Iranian-American actress/writer/activist Pooya Mohseni has been through a lot to get to where she is today. Growing up during the war between Iran and Iraq, all the while coming to the realization that she was transgendered. Pooya and her family left Iran when she was eighteen so that she could live the life she was meant to. Now she is starring as Alicia Castile in Not So Artful Productions six-part webseries Grosse Misconduct. Pooya took some time to answer some questions for us about her life and career as well as the direction that both are headed.
Stacey Maynard: Tell me about Grosse Misconduct and the character that you play.
Pooya Mohseni: Grosse Misconduct is a workplace comedy, like “The Office”, centering around the four main characters of the show, which include a gay man and a trans woman. I play Alicia Castille, the out and proud trans woman in the office, who is strong, determined and slightly intimidating.
SM: What was it like growing up in Iran? What brought you to the United States?
PM: I grew up in the 80s, when the Iran/Iraq war was going on. I’ve experienced running into the basement with my family at 2 am during air raids, daily power outages, food rations and theological repression. This was all before I turned 10. As I grew older and became more aware of my identity, I realized that there was no place for me in the society I had grown up in and tried to hide who I was to protect myself from the world around me. I imagine in that sense, it wasn’t that different from many conservative states here in the US, but that was the life I was living until I was 18, when I left Iran.
My parents didn’t see a future for me as a transgender individual in Iran, so they tried to find a new home for me somewhere else. First destination was England because that’s where my parents had lived and where my brother was born. That did not work as they had hoped, but then USA became a possibility and I arrived in the summer of 97 and started a new life in New York. It’s the only home I know.
SM: When you came to New York you studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology, did you plan a career in fashion? What first sparked your interest in being an actress?
PM: When I first came to New York, I studied textile design. I learned about fabrics, design history and the art of turning basic designs into printable fabric patterns. I worked as a textile designer for 6 years. While at FIT, I joined the Theatre ensemble for two years and it was the first time I got a taste of performing as an adult. I liked it. I really liked it! I was doing background work on hit shows like “Sex and the City” and features that were shooting in the NYC area, as well as trying to get a modeling career on the side. But, at that time, late 90s to early 2000s, there was really no room for a trans actor who wasn’t a performer or was part of the ballroom scene, so I left the business for a few years, without ever thinking I’d be back.
SM: Do you feel a responsibility in playing not only transgender characters but Muslim ones as well?
PM: Before coming out as trans in 2015, I was mostly playing characters of color: Indian, Afghany and generically Middle Eastern. Since coming out, it seems that I play more trans characters, but, I embrace all sides of who I am, so long as it’s a good story and a good character. A nuanced Muslim story is as important to me as a story about the trans experience because I am both and I try to tell stories, that need to be told, from all the components that make me who I am.
SM: Although there is still a long way to go, do you feel that transgender actors and actresses are finally coming into their own with shows like Pose leading the way with representation?
PM: I believe change is never ending. It never stops. It may slow down or speed up, but it’s always happening. As a trans actor, writer and activist, I am proud to see the strides my community has made in this business, along many other fields, and with shows like Pose leading the way, producers and investors can see that queer stories can be told authentically, by queer actors, and still be a success. I look forward to a more nuanced representation of my community in months and years to come!
SM: You are also a writer, what kinds of things do you write, and should we be on the lookout for anything from you on the horizon?
PM: My writing revolves mostly around social commentary pieces, usually in response to some social issue or headline. However in 2018, I seem to be writing more performance pieces, or collaborating with other writers on projects that need help bringing authenticity to their queer characters. I’m also in the beginning stages of writing a pilot that I’ve been thinking about for a few years and I’ve been inspired by the artists around me to finally sit down and write it!
SM: Are there any charities that you advocate for and would like to shed light on?
PM: There are non-profit organizations in the New York area that I feel very strongly about:
“Destination Tomorrow” is a grassroots agency that is located in the Bronx and provides services to and for the LGBTQ community.
Also, “The Gender and Family Project” which is part of the Ackerman institute for family therapy. What GFP offers is counseling, guidance and community to families and their trans kids to transition together and creates an environment that supports parents, so they can support their children.
But more importantly, I think people should look to their local charities and non-profit organizations that they value and align with, because if we all help to better the immediate world around us, we can create lasting social and cultural change.
SM: Is there anything else that you are working on now?
I’m collaborating on a number of small indie pilots as well as writing and performing in small stage productions which combine performance and activism. I’m also looking forward to the launch of the first season of a great tv series I worked on, called “Big Dogs”. It should be coming out later this year, fingers crossed!
SM: Who are your inspirations both in and outside the industry?
It’s hard to point to one person when it comes to inspiration. Every strong fighter, every true human, every generous soul that has ever passed through my life has inspired me and continues to do so.
If I had to pick one person out of the industry, it would have to be my mom because of her strength, resilience and never-ending love of learning and expanding as a person. After all, she was the person who supported her trans child in a world that had never heard the term trans and for that, I have a lot of respect for her. In the industry, I tip my hat to Janet Mock, for being an inspiration to all young people of color and the queer community, as the first trans woman to write, direct and produce a network television series. She inspires me every day!
SM: If you could talk to teenaged Pooya (or even other young members of the trans community), what would you tell her (them)?
PM: If I were to talk to the young, lost, scared Pooya, or any other member of my community, I’d say:
1-Know that you are worthy of love, friendship and trust.
2-Know that you are strong and capable of making your way.
3-Never give up on yourself. Take a breath once in a while, but never give up.
Thank you so much to Pooya Mohseni for answering our questions! Check out Grosse Misconduct either on their website (here) or on the Grosse Misconduct YouTube channel. Also find Pooya on her website here: Pooyaland or on social media: Twitter and Instagram.