed in the Iranian capital.
Last season, Tamar’s mission was to disable Iranian air defenses to allow the Israeli Air Force to bomb to an Iranian nuclear power plant to prevent that country, a sworn enemy of Israeli, from obtaining an atomic bomb. Ommi plays Naahid, the wife of Faraz Kamaali (Shaun Toub), head of investigations for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is on Tamar’s trail. The Kamaalis’ situation becomes complicated when Naahid requires a life-saving operation in the West, and the Mossad arranges for her to be smuggled out of the country in exchange for Faraz’s cooperation in backing off on capturing Tamar.
Season 2, which premiered a few weeks ago, picks up in the aftermath of the bombing, where one of the Israeli jet fighters has been shot down and is in custody. A dangerous and complicated rescue mission is launched, again using Tamar’s remarkable hacking skills, but also exposes the young spy and her boyfriend, Milad (Shervin Alenabi) to possible capture (and almost certain death) at the hands of the Revolutionary Guard.
Recovering at home, Ommi’s Naahid is suffering with PTSD, anxiety and agoraphobia. The ever-watchful Mossad, hoping to use this to their advantage, manipulates Faraz, who has gone back to his investigations job after suffering an injury, into having his wife undergo therapy with Marjan Muntazemi, a British born psychologist, who also is working undercover for the Mossad. The stakes are even higher this season as Faraz continues to try to elude capture, and, in the process, ends up losing family members.
Created by Moshe Zonder, Dana Eden and Maor Kohn, the action-packed and suspenseful series is directed by Daniel “Danny” Syrkin. New episodes of Tehran are available on Apple TV+ on Fridays.
Ommi spoke by Zoom about returning to Tehran for Season 2 and being part of a multinational cast and crew on a series that has become a favorite with both critics and viewers alike.
Angela Dawson: Did you get any hints from Daniel Syrkin, the director, about what would be coming up for your character in Season 2?
Shila Vosough Ommi: I had a little bit of a hint. We filmed Season 1 before the pandemic. We finished filming in December 2019. During the pandemic, everything stopped but the writers continued writing. Danny, who directs all the episodes and is part of the story development, told me on the phone that they were thinking of having my character get into some deep, dark psychological traumas. So, he wanted me to starting researching things like agoraphobia, PTSD so I started doing the research on it and the work for it even before I read the episodes.
Dawson: A lot of people, post-pandemic, are still anxious about going out and being in crowded situations, so Naahid’s phobias are quite relatable.
Dawson: You also created a PSA for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health about anxiety, which is topical right now. Is mental health awareness one of your personal pet causes?
Ommi: It’s something that interests me a lot. For Iranians in exile and even those who still live in Iran, the 1979 revolution was really difficult on a lot of us. Speaking for myself, hearing daily as a 10-year-old about another one of my father’s friends being tortured or executed, did a number on me. So, PTSD and trauma has been really important to me. One of my best friends is an (Iranian-American) therapist who works with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. She was commissioned to do these PSAs and she reached out to me to help out.
The PSA you saw was one I created with my filmmaking partner, and we did a different version for my friend. Anxiety is a terrifying feeling so I wanted to create that on-camera so that people would take it seriously. The stigma for the Iranian-American population is still there, which is why the county is pushing these PSAs and films. There was a film that I directed that was commissioned by the county for the Iranian-American population to overcome the stigma and make it easier for them to see a therapist if they feel things are off.
Dawson: Speaking of therapists, circling back to the show, you have several scenes this season with Glenn Close, who plays your therapist. What was it like working with her? How’s her Farsi?
Ommi: She’s doing a great job with her Farsi. I was so proud of her and inspired by her. I don’t mean to say “at her age,” but it’s hard to learn another language as an adult. Just incredible. I was beyond excited to work with her.
I do a lot of preparation, especially for this role, but once I received the scripts, and I’m memorizing, preparing and crafting the moments, it was nerve-wracking to know that I’m crafting moments that I’m going to be doing with Glenn Close, who is one of my favorite actresses.
