By Laura Collins-Hughes
The actor Arian Moayed has an old passport photo that he usually keeps in his wallet: a black-and-white image of a small, darling boy with big dark eyes, wearing a whimsical sweater.
We had been talking for nearly 90 minutes when he mentioned it. I’d asked if he remembered anything from his earliest childhood, in Iran in the 1980s.
“The thing that I remember the most is fear,” he said. “The feeling of fear. Everywhere.”
Then he told me about the picture. It’s him at 5 or so, shortly before his family immigrated to the United States in 1986. He described the look on his face — “real angry” — and his memory of sitting for the photo: how his mother, her hijab slipping, kept urging him in vain to smile.
At 43, Moayed is a million miles from the fraught reality of that frightened child. He is widely known to fans of the HBO drama “Succession” for his recurring role as Stewy Hosseini, Kendall Roy’s old friend. And he is currently starring on Broadway as the ultra-controlling husband Torvald Helmer in “A Doll’s House,” opposite Jessica Chastain as Nora, the wife who walks out the door.
Still, Moayed likes to keep the photo close.
“I always want to remind myself that this is where it all came from,” he said.
It was late April when we spoke at the Hudson Theater, on West 44th Street in Manhattan, and the show’s six Tony Award nominations were yet to come — the one for him, for best featured actor in a play, his second. His first was for his Broadway debut, as a sweet Iraqi topiary artist turned wartime translator, opposite Robin Williams in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” in 2011.
Moayed’s Torvald could not be more different. A lawyer tapped to run a bank, he micromanages his wife, monitoring what she eats and spends. At once chilling and comical, he speaks to Nora in a voice soft as a cat’s paw, muscles and claws hidden just beneath the fur. He does not take her seriously as an adult human being, ever, yet he seems totally unaware of his own fragile vanity. He is the kind of man it is dangerous to laugh at, because ridicule infuriates him.
It is an insidiously knowing portrayal of one of the great terrible husbands of the stage. But Moayed, who grew up in a suburb of Chicago and spent most of his career pigeonholed into Middle Eastern roles, hadn’t been sure he wanted to play Torvald at all.
“I had no relationship with ‘A Doll’s House,’” he said. “When I moved to the city in 2002, the only roles available for me were being an ensemble member in some sort of Shakespeare regional theater thing, or playing a terrorist. ‘A Doll’s House’ and Ibsen was like: Oh, that is a category of things that’s never going to happen for me.”
The British director Jamie Lloyd had other ideas. After seeing Moayed in “Bengal Tiger,” he noticed him over the years consistently giving standout performances — as the scheming Stewy in “Succession,” of course, but also in YouTube clips of the Off Broadway two-hander “Guards at the Taj” (Moayed won an Obie for that, in 2016), and in the film “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” as Peter Parker’s enemy Agent Cleary.
Gearing up to stage Amy Herzog’s “A Doll’s House” adaptation on Broadway, Lloyd spotted Moayed on a list of possible actors for a different role, but sensed that he was “more of a Torvald than anything.”
“My feeling was that he’s clearly someone who doesn’t mind being unlikable,” Lloyd said by phone. “Because he knows that there’s a reason for it. And he’s so compelling as these unlikable characters.”
The New York Times