Nazanin Boniadi couldn’t help but feel blessed last weekend. And it wasn’t simply because she was in Los Angeles promoting the Ben-Hur remake, an epic tale of faith, freedom, and forgiveness set in Jerusalem during Jesus’ carpenter years.
“At one point today, I was sitting in an interview with [co-stars] Rodrigo [Santoro] on my left and Morgan [Freeman] on my right, and I thought, ‘I am sandwiched between Jesus and God,’” Boniadi joked during an exclusive interview with Refinery29. “I’m pretty sure that is basically what heaven feels like.”
Not that her spirited outlook isn’t also bolstered by the fact that her acting career, which didn’t even start until after the Iranian-born, London-raised stunner graduated from college (with honors in biological sciences), seems touched by an angel. (Sometimes quite literally. Ben-Hur was produced by Roma Downey.)
“I am a Middle Eastern woman in a leading role in a Hollywood film with this kind of budget releasing in the summer. That doesn’t happen every day,” said Boniadi, who came from the Australian set of her next gig, Hotel Mumbai, in which she plays a hostage and wife of fellow captive Armie Hammer. “I am so grateful that [they] took the chance and did the right thing by casting authentically because this is what people looked like in that region.”
Still, Boniadi knows all too well that the casting process isn’t always concerned with getting it right or turning a color-blind eye. The Homeland and How I Met Your Mother alum recounted tales of her early days in Hollywood, addressed diversity in the entertainment industry, and touched on a variety of topics including how she almost became a doctor, Ben-Hur’s powerful and enduring message, and filming in the land of gelato, pasta and pizza.
Your bio makes it sound like you were well on your way to curing cancer when the call of the stage became too hard to resist.
“Since I was probably five years old, [I knew] that I wanted to help people and help make this world a better place, as cheesy as that sounds. I’m Iranian, so culturally it was instilled in me from a very young age that education is key. And then [my parents would] say, ‘The world is yours. You can be a doctor, a lawyer, engineer, or a dentist. I was like, Okay. Medicine sounds appealing because you get to help people…I’m going to be a doctor because that’s what good Persian girls do. I graduated high school top of my class. I moved to the U.S., and I went to U.C. Irvine where I studied biological sciences, pre-med. I graduated with honors, applied to a bunch of medical schools, and took the MCAT three times. I was doing cancer research and winning awards.”