What you’re seeing above is just one major bookmark of actor and martial artist Ramin Sohrab’s life – the result of years of training and hardship earned through his craft up to this point, as he now makes his way to the festival circuit outside Iran for the first time with rescue action thriller, Layers Of Lies.
In addition to starring, he also directs this, his debut feature, a choice which be one of necessity. A result of unending searches for a good crew to hire within his means eventually confined him with the authority of directing tfilm himself. The result? Four years of principal photography, during which Sohrab would be, as he puts it in our first interview, “fighting” for his life.
Government and local industry restrictions within Iran, stifled funding, and broken commitments due to a fickle film market, a Covid-19 infection, and a broken leg are all just a tip of the iceberg in what Sohrab had to endeavor during the film’s often hampered production. As it stands, this is also commonplace for independent film productions anyway, though after reading some of his following responses, you can certainly appreciate the extreme conditions Sohrab endured to make this film a reality.
And not for nothing either. I was allowed the opportunity to screen Layers Of Lies ahead of this interview, and it’s definitely going to be in my purview to track this film’s path until its release stateside. It will be a welcome closing chapter for Sohrab who first landed on my radar with proof of concept short, Malek, which Screen Anarchy covered at the time, and a rewarding precursor to the next one as Sohrab marches on as a burgoening and prospective action star.
Greetings Ramin, and thank you for taking the time for our platform. I’ve had you in my sights for maybe eight years since your short film “Malek” was released online. That journey up to this point with your feature directing debut and starring gig now with Layers Of Lies, it’s gotta hit you some kind of way, doesn’t it?
Thank you, Lee, It’s my pleasure. I’m a huge fan of your work. Oh yeah, what a journey. There were times when this movie felt so far away from ever being done. I’m still adapting to the idea that the movie is DONE.
Going a bit further back, you started martial arts at the age of four through your father. Talk a bit about his legacy and influence and how it applies to your own training and philosophy to this day, and how that transpired into your entrance in entertainment. I understand your father was in motion pictures as well, yes?
Well as you already know, I started at a very young age. I think I was either four, maybe five years old when I held my first Wushu sword. My father was my Master, and he taught me Shaolin Wushu. He studied for five years in China and got his red sash, and he actually introduced Shaolin Wushu to Iran. He was a real trailblazer and had tens of thousands of students.
I remember I used to hate martial arts. I just wanted to play and be with other kids, and instead I was training so much with him that my mother had to sometimes take me out just to get some rest. It was pretty tough. Back in the eighties, we used to perform in films and live shows around Iran. I was the Bruce Lee kid of Iran.
How did this affect you and your father?
Shortly after we moved to Finland with my family, I continued to practice martial arts, and I remember as I got older, I started to argue with my father. I had told him that I wanted to quit and I didn’t want to practice martial arts anymore, and eventually he agreed to let me go, except just under one condition: I had to first visit the Shaolin Temple in China.
And so you went.
Yes, at age of fourteen, I went to China, and I remember that I got to perform in front of fifty Shaolin monks in the Shaolin Temple. After the show, they all came and lifted me up and were chanting my name. They were impressed with my show! Then it hit me: Maybe I was good. Maybe I should continue. Maybe my Father saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. Ultimately, I kept thinking to myself and asking “Was that the reason he sent me to China?” …I just wasn’t sure. However, when I got back to Finland, I was a different teenager. I told my father that I would continue to practice martial arts. I was driven to be the best to show my father that all the training and all the discipline would not go to waste. So I started competing in martial arts and actually I did one cage fight in Finland.
I remember being on “Talent Suomi” – or Finland’s Got Talent as some call it – shortly after that, and then I started focusing more on acting and stunts. I moved to Los Angeles back in 2007, and I started my acting training at the Stella Adler school for film.
I want to ask you a little more about your training – I remember taking Shotokan when I was younger and the first time I took a roundhouse to the head from my Sensei while sparring with him, and it was the worst roundhouse I ever felt in my life. I saw colors! I’m curious to learn if you have any similar memories from your own training growing up.
I have so many bumps and bruises from training that I can’t even count them. It was brutal. I had to hide in the gym so my father couldn’t find me. Back then, I was so mad at him. After the China trip though, I loved him for never giving up on me.
The window of space between your acting and directing credits is kind of small, so you pretty much had aspirations to direct right around the time you began acting. Would that be a good assessment?
