Rewritten history: Get to know ‘Violent Femme’ creator Rahaleh Nassri
Rahaleh Nassri is a woman on a mission men would do well to lean into. Her Violent Femme series has emerged as a formidable defender, not only in the age of #MeToo but in the age of information wars. Where facts are routinely politicized and history is eroded into myth, Nassri is determined to let the record on female leaders of the past be rewritten for their bravery, boldness, and brutality.
We were lucky enough to get more than a few moments with the multi-hyphenate actress about what drives her to bring these stories back to the forefront, and what futures she sees for her own story.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
I was a freshman in college. I was studying International Affairs, but had to take an arts course. I took acting and during a scene from The Glass Menagerie I suddenly realized a quiet rage I’d had inside me for a long time was calmed in a sense.
I loved the feeling. It also helped that my professor pulled me aside at the end of the semester and said, “I think this is what you should do with your life.” I mean which 17 year-old doesn’t want to hear that?
What were some of your favorite films growing up?
When I was really young my favorite movie was The Goonies. I would also secretly watch the James Bond movie A View to a Kill on HBO. I loved adventure and intrigue and I still do. In my teens and young adulthood, I gravitated toward art films. I was very enamored by all of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films Red, Blue, The Double Life of Veronique.
I also loved any French movie that played in art house movie theatres, which were always the oldest theatres with lousy seats. In my senior year in high school, I vividly remember skipping school one day to see The Last Temptation of Christ and being utterly traumatized by it.
Who are your biggest acting influences?
I love Juliette Binoche, Frances McDormand, Audrey Hepburn. These days I think Margot Robbie is fantastic and should get more respect and more interesting parts.
How did you first get your start in the business?
I was actually working at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, which was my first job out of college (all set to be a diplomat). Despite my family’s utter disapproval, I couldn’t let go of the desire to act so I somehow got a guest spot on an episode of the tv show Homicide: Life on the Street.
To be honest it was not the best experience personally. We were shooting on location for one scene and a crowd had gathered. They swarmed around me and one of the series regulars when we walked out of the building, pressing pen and paper in my face asking for an autograph.
I thought it was ludicrous since I was nobody with no credits. “Do you know me?” I asked one guy. He said no so I asked, “Then why do you want my autograph?” “Because you might be someone someday,” is what he said. It made me feel small.
It felt like in this industry my work would be meaningless, irrelevant. So I shifted my focus to theatre. Stage actors have a lot more privacy and when you walk out of a theatre after a performance and someone praises you, it feels earned.
What has been your biggest challenge as an actor, and how did you overcome it?
I don’t know if I’ve ever overcome my biggest challenges. One challenge has been my name and identity. Early on casting directors and agents insisted I didn’t look like my name and suggested I change it. I changed it to Halley Nassri for about a year and it certainly helped me get roles I would have never gotten without the change, but it did very little for my self esteem.
So I changed it back. And I live with that and accept how I’m perceived because of a very ethnic name. In terms of acting performance, my biggest challenge is portraying women in love.
Women who are good and giving but get very little in return. I think I perceive vulnerable women to be weak, and I have a hard time portraying women as weak. Unfortunately, for my type, in terms of outward appearance, size, etc. that is the type of role I have often been given a chance to play.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as an actor?
That is related to the previous answer. I had a chance to play Romeo in an all female production of Romeo & Juliet in Washington, DC. Romeo is actually an ingenue, and is literally weak-kneed with love. I found it much easier to play a man who was madly in love. It was quite freeing and helped me become more open to expressing love in my usual women’s roles.
What advice would you give to any young actors looking to get their start?
The best way to get people to hire you to play the kinds of roles you want to play is to create your own work and show them what you can and want to do. I did not do that until very late and I wish I had done it sooner.
You host the podcast Violent Femme. Can you tell us how you came up with the concept for the show?
I write and direct as well and had long envisioned creating a one woman show about some of the rebellious women in history I find inspiring. Those were the kinds of roles I really wanted to play. Inside I feel very much like a fierce fighter, but I’m small and feminine in appearance. To casting, I’m usually not right for those roles.
After a years long acting hiatus prompted by being stalked and then having a kid, I was ready to get back into my work as an actor but the pandemic happened. So I decided to create a podcast in which I was able to tell these stories of women from all over the world and use my various skills like acting, writing, and directing, but also my language skills and global sensibilities.
Was it difficult to transition into podcasting and to get the show off the ground?
Not as much as I expected. Part of that is due to the pandemic and that there was not much else to do. I knew great people from theatre and was able to get a wonderful composer Ryan Rumery to come on board.
