Getting Into Saddam Hussein's Head HBO's new miniseries, House of Saddam, chronicles the life of the former Iraqi dictator. Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Hussein's wife, and writer-director Alex Holmes discuss the challenges they faced in portraying the Hussein family.

Getting Into Saddam Hussein's Head

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq for 24 years. He was executed two years ago. Millions of people watched the life of Saddam Hussein as it played out in the news. Now, his story will be told in an HBO film. It's called "House of Saddam." It's a four-part series, and it begins this weekend.

COHEN: "House of Saddam" was written and directed by Alex Holmes, who joins us now from the BBC Studios in London. And here at NPR West, we are joined by Shohreh Aghdashloo. She plays Saddam Hussein's wife, his first wife. Welcome both.

Ms. SHOHREH AGHDASHLOO (Actress): Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.

Mr. ALEX HOLMES (Director, "House of Saddam"): Thank you. It's great to be here.

BRAND: Alex, this film portrays Saddam Hussein almost as if he is Tony Soprano. He's just absolutely ruthless. He's incredibly violent, and in one of the earlier scenes in the film, you see him kill one of his closest friends. It's shocking. And he provides this explanation for his actions.

(Soundbite of "House of Saddam")

Mr. YIGAL NAOR: (As Saddam Hussein) The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness. In the eyes of my enemies, I am stronger now.

BRAND: Alex Holmes, you did extensive research for this film. How did that research shape your ideas of who this man was?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, I think I was struck very early on by how closely the family relationships within Saddam's inner circle mapped onto the political relationships. Obviously, I had followed the modern history of Iraq to a certain extent because of the West's involvement in it.

But I was really surprised when I started reading in detail about Saddam, about just how closely the family and politics overlapped. And in a way, you compared our portrayal to Tony Soprano. Well, in a way, it struck me that there was something of a mafia quality to the way this inner circle was run.

BRAND: Shohreh, you play Saddam Hussein's first wife. The two of you in real life were set up in an arranged marriage. What about this role appealed to you?

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: Well, it's a - although a controversial role, but it was pretty challenging. I'd never played a character who was still alive, especially a woman at her level, with her caliber. It's just amazing how stubborn and how - she was, after all, Saddam's cousin. So, more or less, she was like Saddam, stubborn, hard-headed, and confused.

BRAND: Let's take a listen to a scene from "House of Saddam." And this is a scene where your brother, Adnan, who was also a close friend of Saddam Hussein's and his minister of defense, has died in what's called a helicopter accident. But you, as his wife, you know that it was your husband, in fact, who was responsible.

(Soundbite of "House of Saddam")

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: (As Sajida Khairallah Talfah) Adnan was your friend. He loved you, and you needed him. Now, look what you are left with, men who are nothing but afraid of you.

Mr. NAOR: (As Saddam Hussein) Adnan was killed in a tragic accident. I'm sorry.

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: (As Sajida Khairallah Talfah) Accidents do not happen in Iraq anymore.

Mr. NAOR: (As Saddam Hussein) Sajidah, go shopping.

BRAND: For you personally, how did you tap into the emotions that were going on in that scene.

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: Well, it was very hard. I have three brothers, and I love them all. Obviously, I try not to think about it when I'm acting, but I was just thinking that if anybody does anything to my brother, I would kill him. This is the end for this woman, for Sajida Khairallah. That's how I felt.

BRAND: Alex, so much of this film shows how Saddam Hussein ruled by fear. And there were so many examples of that. How did you choose the ones to include in this mini-series?

Mr. HOLMES: Our task, I think, was to really shed light on the character of Saddam and how that character influenced the turn of events and the turn of politics. So, I think that I wanted to find those events in the course of history that had demonstrated how Saddam had this failure to trust, which I think was in some ways his central flaw.

BRAND: Was there any point that either of you felt some sense of sympathy for him as a human, despite all of the terrible things he had done?

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: I'm afraid there was. I don't know with Alex, but with me, yes, there was, especially when I started reading the book. At one point, when I was reading about his childhood with his stepfather, Hassan the Liar, who used to beat him every morning waking up and sending him to steal from the neighbors and bring the food home. I really felt sorry for him. I thought, if he was born into a good, respectable family, he would probably be a great doctor or a great lawyer. He was extremely smart.

COHEN: Alex, what about you?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, I think, when you write a character dramatically like this, you have to find the humanity within them in order to properly understand why it is they did what they did and why they did it in that particular way. So, there were times when I felt very close to Saddam. It's a strange thing to be in the mindset of someone who had done so many terrible things.

But I think that I was also interested in exploring how his great dream for what Iraq could have been came to dust in his hands and what it was about his character that turned what was, in fact, a very strong and powerful vision for Iraq as a leading light in the region - how that turned into a nightmare. And I think, in order to do that, you had to understand that here was a man who was capable of thinking great things as well as carrying out terrible things.

COHEN: Shohreh, before you moved to Hollywood, you grew up in Iran, and I am curious if there was anything about your own personal experience and background that you were able to bring to this role playing Saddam Hussein's wife.

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: The only thing that I tried to take benefit from was the fact that I was a Middle Easterner, and women are different, you know. They are warm blooded, and when they get angry, they really get angry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: So, I was trying to remember how they used to get angry back in Iran, you know, women, my aunts and my family members, female family members.

Mr. HOLMES: But I think your appreciation, Shohreh, of what it's like to be a woman in that culture was really significant in the way in which we were able to bring that world to the screen because it would be wrong to think that women are without power in that culture. They just have to find their own particular ways of exercising it.

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: Yes, it's rumored that women don't have power in the Middle East. They do, and it's through the pillow talks that they'd run all the wars in the Middle East.

COHEN: Alex Holmes, this film, "House of Saddam," focuses in large part on Saddam Hussein's family. Can you give us an update? Where are they now, and did you ever have an opportunity to speak with any of them?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, we did try and speak with them, and indeed, messages were passed by intermediaries, including, in fact, with Saddam himself when he was in captivity. However, I think they weren't particularly interested in assisting us in making this project and perhaps unsurprisingly. As to where they are now, the family is scattered to the four corners of the Middle East, I understand. Obviously, I haven't heard from them or been in touch with them myself, but, you know, I think they are trying to keep a relatively low profile.

COHEN: Alex, have you played this at all for Iraqi audiences, and how do they respond to what is basically a dramatic interpretation of their real history?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, the series has been broadcast by the BBC in the United Kingdom, and through that channel, a lot of Iraqis have actually seen the series. And I was - been greatly flattered, really, by their response, which has been to say that they found it fascinating, and that it took them to areas of their own history that they weren't always completely familiar with.

And they felt it was a fascinating personal portrayal of a man who they often had very ambivalent feelings towards. And I think that they felt that the series captured that ambivalence, the greatness and the tragedy of the man. So I was very pleased that they saw it in that light.

COHEN: Alex Holmes wrote and directed the HBO mini-series "House of Saddam." Shohreh Aghdashloo stars in the film. Thanks very much to you both.

Ms. AGHDASHLOO: Thank you, Alex. Thanks for having us.

Mr. HOLMES: Thank you.

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