Acting and Producing with Mehrdad Sarlak
by Marisa Sittheeamorn
Mehrdad Sarlak is an Iranian-born, US raised, award-winning producer and actor. An MIT-trained patented engineer and business executive by day, Sarlak is a talented and imaginative multitasker, whose short years in filmmaking have generated industry buzz. Passionate about pursuing his scientific and artistic interests at the same time, Sarlak reconnected with his creative passions by enrolling in an acting program several years into his nine-to-five. He started out modeling in commercials, and worked his way up to roles in independent films – all while working a full time position.
A few years later, Sarlak decided to move to LA, got an agent, and started hosting the TV show East to West on a Persian TV station. The show aimed to introduce Iranian cinema, artists, and filmmakers to the West, and discuss the rising number of films being made about the Middle East in the West.
Soon after, Salak began producing the show with his co-host, and now has two highly acclaimed, Oscar qualifying short films under his belt. Meeting up with Sarlak at the Edmonton International Film Festival this past fall, FCC got the inside scoop on his transition from acting to include producing, where he shared some of the secrets to his rapid success.
FCC: What motivated you to start producing on top of acting?
M.S: Well, I realized that producing was something that I was sort of doing at my day job. So, I thought I might as well produce films that are the colour and flavour that I wanted. I could tell stories the way I wanted to, rather than tell someone else’s story.
Around the same time, I read an article about a murder that had taken place in Iran. A mother was deciding whether to forgive her son’s killer at the day of his execution. In Iran, the mother of a murder victim has the option to attend the perpetrators execution. If the murderer is forgiven by the mother, they are also forgiven by law. Upon reading about her decision that day, I was brought to tears, and decided that was the story I wanted to tell.
My agent told me there was a young Persian filmmaker already making a film on the story, and that she wanted me to act in it. When we met, we instantly clicked and decided that I was going to produce and act in the short. We had the same vision for the way we wanted to tell the story.
FCC: This was for your first short, Madaran (2015)?
Yes. Madaran ended up being very successful, playing a lot of festivals, and eventually became Oscar qualifying. Since then, I have been occupied by El Astronauta (2019), which has already won six awards, and is being expanded into a feature.
FCC: What do you look for in roles, or in scripts you decide to produce?
M.S: I look for three main things. The first is a universal thread; something that anyone in the world, regardless of the language they speak, can watch and understand.
Secondly, I love things that are emotionally-charged, elicit feelings, and smash pre-conceptions. I think we live in a world that is very boxy; a world where people do things by the book. Film is powerful because, if you are able to make someone feel something, they are able to start thinking outside the box.
The third factor I look for, is that the role or script must be or feel 100% real. The engineer in me looks for truth and fact, and makes me want to tell stories that are real or inspired by true events. I also have a fourth point, which is sort of personal; I want to be able to walk away from a project, and know exactly what I did it to make it a success.
FCC: Do you find your work as an actor or producer more impactful?
MS: Producing is far more impactful for me. As an actor, I am only in charge of my work, and have no say in what actually goes into the film. As a producer, I am in charge of all aspects of the project’s development. I am able to infinitely shape impactful stories and initiate change, on a scale I feel I can’t achieve through acting.
FCC: How does your work in film relate to the Farsi aspect of your identity?
M.S: I am very proud of being Iranian, proud that Farsi is my first language, proud of my country, my people, my heritage, and proud of our accomplishments. I smile as I walk through life, noting how things I see, the post office, ice cream, refrigerators, the first bill of human rights, we, Persians invented them. I want people in the West to understand who we really are. We are not this broken, damaged, pathological narrative that is too often perpetuated in the mainstream.
I have so much pride in our historical realities, but I don’t feel a responsibility of any kind to represent my country in any way. I do it because I love it, and the work leads to positive change.
FCC: What was it like working on Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012), the Hollywood production about the US hostage crisis in Iran?
M.S: Argo had multiple different angles. I went in as an actor, had several auditions, met Ben Affleck, and thought it was very exciting to be a part of a studio level film. I felt comfortable being on the project because I knew Affleck had a lot of Persian friends, is a worldly thinker, and was not going to bash Iranians in the head. I expected him to tell a story about what happened with a little dramatization for Hollywood.
I also have this theory that change is possible once you are part of the system. One avenue is through change from the inside, and the other, less effective route, is from the outside. In a small way, I was able to do this during production. There were various situations where we, the Iranians on set, would speak up and clear the record on the reality of what really happened during the crisis. Even though these moments were small, they were important, and shaped the final result of the film.
FCC: What do you envision for the future of Iranian Cinema?
The Persian community is very powerful in Iran, but they are very small around the world. I think organizations like FCC can be helpful because they have the capacity to really bring us together, create opportunities, and serve as a physical platform where we can meet, and collaborate with one another. It could be wonderful for our industry.