Australian actor Wadih Dona’s career has been marked by an impressively steady progression of accomplishments. His natural cache of talent and classic theatrical training has earned him two decades of sustained professional success, not only on stage but also with numerous television and film jobs. Dona’s gift for creating fully realized, believable characterizations have landed him several very high-profile recurring roles on Australia’s top TV shows, but those successes are just a minor aspect of the driven actor’s ambition.
“I am interested in telling stories that resonate on a larger scale,” Dona said. “I have been in TV, film and theatre for many years in Australia, and I am interested in opening up avenues for international work. The US is a market that actors naturally gravitate to, and given my long list of credits, I felt ready to take it on.”
It didn’t take long for Dona to reach this goal. His portrayals utilize an impressive mixture of instinct, stagecraft and soulful, emotional intensity; Dona draws viewers in close, building an emotional bond which he deftly exploits for a powerful artistic impact. It was precisely this quality which led him to his first US film, 2016’s Septembers of Shiraz, playing alongside two of America’s biggest movie stars, Oscar winner Adrien Brody and the acclaimed lead actress Salma Hayek.
The film, a thriller set in 1979 Iran, was somewhat of a passion project for the two stars—both also served as producers—and it combines taut suspense and raw emotion into a compelling whole.
“Septembers of Shiraz is an art house film, it’s an intimate family story, not an action blockbuster,” Dona said. “The film is an adaptation of the novel by Dalia Sofer, and is based on real life. It centers on a Jewish-Iranian family, played by Brody and Hayek, who are suddenly faced with persecution when the Iranian Revolution unfolds in 1979. Brody’s character is arrested, tortured and humiliated, and the film closely follows his ordeal and the fortitude he had to have to get through it.”
Dona’s personal background—the actor grew up in numerous European and Middle Eastern countries—and formidable resume of successful performances served him well when it came to Septembers of Shiraz.
“I knew Wayne Blair, the director, as we had worked together in a production of Othello for the most eminent Shakespeare company in Australia,” Dona said. “We had history, were good friends, so he trusted me and my work methodology—and vice versa.”
“He sent me the script, asked me to screen test and told me that the project would be cast out of the US, with Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody attached. Obviously, I did well because I got the part, but Wayne had no final say in the casting so it was good to know that I achieved it on my own merit.”
This was indeed the case, as executive producer Heidi Jo Markel said: “We were looking for an actor with gravitas, who could portray the menace of the Iranian Revolution. We knew we had our guy when we saw his fantastic screen test. Wadih is talented actor with incredible screen presence and the icing on the cake was that he was a pleasure to work with on the shoot.”
To develop his character (Rostam, a member of the infamous Revolutionary Guard) Dona focused on Markel’s watchword: “Menace. Rostam symbolizes the forces of chaos and anarchy within the Revolution,” Dona said. “I was cast because I can access those dark emotions quite easily. As a child I was exposed to civil wars and I knew those kind of men, I saw them—young men who suddenly had power, and they could do what they pleased with that power. When we were on set, carrying weapons and with the period uniforms, I was scared when I saw my own reflection in the mirror!”
“Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek were both very personally invested in this story,” Dona said. “I had scenes with both, and each was a pleasure to work alongside, but I had more to do, plot wise, with Salma. In one scene, Rostam loots her house and there is an obvious sexual threat as well as one of underlying violence. We rehearsed this scene a few times and kept going deeper emotionally. She went into that dark emotionally territory with me so openly, we built rapport very quickly because of this. She was fantastic to work with—open, accessible and an absolutely gorgeous human being.”
When the film debuted at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, Dona said, “It premiered there in the biggest cinema in Toronto, the Roy Thompson theatre, with 2,630 people watching. It was massive. I had never seen a cinema that size.”
A complex, thoughtful piece of filmmaking, Septembers of Shiraz was aptly described, by one critic, as “a germane and intelligent observation of the current global political climate in which the world’s ‘have-nots’ are rebelling against the party-political status quo.”
For Dona, it had even more significance. “It was a fantastic, enriching experience,” he said. “Personally, I think we made something quite beautiful and life affirming. And it has helped me leverage myself professionally to do more work. It’s a calling card of sorts for me now—people sit up and listen when I tell what I have done in this film. And, if I had to be selfish, I would say also that shooting a film with one of your friends directing and acting alongside Oscar award winning stars, well, that’s too not bad, either, is it?”