Born in Iran, ac­tress/ac­tivist avoids cliches

Nazanin Bo­niadi plays spy trav­el­ing be­tween par­al­lel worlds in ‘Coun­ter­part’

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A + E - By Mered­ith Blake

Nazanin Bo­niadi has what may be the juici­est role — make that roles — of her ca­reer in “Coun­ter­part,” a sci­ence-fic­tion­in­fused es­pi­onage thriller now in its sec­ond sea­son on Starz.

The drama, co-star­ring Os­car-win­ner J.K. Sim­mons, re­lies on a bold premise: an al­ter­nate ver­sion of the world was cre­ated in the wan­ing days of the Cold War.

Now covert op­er­a­tives travel be­tween “Prime” and “Al­pha” worlds through a por­tal in — where else? — Ber­lin. (Think of it as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” meets “Slid­ing Doors.”) Bo­niadi plays Clare, a par­tic­u­larly zeal­ous agent who sneaks across the bor­der and — spoiler alert — as­sumes her dop­pel­ganger’s iden­tity.

De­spite its outre con­cept, the se­ries, cre­ated by Justin Marks, is rich with “metaphors and al­le­gories of what’s go­ing on to­day,” says Bo­niadi, who is ex­cited by its so­ciopo­lit­i­cal themes.

Born in Iran af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion but raised in Lon­don, Bo­niadi is also an ac­tivist who’s fought to bring at­ten­tion to hu­man rights abuses in her na­tive coun­try through work with the Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights in Iran, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional USA and the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

“I al­ways say as an ac­tor you get to por­tray the hu­man con­di­tion,” she says, “but as an ac­tivist you get to change the hu­man con­di­tion.”

“Home­land,” in which she played a hi­jab-wear­ing CIA an­a­lyst who chal­lenges the agency’s la­tent Is­lama­pho­bia, “was the first time I got to talk about cur­rent af­fairs and for­eign pol­icy in con­nec­tion to my work.” In ad­di­tion to “Coun­ter­part,” she’ll soon be seen with Dev Pa­tel and Ar­mie Ham­mer in “Ho­tel Mum­bai,” a grip­ping ac­count of the 2008 ter­ror at­tack on the Taj Ho­tel in Mum­bai, and in Jay Roach’s un­ti­tled film about Roger Ailes. The fol­low­ing is an edited tran­script.

Q: Clare is such an in­trigu­ing, lay­ered char­ac­ter. What’s it like to play her?

A: I’m Mid­dle Eastern; the last thing I want to do is play a vil­lain. It’s such a cliche.

I au­di­tioned for this role and it was open to all eth­nic­i­ties. My ini­tial con­ver­sa­tion with Justin was, “Please don’t change the name.” I don’t want her to all of a sud­den be named “Fa­tima.” And he said, “I have no in­ten­tion of do­ing that. There are peo­ple who look like you whose names are Clare.” She is a mul­ti­fac­eted woman in­doc­tri­nated to do bad things. And I love the idea that if you can learn to hate, surely you can also learn to love. So that’s re­ally her jour­ney in Sea­son 2: Can she shed her­self of this brain­wash­ing and in­doc­tri­na­tion? Can she find out who she re­ally is? Es­sen­tially she’s leav­ing a cult.

Q: So is the col­or­blind na­ture of the part a de­par­ture for you?

A: I found my­self be­ing at the top of pro­duc­ers’ and stu­dios’ list for Mid­dle Eastern roles, which is a beau­ti­ful po­si­tion to be in, but it does cage you in as an ac­tor. Most Cau­casian ac­tors, they don’t lead with their eth­nic­ity; they’re just play­ing a hu­man be­ing. So with mi­nor­ity ac­tors, it is a strug­gle.

Q: The fate of the “Ho­tel Mum­bai” film was un­cer­tain for a time fol­low­ing the col­lapse of The We­in­stein Co. That must have been frus­trat­ing for you.

A: Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, when some­one does some­thing truly hor­ri­ble, there are di­rect vic­tims but there are also pe­riph­eral vic­tims who suf­fered in the sense that they lost their ca­reers, they had their films tank be­cause of this. It’s re­ally liveli­hoods at stake — col­lat­eral dam­age.

Q: How do you strike the bal­ance be­tween pay­ing your bills and bear­ing the bur­den of


A: I had the bless­ing and priv­i­lege of be­ing on “Home­land.” The show gets crit­i­cized for var­i­ous things, but I found how they treated my char­ac­ter to be very del­i­cate. I wanted to make sure that, af­ter that, I went into some­thing that was equally lay­ered.

I had to au­di­tion for “Coun­ter­part” while on lo­ca­tion in Aus­tralia shoot­ing “Ho­tel Mum­bai.” I had my reser­va­tions cul­tur­ally about what was in­volved with the role. There was a nu­dity clause, there was kiss­ing a woman for the first time. And im­me­di­ately the first thing my mind went to was, “What will the Per­sian com­mu­nity think?” But then I re­al­ized, this is what I do for a liv­ing. Now I look back and I think I can’t imagine hav­ing turned this job down. I would have kicked my­self ev­ery day. It re­ally is the most ther­a­peu­tic role.

Q: How so?

A: I think it’s very self­ex­plana­tory. Hope­fully, peo­ple will just un­der­stand some­times there are per­sonal trau­mas that you don’t ever talk about pub­licly, but you pour it into your work. There are things that have hap­pened in my per­sonal life that I don’t feel com­fort­able pub­licly dis­cussing, but I found a way to through this show and this role — it’s cathar­sis. There’s a tra­jec­tory for this char­ac­ter that mir­rors mine. I’ve never been an as­sas­sin or a ter­ror­ist, but this idea of shed­ding in­doc­tri­na­tion and find­ing out who you are, for me, is a strong one. It has been ex­tremely ther­a­peu­tic for me to be able to put it out into the world through my art as op­posed to openly dis­cussing it.

Q: Are you re­fer­ring to your past ex­pe­ri­ence with Scientology? (Bo­niadi re­port­edly left the or­ga­ni­za­tion.)

A: I’d rather not say. Some things we just talk about through art.


Ac­tress and ac­tivist Nazanin Bo­niad stars in sci-fi es­pi­onage thriller “Coun­ter­part.”

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