If brains, beauty, and talent are the holy trifecta in Hollywood, then Nazanin Boniadi has hit the jackpot. And then some. Had she followed her original career path, the Tehran-born, London-raised actress would be better known as Dr. Nazanin Boniadi by now. But in the midst of applying to medical school after earning her degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine, (where she was awarded the Chang Pin-Chun Award for her work in cancer and heart transplant-rejection research), Boniadi realized it wasn’t meant to be her path in life. But acting? Well, that was a different story.
Less than a year after trading classrooms for casting calls, the now-34-year-old actress who is better known as “Naz” to her friends landed her first part. Shortly thereafter she became a series regular on—wait for it—General Hospital, where she blazed new trails by becoming the first Iranian-born actress on contract to an American soap opera and the first Middle Eastern series regular. Roles in Charlie Wilson’s War, Iron Man, and The Next Three Days followed, as did a one-season guest spot on How I Met Your Mother (where she played a love interest for Neil Patrick Harris).
But the past year has been the big one for Boniadi, who landed major roles on the third seasons of two of television’s biggest series: as FBI analyst and Saul Berenson protégé Fara Sherazi on Homeland, and as the mysterious terrorist Adnan Salif in Scandal. This month, Boniadi will reprise her Homeland character, now as a series regular and full-on field agent. At the same time, she’s become a familiar face on the activist scene, working as a spokesperson for Amnesty International and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Boniandi spoke with us from Cape Town, South Africa, where she’s finishing up filming on the Showtime hit’s fourth season, to talk about acting, activism, and starting from scratch.
DETAILS: You earned a degree in biology and were on your way to medical school. How did you end up in Hollywood?
Nazanin Boniadi: I think my goal in life was to try to find an occupation where I could help people. Now how I ended up in acting? [Laughs.] Being from a Persian background, the culture encourages you to follow a very academic career—medicine, law, engineering—but the arts aren’t really encouraged. So while I was in high school, I was very much into the performing arts—I was in school plays, I did ballet, I played the violin—but it was only encouraged as a hobby. So I got my degree in biology, with honors. And I worked really hard to get the honors. It wasn’t one of those career paths that was like, ‘OK, this feels right because it’s really easy for me to get an A.’ I worked so hard. And with that comes the feeling of, ‘Well, this doesn’t feel right because it doesn’t feel like home to me.’ It felt like I was working a lot harder than everybody else who was getting As. So I called my dad in England and said, ‘Listen, I graduated with honors in a degree that you feel happy with. Now I want to do what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘What’s that? Do you want to go to law school?’ And then he listed all these very academic things, and I said, ‘Actually, I want to act.’ There was about three minutes of silence, and I said, ‘Dad? Are you still there? Are you okay?’ I think it was hard for him to accept because I was in my mid-20s at that point, and he was understandably worried because I was embarking on something that I had no professional experience in—or even academic experience; I hadn’t studied it or anything. So I said, ‘Listen, give me a year. If I fail miserably and make no progress, then I’ll go to medical school or I’ll do something academic.’ I guess I’m lucky, because nine months after that I got my SAG card and I booked my first job.
DETAILS: Was there a particular event or moment that you can point to that really made you decide, ‘Okay, I’m doing this! I’m switching gears and I’m going to take a chance on an acting career?’
Nazanin Boniadi: As I was applying to medical school I had this kind of epiphany that I was about to commit myself to four more years of studying, of going to medical school, and then the whole residency and internship. And that’s not where my heart was leading me. So it was really a matter of just being very honest with myself, as scary as that was. And it was very scary, even for me, as I was halfway to the finish mark of being a doctor and I decided to start from scratch. Being from an academic background I knew that I had to study acting; it wasn’t like I was just going to say, ‘Okay, I’m an actress now.’ So I really started from the bottom and became a student in something that I had no experience in. So it was very scary. Part of the medical-school application is writing essays on why you want to be a doctor, so it’s really like therapy. [Laughs.] You really have to start being honest with yourself. And as I was writing these essays as to why I want to do what I want to do, I realized, Yes, I do have a primary goal of helping people, but there are other ways of doing that.