Dawson: Did she want to practice speaking Farsi with you?
Ommi: There wasn’t time to do any practice, or any rehearsal really because it was during COVID. It was very go, go, go.
Dawson: Since you film the show in Athens, Greece, how was the COVID situation when you were working? Were the streets empty?
Ommi: People were masked up but the streets weren’t deserted. People were on the streets but if you wanted to walk into any restaurant, they asked for vaccine cards, so you pretty much had to be masked up. It was difficult during the summertime. Summertime in Athens is very hot and when we were shooting during the summer there had been some (wild)fires nearby so the air quality was really bad.
Glenn and I were filming most of our scenes, except the ones we shot outdoors, at Naahid’s house, and we couldn’t run the air-conditioning because (of the noise it would make). We were in full hijab and even when those were just draped over us, you couldn’t wait to take it off because they’re so hot.
My heart went out to our wonderful crew—most of them Greek and a lot of Israelis—because of the filming situation. Having to be in that heat in such a cramped space, and being masked up, was uncomfortable.
Dawson: Is there anything you can say about the upcoming finale of Season 2 or if there will be a Season 3?
Ommi: When I got to the end of reading Episode 7 (the second to last), my mouth literally dropped open. There are lots of twists and turns. I can tell you Naahid kicks some butt this season, but that’s all I can say. If you find out if there is going to be a Season 3, please let me know. (She laughs.)
Dawson: You and Shaun Toub have worked together previously as well as two seasons now of Tehran. How do you explain your chemistry?
Ommi: I think the chemistry’s there because we are very good friends and we really root for each other. Our chemistry began when we played another man-and-wife couple on another Apple TV+ show called Little America, an anthology show about immigrants living in the U.S. We played Iranian immigrants living with our son.
The day before we were supposed to start shooting our episode, I had an accident where I thought my foot was broken. I was afraid to tell the production because I thought they’d replace me with another actress. Shaun was worried for me. He came to visit me and was really worried for me, and it just created a beautiful bond and forged our friendship. It was actually Shaun who suggested me for the role of Naahid Kaamali in Tehran.
Dawson: I’d read you had some trepidation going into the first season of Tehran given the political nature of the show. Did you feel more relaxed going into the second season knowing that audiences and critics welcomed the first one?
Ommi: Yes, absolutely. I’d seen how Season 1 had unfolded. This political play between Israel and Tehran is just a backdrop for a wonderful espionage thriller, a very entertaining story and the fact that all of the characters are so nuanced and three-dimensional. There’s no sides taken at all.
I wouldn’t have been able to play it if they were showing Iran in a negative light because I am Iranian-American and I owe my acting skills to the Iranian theater audience. For 20 years, I’ve been honing my skills on stage doing plays for the Iranian diaspora. My fears were all laid to rest even before I did Season 1.
Daniel Syrkin took Shaun and me out to dinner one night and told me what an amazing character Naahid is and how deep she is, what a deep thinker she is, and she’s intricately involved in the plot. She’s not just an ornamental wife. So, that helped. I also saw how much he really loves and appreciates Iranians so I knew Iranians weren’t going to be painted in a bad light.
Dawson: On a lighter note, I noticed on your Instagram that you have chickens.
Ommi: Yes, I do. I have one that is 13 years old. Her name is Tara. Usually, chickens only lay eggs for about four or five years but during the pandemic, during the period where there were few cars on the road and the air quality improved, she started laying eggs again at the age of 11. It’s unheard of at that age.
I felt like there was something special that happened during the pandemic when there was a stop in human activity, there was a stop in air pollution and noise pollution—nature feels it. It gave me hope that there is a way for nature to come back and for the environment to heal.
Dawson: What are you working on now?
Ommi: There are a couple of streaming platforms with TV series that are coming out that I will be joining.