Born in Iran, actress/activist avoids cliches
Nazanin Boniadi plays spy traveling between parallel worlds in ‘Counterpart’
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.”