Actress/Activist Pooya Mohseni On Her Role In Sanaz Toossi’s ENGLISH


The cast in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of English. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

The Interview: Pooya Mohseni

An Interview conducted by Michael Raver

It would be complicated to describe actress Pooya Mohseni in only a few words. As a performer, she’s strong. She carries herself with a kind of regal bearing that comes naturally to precious few. However, she’s more than simply a glamorous Titania looking to take center stage. She’s willing to walk her talk, eager for her work to challenge audiences.

A trans rights activist, Mohseni hails from Iran and has maintained a deeply rooted connection to justice, particularly for people of color, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community. Identity has been a major thread of continuity in her artistic life. Her recent performance in Mari Walker’s film, SEE YOU THEN, made a splash at SXSW last year and won Mohseni the award for Best Performance in a US Feature at LA Outfest.

Now, she’s hitting the boards in The Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Sanaz Toossi’s new play, ENGLISH. Directed by Knud Adams, the play deals with four Iranian adults on the cusp of taking the TOEFL, or the Test of English as a Foreign Language. What ensues are a series of word games and listening comprehension exercises, all of which are meant to bring the class closer to the fluency.

Pooya Mohseni (Roya) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of English. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

How did this role come to you?

in 2018, Sanaz Toossi, the playwright, emailed me and asked if I could read for a part in her then thesis at NYU, called ENGLISH. I thought it was a beautiful role. I’ve done multiple readings of it throughout the years, including a zoom reading during the pandemic. Then in 2021, I saw the news that it was coming to the Atlantic. While I was not certain that the role would go to me, I was proud that the world was going to experience this play. Then, I was asked to come in for a work session with the creative team, and while it’s intimidating to have 15 people, in masks, silently judging your work, I thought to myself that I will do the role as I had done it before and live in its truth as I felt and experienced it. I approached the audition from the point of view that “this is what I’d do in the role if you give me the opportunity,” which frees you to be who you see the character to be in that moment, while giving you the freedom to change and receive direction as though you’re in rehearsal. 

That’s how I like to approach my auditions. Working on an audition as though you’re already working on the project and not just auditioning for it, gives you more ease, confidence, and openness to be present and guided.

What is Roya’s strongest attribute?

I think Roya’s strength of character and grace are things I find most integral to her actions and how she interacts with the world around her. She’s like a queen, floating above the world, holding herself in that manner, while observing everything with class. She is discerning about when and how she chooses to express her thoughts and feelings to those around her.

What is her Achilles’ heel?

Her love for her family is Roya’s blind spot, but I think that’s true about most parents. It’s not easy to be objective about people who are part of you and Roya is no exception. Her love for her son forces her to willingly or unwillingly overlook some of the realities of that relationship. Her family is her heart and no matter what, she can’t let go. Because of that—regardless of how much pain she experiences because of it—she holds on.

(l-r) Tala Ashe (Elham), Hadi Tabbal (Omid), Ava Lalezarzadeh (Goli), Marjan Neshat (Marjan) and Pooya Mohseni (Roya) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of English. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

Why do you feel this has been the right time for audiences to see ENGLISH?

We now live in a time when people, audiences and artists alike, are interested in telling more varied stories, from different cultures, experiences and outlooks. This has not always been the case and even 10 years ago, this play may have been brushed aside. As more under or badly represented communities are getting their moment in the light, more theaters are giving the space for these stories to be developed and shared with the audience. The Iranian community has not always been represented with nuance, kindness or even full facts, but now there is a desire for stories around people of color, people who have been “othered”, to show their full humanity, wants, desires, and shortcomings. Audiences are ready for it.

What does performing at The Atlantic mean to you?

To say it’s a dream come true is an understatement. As an immigrant, as a woman of color, and as an actor who is trans, stepping out on the stage at Atlantic Theater, telling a story that has heart and depth, about the struggles of my community is humbling. I carry my mother’s journey of coming to this country onto that stage with me. I also know that I have made this happen through the determination and work ethic that I was taught as a child. Being on that stage feels like I’m carrying the dreams of the women in my family. But also, hopefully, the young people who may share my background, either as an immigrant or a queer individual, can see this accomplishment and realize that if I can achieve, so can they. I want them to know that if they believe and work hard and persevere, they can accomplish whatever they want out of life.

What do you want the audience to leave with?

I want the audience to walk away from ENGLISH and realize that while we are all different, we’re also the same. We may look different, sound different, but our accents don’t change how we experience as humans. We all have wants, needs, fears and goals, regardless of our color, our nationality, our accent, our sexuality or gender. I want the audience to walk away feeling more love and compassion for those who are different from them and hopefully see the world in a more inclusive and harmonious light. That’s my hope.

(l-r) Tala Ashe (Elham), Pooya Mohseni (Roya), Marjan Neshat (Marjan), Hadi Tabbal (Omid) and Ava Lalezarzadeh (Goli) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of English, written by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, and co-produced by Roundabout Theatre Company (Roundabout Underground). The production opens on February 22, 2022 at the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

To purchase tickets for ENGLISH, visit https://atlantictheater.org/production/english/

For more information about Pooya Mohseni, visit www.pooyaland.com

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