Nazanin Boniadi has what may be the juiciest role – make that roles – of her career in "Counterpart," a science-fiction-infused espionage thriller now in its second season on Starz.
The drama, costarring 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.
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Born in Iran and raised in London, the UC Irvine graduate has fought to bring attention to human rights abuses in her native country through work with 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." Her upcoming projects are just as culturally relevant: In addition to "Counterpart," she'll be seen with Dev Patel and Armie Hammer in "Hotel Mumbai," about the 2008 terror attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, and in Jay Roach's untitled film about Roger Ailes.
Q: Clare is such a 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. When I got the role, my hesitation was always that, essentially, she's a terrorist. She's been brainwashed and indoctrinated to go out and kill people who she thinks are the other. 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. That's her journey in Season 2: Can she shed herself of this brainwashing and indoctrination? 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. I find ("Counterpart") refreshing after the last few projects, consecutively playing Adnan Salif on "Scandal," Fara Sherazi on "Homeland" and even Esther in "Ben-Hur" – all Middle Eastern.
Q: How does "Hotel Mumbai" fit into that?
A: For me, it's an interesting commentary on socioeconomic divides, because you're throwing people in like my character (a wealthy, Muslim British-Iranian woman), who was raised with a golden spoon in her mouth and has never had to fight for anything in her life, with people who live in the slums. And when you're in that situation, money, religion, race, ethnicity, language don't separate us. Bullets don't discriminate.
Q: The fate of the "Hotel Mumbai" film was uncertain following the collapse of the Weinstein Co. That must have been frustrating.
A: 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. We're lucky we found (distributor) Bleecker Street and have a second chance, but I imagine that didn't happen for a lot of films.
Q: How do you balance paying your bills and bearing the burden of representation?
A: I had the blessing and privilege of being on "Homeland." The show gets criticized, 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 was offered a lot of roles that were very one-dimensional, and I said no. As an actor you want to make money and you want to have momentum, but I've always been an advocate for thinking long term as opposed to the instant gratification of "I'm working!" How about just finding the right project that resonates with your heart and your creativity?
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. It really is the most therapeutic role.
Q: How so?
A: I think it's very self-explanatory. 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.
Q: Let's talk then about how your family's decision to leave Iran informed your advocate work?
A: I was born in the direct aftermath of the revolution in Iran. I was 20 days old when my parents fled. They didn't want to raise their daughter in a social, legal and political climate that was growing increasingly oppressive toward women. Women were protesting against compulsory hijab at the time in the hundreds of thousands. They were being imprisoned and lashed and beaten and forced into submission. My parents fled to London and became political refugees. They led a very comfortable life (in Iran) and they were forced to accept menial jobs. When I see people suffering or disenfranchised or having their rights taken away from them, I feel compelled to want to speak on their behalf.
Q: Have you ever visited Iran?
A: I went to Iran when I was 13. I was walking down the street with my uncle – my mother's brother. My mom was walking behind us and we were stopped by a member of the plainclothes militia. He said, "Can you show me your marriage certificate?" I was 13, my uncle was 45. He thought (my uncle) was walking with his wife. It was just heartbreaking. It was so foreign to me. And now I'm persona non grata, so I definitely can't go back.
My friend, who's a brilliant human rights lawyer, and I wrote a Washington Post op-ed because we wanted to shine a light on what's happening in Iran. Eleven months of protests and it's getting no news coverage. These women are the Rosa Parkses of Iran; they're protesting against compulsory hijab at great personal costs. I feel like what's happening with the #MeToo movement, Time's Up and the Women's March in the U.S. and the anti-compulsory hijab is not a coincidence. They may not be organized under the same banner, but it really is a global awakening of women's rights. We owe it to them to include them in our movement.
Q: What was it like to grow up in exile?
A: My father has never been back to Iran in 39 years. My mother was just back once with me; now she can't go back to because of me. Her brother, my uncle, has Stage 4 lung cancer. Because of the travel ban, it's very hard for him to come here.
The Iranian government kills dissidents; they imprison and torture people who are outspoken against them. So it's a hard thing for me to think about the Iranians who have relatives inside Iran. They'll die without seeing them, and that breaks my heart. That should be a basic human right, to travel, to be with your loved ones. Any regime, politician that deprives you of family is corrupt.