Well, to be clear, I never wanted to be the director on Layers of Lies, or at least when I started acting. My attention was to come to the U.S. to study acting and to hopefully star in action films. When I was at Stella Adler, I remember it was my first year and I was already out of money and trying to thinking of ways to pay for school. So, with the last bit of money that I had, I bought a Canon 7D camera on eBay and started playing around and learning. Soon, I started shooting acting reels and headshots for my fellow students at school. As I was shooting and directing just to pay for acting school, I started to realize that I had a vision, but I was still scared.
I was not supposed to direct Layers of Lies. Invariably, I was going to be one of the actors, and that was it. I actually interviewed other directors and met with them. I still remember talking to Isaac Florentine about whether he would want to direct Layers of Lies, and he actually said he would love to. But, because of his ethnicity, Iran would not give him permits to direct.
I spent years looking for the right director, and during that time I directed a short film you might remeber called Viulu, or Violin. That short film changed my life, and so I decided to direct my first feature film, Layers of Lies.
What are some films that influenced you best during this process?
I started to make Layers of Lies right around when there was a shift in action movies. As I was trying to make the film, a set of movies came out that really inspired me, so I tried to learn and implement them into my movie – Films like Taken, The Raid, Extraction, The Expendables, and John Wick. Of course, I didn’t have the budget, but I got creative with what I had. Back in Iran, reporters asked me what my movie budget was, and I responded with the fact that our budget for the film was twenty five seconds of the budget for the movie, John Wick.
You’ve directed several short films in the last twelve years or more, and now that you’ve directed AND starred in your first feature, tell us about this project and how this project came to fruition.
Well, one thing I’ve learned is that making a short film and a feature is very different from each other, or at least they are in Iran. Yes, the short films helped a great deal with my vision, but going into a feature film was a different ball game. I never thought that my first film was going to be Layers of Lies, and I spent years either finding the right crew or investors and major companies that could hopefully see the potential, and nothing panned out.
I remember people asked me, “Why do you keep going? Nothing is happening. You’re still here and every time you take one step forward, you falter by three.” For example, I was negotiating with a big finance company and they finally said yes to investing, and at the Cannes Film Festival, we announced that we got the financing, and Layers of Lies was a go. A week later, the CEO of the company changed, and she terminated all the contracts, so we were back to square one. We didn’t even look for financing at Cannes, because we thought we had the money.
Lee, this kept happening so many times. So, why did I still keep going, although there was no hope for me to ever produce the film?
I have to say this: it was because of people like you, Lee. You, Todd Brown, Annick Mahnert, Chris Larsen, Mattie Do, Jonna Enroth, Mohsen Sarafi, and Pepe Karai. You all cheered me on and were hoping to one day see this film. Because of the articles, and because of all our conversations, I still had a glimmer of hope that I might…MIGHT just be able to pull this off.
That is amazing, Ramin.
In the end, there was no financing, no big companies, no big names. Just me and my will to go to Iran and make my dream come true. I must say that it took a lot to go back after thirty years and make the very first Finnish-Iranian action film.
I remember you telling me some years back that guns were an issue and that the Iranian government had some restrictions about this sort of thing on your film.
That is correct. No guns, no corrupt cops, no mafia, no bad guys, no touching on the screen, no woman fighting, no holding hands, no women singing, no hair showing, no tight clothes, no sleeping in the same bed, no hardcore action.
Yep. The list goes on and on, Lee. So, imagine making an action film with all these restrictions. And these are just in FRONT of the camera! There are a whole set of other restrictions for behind the camera and crew as well. It took me two years just to get a permit to shoot my movie over there — Actually, no sorry. It took two years to get the permit to direct a film in Iran, and it took another two years to get the actual permit to shoot the film in Iran.
But that’s not all! I still needed one more permit – the permit to show the film in Iran. So many permits!
Wow… So going forward, the first scene — the opening firefighter sequence. It’s pretty intense! Tell me about preparing and filming this sequence with your co-stars.
That was such a difficult scene. I think I fainted two times during that shoot. The Iranian firefighter department did not want to collaborate in the beginning, and I remember going to the head of the fire department to inquire about equipment and facilities. Right away, they said no. I could borrow two firefighters’ uniforms and that was about it. The reason they didn’t cooperate was that an Iranian firefighter movie based on a true story had already been made in Iran. They said the movie did not show firefighters as it should have. I took the two costumes, and I shot the interior scenes, I edited the scenes, and then met with the same firefighter chief. I showed the two-minute scene and told him “Let me show Iranian firefighters as heroes; My movie needs a hero.” He was so touched by the footage that the department gave us everything to shoot our scenes. I just needed to find interesting ways to get what I needed in order to make my film.
