Glenn Close and Niv Sultan on Tehran: Season 2
In the past 20 years, larger-than-life characters such as 24’s Jack Bauer, Sydney Bristow of Alias fame, and even Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, have joined the ranks of TV’s most famous secret agents as the spy genre has continued to flourish on the small screen. In 2020, a new name emerged to give those figures a run for their money: Tamar Rabinyan, a young Mossad operative, and the central character of the multilingual, spy-thriller Tehran on AppleTV+. Tamar is played by Niv Sultan, a 29 year-old Israeli actress whose powerful presence has been a big part of making Tehran an international hit. This season, Sultan is joined by screen legend Glenn Close.
In season one of Tehran, Tamar was sent on an undercover mission to Tehran when her 24-hour assignment went awry and she was stranded in Iran, forced to go into hiding. In season two, Tamar emerges from the shadows to infiltrate an elite group of wealthy, young Iranians.
“When they told me Glenn is joining the cast, I asked ‘how?’” Sultan says. The modestly budgeted Israeli-produced series found acclaim and international success in its first season, allowing producers to up the budget and the scale for season two. This included the opportunity to bring Close, a superstar with multiple Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe wins and eight Academy Award nominations, in a major role. “And then I realized, wow, so people actually watched it,” Sultan says with a laugh.
“I was really afraid of being just frozen in front of her. But she really helped me. She came with this amazing energy … ” says Sultan.
Close joins the cast as Marjan Montazeri, a renowned psychologist and undercover Mossad agent, assigned to oversee Tamar and her new mission. “For me, it was so many firsts,” Close says of her experience working on the series. Tehran came with new challenges and opportunities, from having to learn to speak Farsi to shooting in Athens with a crew that spoke multiple languages, as well as a character unlike any she had ever played. “So it was kind of a no-brainer for me,” Close says. One of the exciting elements was playing a character who, by nature of being an agent trained in deep cover espionage, is full of secrets and difficult to read. “I try to build up a backstory that will really inform how I react to things,” Close says of her acting approach. She worked with Daniel Sirkin, who directs the series, and with the writers to form a detailed backstory for Marjan. “It’s up to the writers what secrets are revealed and what stays private,” Close says. “I think the power of secrets that are kept silent is subliminal and very effective for an audience.”
For Sultan, the prospect of sharing the screen with such a legendary star was a daunting one. “I was really stressed. I was nervous all the time,” Sultan says. “I was really afraid of being just frozen in front of her. But she really helped me. She came with this amazing energy, and she’s so professional, and she works hard. And she gave me the feeling that we are equal—which we’re honestly and obviously not—but it gave me the confidence just to try and explore and work next to her. And I try to learn as much as I can.”
“I realize, what we’re doing here is bigger than another TV show or another step in my career,” Sultan says.
For both women one important aspect of making Tehran season two was in capturing the intensity of the story and the sense of danger that deep-cover agents face at all times. “Shooting was really intense,” Sultan says. “I was far from home, I wasn’t in Israel and I was surrounded by foreign people. It was a set full of culture and language and mentalities, so it really helped me to think, ‘how was it like to live as an agent, far away from home, being a foreigner?’ And the tension really helped with the danger.”
As Marjan, a seasoned agent who has been in high-stakes scenarios before, Close simply tried to stay true to the character’s training and experiences, as well as her natural disposition. “I think the mindset of a good agent has that ability to find calm,” Close says. “I always think, ‘maybe they have an amygdala that’s not quite as active as others because they can control their fight or flight or freeze reflex…’ It’s learned, I think. Part of it. But I think a lot of it is natural. I mean, you have the potential there.”
The two seasons of Tehran have been life-changing for Sultan, who has found being part of a production that has grown this big to be humbling, as well as a learning experience on more than just a creative level. Sultan has received fan mail from people in Iran who are deeply appreciative of the honest and compassionate portrayal of life in their country. “I realize, what we’re doing here is bigger than another TV show or another step in my career,” Sultan says. “It feels big. It feels important, so I’m grateful… and it doesn’t matter where you come from, or where you live, at the end of the day, it’s an interesting and important thing to see that we’re all the same. Everyone struggles the same, everyone suffers the same, and in wars, everyone loses.”
“It’s up to the writers what secrets are revealed and what stays private,” Close says. “I think the power of secrets that are kept silent is subliminal and very effective for an audience.”
Season two of Tehran premiered on May 6, with a new episode dropping every Friday until June 17. If you’re looking for ways to beat the heat or to stay entertained without venturing into movie theaters that are once again packed with people, the pulse-pounding suspense and first-rate performances make Tehran—the series, that is—a perfect place to find excitement and thrills this summer.
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