Why do you think it’s important for people to hear stories of brilliant women remembered for their brutality?
In my opinion the patriarchy’s continued stranglehold on all aspects of society surprises me. Especially how persistent it continues to be in North America and Europe. It’s shocking how far we have NOT come. I feel we need to change our strategy a bit.
When we talk about the gender gap we’re often portraying women as victims and it’s important to highlight the ways in which women are victims, but if we’re going to gain more power women can’t be seen as victims all the time. We can’t achieve gender parity without getting more women into positions of power, but it’s hard to attain positions of power without the societal leeway to make mistakes.
The path to greatness and power is littered with mistakes and sometimes really questionable methods. Men are allowed these mistakes and they know they are allowed because history and all the narratives that exist portray heroic men as flawed. The best stories involve a flawed character who is given the opportunity to redeem himself. But stories of redemption that feature women are scarce.
Historically storytellers have villainized women who make mistakes. Women, in order to be heroes, have been conditioned to believe they need to be saints. That is why I want to tell the stories I do in the podcast. I want women to feel that they can mess up royally and still be great. Men have that right. Women must have it too.
Is there a lot of research that goes into every episode you create?
Yes. So much. That is why there are so few episodes. Right now I’m working on the next series of four women. Plus, I’ll do a special episode for Women’s History Month.
What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned while working on the podcast?
I wanted to start with Tomyris because hers was the most surprising story for me personally. Tomyris was a 6th century BC Scythian warrior and the leader of her people, the Massagatae who lived in the Eurasian steppe. The greatest ruler of her time invaded her lands in an effort to expand his empire further.
She fought back, then defeated and beheaded him. The greatest ruler of her time was Cyrus the Great. I was born in Iran and as an Iranian-American have heard plenty about Cyrus the Great. Yet, I did not know this.
Who are some of the most inspiring women you’ve learned about?
Well the four I cover in Series I of Violent Femme are Tomyris and Ching Shih, an incredibly brilliant pirate who was a master strategist and a nation unto herself. There is also Stephanie St. Clair, who at first got into criminal activity as a last resort but eventually became a very significant figure during the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century.
She ran a successful numbers game, which was a precursor to the lottery, but more importantly she fearlessly fought against bullying cops, the mob, and even some politicians. Series I culminates with Phoolan Devi, a poor girl from India who at age 11 is coerced into a marriage to a much older man and is severely abused by him.
To escape she joins a gang of highway bandits and is immersed in a life of horrid criminal activity, but somehow becomes a heroic outlaw figure, redeems herself, and finally becomes a member of parliament.
Who are some of the most inspiring women in your life?
My aunt Shaheen was the eldest of three daughters when her mother committed suicide. Even though she has and still lives in Iran she has always lived life according to her own rules. She briefly joined the military in Iran in the 70s and then forced her way into a desk job at the mayor’s office in Tehran at a time when there were zero women working there.
The men in the office were so incensed that they created a private break room for themselves and put up newspapers to cover all the windows so she couldn’t even look inside. She marched in and tore down all the newspapers and told them she would do it again, and again, and again. I’m inspired by Regina King, Kathryn Bigelow, Claire Denis, the playwright Lynn Nottage.
Has the podcast changed the way you think about how history traditionally presents women?
In creating the show I thought I already knew how history portrayed women, if it bothered to portray them at all. Through all the research I came to realize was that it was even worse than I thought. I did not realize history was so subjective. It’s not just that women are misrepresented or not represented, the truth is much of it is just propaganda, men pumping up other men, in their “historical” accounts.
What do you hope your audience gains by listening to the show?
I want to normalize the idea that women can be fallible and great. I want the world to hold up women who have ultimately redeemed themselves and achieved something of value to get the credit and adoration we grant men who’ve gone down similar paths. I want girls to grow up without the fear that if the falter they will be ruined.
Can you tell us about any other upcoming projects you have?
I’m working on a stage version of Violent Femme as well as adapting some of the stories for the screen. For example, Tomyris and Ching Shih would make fantastic feature films while I see Stephanie St. Clair and Phoolan Devi as their own seasons in an anthology series.
What are some of your biggest bucket list items?
When I was around 13 or so I wanted to be a female version of Zorro, but that’s probably not in the cards. I still want to play many of Shakespeare’s women, who are very complex and never boring.
But I’ve become more open to screen acting again lately. Maybe it’s because there is very little theatre these days but thanks to my agent in New York I’ve been able to at least audition for some really interesting projects recently. So I guess it would be nice to land an interesting screen role that’s more in line with soul. Maybe even a Violent Femme.
What other stories would you like to see portrayed and brought to life from Rahaleh? Let us know in the comments!