And this was all real fire, was it? Or were there CG additions to the flames, any?
The budget was so low that we couldn’t just “fix it in post”. Ultimately we really needed to have lots of practical fire, and only later on during post-production did we add some CG to elevate the scenes just a little more.
You even injured your leg at one point while shooting a key fight sequence. How big was the impact in terms of changing up the choreography and reshooting once the doctors gave you the ‘OK’ to go back to set?
Well when my leg broke back in 2018, we had already shot half of the movie. We had to stop because of the pain, and budget, and so I flew back to Finland for surgery. Three years passed, and I had to figure out how to piece everything back together. Some of the actors were unavailable and overall so much had changed.
Luckily, Todd Brown of XYZ Films introduced me to screenwriter Chris Larsen, and we started to put pieces together. I went back to Iran in 2021 to continue the film. We started and shot for five days. Then, I contracted Covid-19. Again, back to square one!
This was the first time that I doubted whether the film would ever be made. I was in the hospital for fourteen days. As I was fighting for my life, I was also editing the screenplay to be able to continue once I got better. At this point, everyone had lost their hope. So, it was not just the leg injury that stopped the production. It became a number of factors. A LOT of factors.
So, a timeline: 2017, we started shooting in Finland. 2018, we started in Iran and the production stopped because of my broken leg. Three years later we restart AGAIN, but this time firstly in Iran, and then we stop AGAIN thanks to Covid-19, and then restart back in Finland because our cast roster changed. It was a never-ending process and this time felt like an eternity for me.
The mansion fight…the stair fall was fucking insane. How crazy was that stunt?
[Laughs] Yeah, my back still hurts to this day. But that party scene was such a hassle to put together.
Yes, in Iran you cannot have women and men dancing in party scenes together. So, I really needed to be creative to shoot that party scene. We had cops there watching us, and so we didn’t mix women and men together. On top of that, the whole party scene was shot three years apart and in two locations. We just had to put everything together and make it work. This was already hard, and what made it harder was that I had the government watching over me throughout the project.
Talk about working with Jessica Wolff. She’s been an amazing sight to see in the action arena for some of the projects I’ve seen her in, and here she gets to play your loving wife AND she fights side by side with you in this film, and you certainly had to play some politics there as well because of what you said earlier.
Yeah, Jessica was amazing and working with her was so easy! She was actually one of the few people who made my life easier during the production. She had a big role to fill as the first-western woman to ever act in an Iranian action movie, let alone fight in it. And yes, the restrictions hampered it some. The original screenplay did not have her fighting at all, because it was not allowed. A woman can not touch men in the movie. So, after years of going back and forth, I came up with a solution that allowed me to have both of our characters fight side-by-side with each other, and when you see it in the movie, you’ll get to see how that pans out.
Among the many factors that you’ve stated nearly derailed this production entirely, you also hinted at other things apart from the leg, the pandemic, government bureaucracy… you indicated that something happened regarding the S.W.A.T. team in that last sequence, if I’m correct?
You also stated you were arrested, and had to pay some sort of fine for some reason? I know there’s a lot to pick apart in there, but you’re welcome to share as much as you can.
[LAUGHS] Ah, Lee! We had so many problems that I’m even thinking about writing a book. I almost died making this film. I can still remember the time that I was in the hospital, not knowing what would happen to me or the film.
With the S.W.A.T. team, I thought it would be so cool to have that in my film, but little did I know that I ended up fighting with them under 113+ degrees of heat and sun in the middle of Tehran. I also thought it would be cool to drive from Finland to Iran with an American car, a Chrysler. I could have it in the film, but again little did I know – there was something wrong with the paperwork and they arrested me for having that car in Iran and I got a fine for that.
Yeah, I remember I found this great construction site for the filming location. We had the permits and we started to shoot for four days. And on the fifth day, the site got raided, like the actual Raid movie! And I remember officers coming toward us and I ran to the cameras, took the cards, and with my assistant director, and we started hiding them away so they could not get the footage from us.
That is crazy!
This is just the tip of the iceberg, Lee. I hope one day I can share all the stories behind making this movie.
