Israeli Spy Drama 'Tehran' Eyes U.S. Deal as Virus Crisis Triggers TV Pipeline Shortage

Cineflix Rights/Paper Plane Productions/Donna Productions/Shula Spiegel Productions
Shervin Alenabi, Niv Sultan, Tehran

'Fauda' scribe Moshe Zonder's personal and geopolitical series about Israel's shadow war with Iran stars 'Homeland' alum Shaun Toub and Navid Negahban and rising talent Niv Sultan.

The world hardly needs more nuclear brinkmanship between Israel and Iran, but that's just the promise from Tehran, a nail-biting Israeli espionage thriller from Netflix's Fauda writer Moshe Zonder.

Fortunately, it's a TV drama without real-world consequences as it portrays a crack Mossad agent hunted in her hometown of Tehran as she finds refuge and romance among dancing and drug-taking secular Iranians. "The real story is what happens to a Mossad agent who goes rogue in Tehran. And you're in for a what-if fun ride. It may be happening right now and we wouldn't know," Tehran executive producer Alon Aranya says of the Israeli thriller shot mostly in Hebrew and Farsi, with English subtitles.

And as Hollywood during the coronavirus crisis shutdown eyes fresh first-run content for summer schedules with likely holes, Julien Leroux, a consultant to Cineflix Rights and series exec producer, sees the eight-parter cutting through Peak TV clutter after earlier Israeli originals Srugim on Amazon, Shtisel on Netflix and False Flag on Hulu found their way into U.S. homes.

"With so many productions in lockdown, streamers and networks are looking for new ready-to-go dramas with international appeal. At the same time, viewers around the world are looking for escape and over-the-edge of their couches excitement, which is exactly what Tehran provides," Leroux tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The high-octane drama, shot on location in Athens before the global industry's production pipeline froze, stars rising Israeli talent Niv Sultan as Tamar Rabinyan, a young Mossad computer hacker sent to Tehran to disable Iran's air defenses so Israeli war planes can bomb a nuclear reactor. After her mission quickly goes wrong, Tamar, amid wild plot lurches, is pursued by Iranian security head Faraz Mehmet, played by Hollywood veteran Shaun Toub (Crash, Snowpiercer). And Homeland alum Navid Negahban plays Tamar's Mossad field commander.

The "X factor" quotient for this Israeli spy thriller is high. Tamar and fellow Israeli Mossad agents, famous in real life for slipping behind enemy lines to destroy targets, disastrously bungle their covert mission, opening the way for an epic cat and mouse game between Sultan and Toub's complex characters.

"Being lost and on the run in Tehran, that's your worst nightmare. It's the worst nightmare no matter where you're from," says Sultan, as her character compromises her mission by rediscovering her Iranian roots and falling in love with a local pro-democracy activist, played by Shervin Alenabi. "To see a mission start and fail, it's much more interesting and drives you into conflict, than a regular story of heroism. It's our taste as storytellers," adds Dana Eden, who also shares executive producer credits on Tehran with Shula Spiegel.

Eden has effectively reverse-engineered a global drama by getting a commission from Israeli broadcaster Kan and then signing up Cineflix Rights to knock on doors for a U.S. network or streaming distribution deal. Kan 11 is the commissioning broadcaster and key funder for the series. And if Fauda was about shooting first and spilling tears as it humanized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tehran is about hacking into your enemy and then loving them as Israel and Iran veer towards war.

For series co-creator Moshe Zonder, that means creating an edge-of-your-seat drama that also reveals a shared humanity between young Israelis and Iranians long obscured by their shadow Middle Eastern war. "For the first time, a Western series will show the lives of young anti-regime activists in Tehran, in their apartments and on the streets. The show explores their distress, the danger, the friendships and loyalty between them, the courage in their resistance to the Ayatollahs' regime, alongside their passionate, exciting lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," Zonder tells THR.

That the respective Israeli and Iranian talent, creative and crewmembers cannot in reality visit one another's countries as they invite Tehran viewers to follow as Israel and Iran ready themselves for war via their TV screen or app lends the Israeli drama extra authenticity. "Iranians love Israel and Israelis love Iran. They are really looking for the reason we are enemies and why we can't visit and see one another. Because people from Tehran and from Tel Aviv are the same people," insists Liraz Charhi, who plays Mossad handler Yael Kadosh.

For Sultan, playing a Mossad agent who returns to Iran to find Iranian roots offers an unlikely hero for young TV viewers worldwide also searching for who they are and what they most want out of life. "It's about humanity. It's about the real people that we rarely see. When she [Tamar] arrives in Tehran, we show the ordinary lives and the magic of the city. It makes sense that she finds it confusing and discovers the Iranian girl she once was," she explains.

Toub, who was born in Iran and partially raised in Europe before a long and successful acting career in Los Angeles, including playing a villain Iranian intelligence officer on Homeland, says ensuring he wasn't just a cartoonish bad guy in Tehran was key to joining the Israeli drama. Toub, as his character ruthlessly pursues Tamar and her fellow special forces, reveals a human side of Iran as he deals with his wife's chronic illness.

"One-dimensional characters never excite me. As an actor, your job is to bring something to this role that they haven't really thought about. You try to bring those words to life," Toub explains. He also tells THR today he's proudly American but remains in his skin Persian owing to his Iranian roots. "There's a thing you never lose. There's a love that stays with you, and you want that country to do well and you want peace and harmony. The beauty of the script is it touches on Israel and Iran and it shows people are just people."

For Tehran director Danny Syrkin, even as he leans into TV spy-thriller tropes for thrills and spills, he felt an obligation to his show's cast to portray Iranians as human and multidimensional for empathy and identification. "They all love Iran, and they don't want to piss off the Iranians -— not the Iranian regime. They love the Iranian people," Syrkin says of his Farsi-speaking cast.

Much of Tehran is shot using hand-held cameras for tension and high drama as Tamar's journey into a harsh Tehran is followed by the Mossad agent uncovering her Iranian family roots.

"We didn't want Iran to be a scary place. We want it to be a warm place that lures you in, something that reminds you of your mother, your childhood," adds Syrkin. And while the director and his casting agents auditioned widely across Europe to find Iranian actors who spoke Farsi, Syrkin admits he was reluctant to see their characters die off as Tehran eyes a second season after its cliffhanger finale. "Some of them we had to kill, but we wept, because we'll have to work our butts off to find new actors," he says.

Series co-creator Zonder is also excited about Farsi finding a new following in Israel after Tehran screens in that Hebrew-speaking country, just as Arabic language classes flourished amid viewership for Fauda. "In Israel you feel threatened when you hear Arabic at times. After Fauda, there were so many Arabic classes opening up. Many Israeli Jews wanted to learn Arabic that suddenly sounds like a language that leaves a sweet aftertaste. Your enemy’s language sounds friendly and inviting. I hope a similar thing happens with Farsi," explains Zonder.

Alon Aranya — who is also co-producing with CBS TV Studios the Israeli adaptation Your Honor, starring Bryan Cranston, for Showtime — adds that, in the post-Parasite era, dramas with gripping storylines travel well regardless of their foreign language, and especially onto global streaming platforms. "Languages are if anything now providing another experience," he argues after Narcos in Spanish and the Finnish drama Bordertown underlined an increasing global appetite for non-English TV fare.

Tehran is produced by Donna Productions and Shula Spiegel Productions in association with Paper Plane Productions. The series for Israeli broadcaster Kan was created by Zonder, Dana Eden and Maor Kohn. Zonder and Omri Shenhar wrote the series. Cineflix Rights is handling international sales.