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While Netflix may be the front-runner in the streaming world when it comes to international film and television – giving us foreign-language megahits such as South Korea’s Squid Game, Spain’s Money Heist and France’s Call My Agent – other streamers have seized on audiences’ interest in international content, introducing big-budget global shows that are giving Netflix a run for their money.
One of these standout hits is Apple TV+’s Tehran, an Israeli spy thriller about a Mossad hacker-agent named Tamar (Niv Sultan), who is determined to shut down one of Iran’s nuclear reactors to prevent an impending assault on Israel. While it’s a fast-paced, high-thrills, action-packed spy show in the vein of Homeland, it’s also an unlikely North American hit, given that its multilingual dialogue jumps between Farsi, Hebrew and English, and that it launched without a well-known star attached. Still, the show has connected with audiences all over the world, even winning an International Emmy.
It’s returning this week with a sophomore season – and now with a big, bankable Hollywood name: Glenn Close.
Creators Moshe Zonder and Omri Shenhar actually wrote the part of British therapist Marjan Montazeri for the famed actress. It marks Close’s first TV role since 2007′s Damages.
“I saw the first season and I thought it was really, really good,” Close says about what persuaded her to join the show. She was excited about diving into so many unknowns, including shooting in Athens for the first time, working with a multilingual team and learning Farsi.
“It was very challenging because Persian is a beautiful language but it is a different use of your mouth and lips and then once you’ve gotten that under your belt, you get on to the set, and it immediately goes out of your mind,” she says.
And she didn’t want to just grasp the basics – she wanted to nail it. “I wanted to impress them as an American speaking Farsi, to be honest,” she adds with a laugh.
Sultan is also not a native Farsi speaker, yet jumps effortlessly between that language, Hebrew and English, as does much of the supporting cast.
The addition of Close’s character amps up the drama: Montazeri is complex, manipulative and keeps her secrets tightly guarded. The interplay between Montazeri and Tamar elevates the suspense that defined Season 1 to another level of tension, intrigue and excitement. Fans of classic spy thrillers will once again be riveted by the high-stakes plotting.
But what makes Tehran stand apart from the slew of other espionage shows out there – and helped turn it into one of AppleTV+’s biggest successes – is its ability to spotlight the humanity and vulnerability of both those who risk their lives for this work, and the many who are merely caught in the crossfire of duelling political powers.
There is a scene in this new season that allows you to focus so intimately on the human drama at the core of this thriller that it’s easy to forget you’re engrossed in heart-racing, global espionage. The moment shows our heroine, Tamar, and her love interest, Milad (Shervin Alanabi), expressing their fears and sharing vulnerabilities in a moving, yet quiet way.
For Sultan, 29, these tender interludes are what make Tehran so compelling. “I believe that we’re telling a very timeless story about people, about humanity, about people going through difficulties and challenges,” she tells me over Zoom. “And I think this is something that everyone can relate to.”
Tehran is about so much more than just the political and military tensions between Israel and Iran, she continues. It’s about the very real, very human stories that bind and connect the two countries and their citizens.
This mix of heart and heat is definitely what helped win over one very important fan: none other than newest cast member Close.
The actress would like to see her star power bring more attention to Tehran, as well as other international efforts by Apple TV+. “Hopefully it will pique people’s curiosity as to why I chose to be in this particular show, and it will bring in a lot more viewers.”
Season 2 of Tehran starts streaming May 6 on Apple TV+
Special to The Globe and Mail