Me too! Damn…
What a segue. So now that you’ve done your first full-length movie on both sides of the lens, would you prefer the challenge of wearing more than one hat on set as star and director and/or other again? Or would you say you’re more comfortable just doing either of these?
Hm, yeah, many people thought that I wanted to write, produce, direct and act and all that, but it was the circumstances that made it so, in order for me to finish the film. There was no action script writer, producer, director, or actor in Iran. So you see, I had to do it — well, you could say that I could have simply hired a whole team from outside Iran, but then again, I did not have the money, so, no. On the creative side, I had Chris Larsen and Jonna Enroth on board, but that’s about it, everything else I had to figure out. In the future, I would love to just direct and act, but not at the same time. Never again.
Well now you’re literally the face of a first for Iran and Finland with a film like Layers Of Lies. How do you feel about that?
Honestly, this unreal to me, I always knew someone would do it, and that someone should do it, but I never thought that it was going to be me.
How was the reception for Layers Of Lies when it screened for Fajr back in February?
Yeah. It was horrible. The worst film festival experience of my life. The film was not completely ready when we screened it for the festival critics, but I had to submit it because the Iranian Film Foundation wanted us to screen it there. We were so excited when we got selected, it was the first action film ever chosen for the festival, but man! The welcome from the critics was not kind! But that was what I was expecting. Twenty two films primarily containing drama, and one action film in the middle of them all, which was shot in a western style. It was not what they were expecting to see at a festival with a long history of drama, so I guess I can’t blame them for being a bit shocked. Nonetheless, I am happy that this was not the World Premiere of Layers of Lies. It was a press premiere, and so we still haven’t had our actual premiere.
Restrictions notwithstanding, would you say this could or perhaps should open doors in Iran for film productions of this kind and possibly bring more martial arts wunderkinds and stunt actors like yourself to the fold?
I certainly believe Layers of Lies could change Iranian cinema and give hope to the new filmmakers and martial artists to rise and make something different. Nothing is impossible.
How excited are you to see this film get into more festivals at some point this year and/or next?
I really hope that it gets to the right festivals and I get to go and share this one-in-a-lifetime story of how I made this film.
Is there anyone in particular you would like to work with in the near future?
I would love to work with Todd Brown, Annick Mahnert, Christopher Larsen, Mattie Do, Jonna Enroth, Mohsen Sarafi, and Pepe Karai.
Also here is my list of people that I really appreciate and would love to have a chance to work with, and I’m gonna lay it all out there: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, Sam Hargrave, Russo Brothers, Patrick Hughes, Antoine Fuqua, Sylvester Stallone, J.J. Perry, Scott Adkins, Frank Grillo, Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa, Jackie Chan — obviously I have to stop now otherwise the list will go on and on! [Laughs] You asked a hard question! It’s like taking a kid to a candy shop and telling him you can have whatever you want.
My bad! I do have to ask… how’s the leg?
Eh, it will never be as it was, but I found a way around it, and, I am still jumping and still kicking.
What are some of the biggest and most important lessons as an actor and filmmaker that you’re taking with you as you move on to other projects?
As a filmmaker, I visualized every moment of the film. I saw the film before anyone else did, and that is the power of vision. I did not know how I would do it, but I told myself if I could see my film from the beginning to the end in my mind, that meant I was already halfway there.
As a first-time director, I did not get everything that I wanted. I just took whatever I had, and made something out of it. It is always better to have something than nothing.
For me, this film was like surviving a game. I had to do whatever it took to make the film a reality. I hope that with this film I have proven my potential as a director and actor, and that I get to work with talented people around the world.
CAN you tell us about any other projects you might have in mind after Layers Of Lies? I do remember you wanting to develop Viulu a while back.
I have a few of my own screenplays that I would love to produce. Indeed, this has been such a journey that I am grateful I got this far, and to be honest. I’m not sure what will happen next. But, I wouldn’t mind taking on another challenging project. And yes, I do plan to develop Viulu into a full feature film. And, I know I should eventually start by first finding an agent for myself!
I sincerely thank you for taking the time with these questions and sharing your story with us. Indeed you’ve had a journey to get to where you are now. On that note, is there anything you would like to share with readers as we make our exit?
Thank YOU for having me and following my journey. I have so many stories to share, so if anyone ever sees Layers of Lies and has questions, please ask! I would love to share the experience. And, I will depart on this note: Have the will to do something, and everything else will come together.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.