#ICastIt: 1 Reason ‘Desert Dancer’ Director Doesn’t Limit Casting Options

Article Image
Photo Source: Richard Raymond/Desert Dancer Production LTD.

“Desert Dancer” is based on the true story of Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian who risked his life to start a dance company in the midst the political unrest in his country. Director Richard Raymond was inspired by Ghaffarian’s story, but he didn’t want to make a political statement with the film; he wanted to convey the idea “we’re actually not all that different and we have the same hopes and dreams and we should all have the same rights to fulfill our artistic potential,” he explains.

Raymond knew and cast many of the actors himself. Besides having a lot of actor friends, Raymond regularly attends theater in London and watches independent films. “You’re always on the lookout for who could be in your film,” he says. Raymond discovered Reece Ritchie in a small role in “The Lovely Bones.” “I was very struck by how sensitive he was as an actor…and he looked just like the real Afshin.”

“I’d rather cast a great actor for a part rather than an actor that wasn’t the right actor for the part, but was the right ethnicity,” says Raymond, who focused on actors who had a passion and connection to the film. Bamshad Abedi-Amin helps kids see the arts as an opportunity to break out of their situation through his work with a theater for underprivileged youth in south London. Raymond saw that passion as a perfect fit and cast Abedi-Amin as Mehran.

Nazanin Boniadi’s personality and tenacity so impressed Raymond that he rewrote the role of Parisa Ghaffarian from father to mother. “She had all these incredible speeches about human rights and women’s rights in Iran, and I just felt her passion.” Freida Pinto, also an advocate for human rights and women’s rights, fit Raymond’s vision for Elaheh: “She’s a very strong person. I just thought she would connect to the strength that is Elaheh.”

Keeping his search open to actors everywhere paid off for the role of Mona when Marama Corlett contacted Raymond via Twitter. She’d heard about the film through a friend who was auditioning and liked that Raymond was giving his voice to the voiceless. After seeing her picture and looking up a film she’d acted in, Raymond thought she’d be perfect as Mona, so he tweeted her back asking her to audition. “I wanted her to have a great audition…so I gave her a few books in advance for the audition. She came in and blew us all away.”

Raymond did most of the casting himself, but he doesn’t underestimate the value of a casting director. For “Desert Dancer,” casting director Manuel Puro saved Raymond when one of the actors (Alfred Molina) had to leave the project right before shooting began. A big supporter of the film, Molina was originally set to play Mehdi. Raymond couldn’t find a replacement until Puro suggested Makram Khoury. Khoury “really killed it for us” in the role of Medhi, Raymond notes.

The power of the arts as a means of expression and connection stands out in the film. Raymond notes that oppression isn’t limited to regimes like the one depicted in the film. “I know so many families that have banned their sons or daughters from pursuing a career as an actor or as a singer or as a dancer because they’ve deemed it not worthy, or perverse, or not a proper career to seek out.” Raymond’s hope is that artists of all forms will connect to the film and be inspired to keep going. He also hopes families will be moved to “understand how important the arts can be and how much of a voice it can give.”

Inspired by this post? Check out our audition listings!

Author Headshot
Melinda Loewenstein
Prior to joining the Backstage team, Melinda worked for Baseline StudioSystem tracking TV development. When she's not working, she enjoys cuddling with her cats while obsessively watching every television show to ever air.
See full bio and articles here!