DETAILS: Which makes it fairly ironic that one of your first major roles was on General Hospital. At least you could call your dad and tell him that!
Nazanin Boniadi: Yes. But of course he said, “Why are you playing a nurse? Couldn’t they have made you a doctor?” [Laughs.]
DETAILS: You became the first Iranian-born actress on contract for an American soap and also the first contract actress to play a Middle Eastern character on daytime television, both of which are pretty big feats—especially for someone just starting out in her career. Did you feel any pressure when it came to being a bit of a trailblazer in Hollywood for Middle Eastern actors? Were there certain aspects of the character’s heritage that were important for you to portray?
Nazanin Boniadi: Sure. Because there aren’t too many Iranians in Hollywood, there was the responsibility of trying my best to represent the community as best as I could. But there were definitely people who opened the doors for me: Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Academy Award nominee from House of Sand and Fog, is a trailblazer, Shaun Toub, who was on Homeland last season, he’s been around for decades in Hollywood. Being in my own kind of category, of course there comes a responsibility with that. But, for me, I can’t take that too seriously. At the end of the day the goal is to do the best job you can do, go home, and forget about it.
DETAILS: You also spent a season on How I Met Your Mother, which allowed you to transition into a bit of comedy. For you personally is it easier to do comedy or drama?
Nazanin Boniadi: For me, drama always feels a lot more comfortable. I remember when I was cast on How I Met Your Mother, thinking, ‘This is interesting that they think I can be funny.’ Because I’ve never found myself to be funny. But then family members would say, ‘Naz, you’re quirky!’ In my personal life I’m told that I’m pretty quirky, and I still to this day don’t really know what that means. I guess it means that they find me odd? [Laughs.]
DETAILS: On the show you played one of the few actual loves of Neil Patrick Harris’s notorious ladies man, Barney. What is it that attracts you to someone in real life?
Nazanin Boniadi: Physically, it’s the eyes. As corny as it sounds, they are the windows to the soul. But by rule I find a good sense of humor extremely attractive. Somebody who knows how to laugh and smile at life.
DETAILS: You’re coming back to Homeland this season as a series regular. Were you a fan of the show before you were cast on it?
Nazanin Boniadi: I had had friends who were guest stars, so I had followed the show—I found it gripping and extremely well-written and well-acted, of course—but I hadn’t watched it from the beginning. I wasn’t an avid watcher until I got the job, and when I did, I marathoned it in about 48 hours. Not because I had to, but because I was glued. [Laughs.] Then I realized what the fuss is about because I basically became a fan of the show that I’m on, which you can’t always say as an actor. You can’t always say that you’re a genuine fan of the show that you’re doing.
DETAILS: What was it that most attracted you to the character of Fara?
Nazanin Boniadi: I think that Homeland has created a ground-breaking character. She is so multifaceted and, in my opinion, the first prominent Muslim on television that is just a human being. She’s not a cliché. She’s no angel, she’s no devil, she’s just a person. And just like Carrie, the protagonist of the show, who is flawed but is basically good. Fara’s the same; there’s no difference. And being Muslim is secondary to the fact that she is just a girl trying to make her way through life. So in that sense I found her very compelling. The way she was written was not cliché to me at all, and it was a great moment when I booked the role. I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I remember just looking at an e-mail from my agent and I literally squealed. All of these film people were looking at me like, “Why is this woman squealing?” But it was that exciting for me to get this job, because there are just so many directions that she can be taken in.
DETAILS: What sort of research did you have to do for the role?
Nazanin Boniadi: Luckily I am Iranian, so I drew from just growing up in an Iranian family and knowing the culture firsthand. But also, because of my ties with Amnesty International and now the Council on Foreign Relations, I’m very tapped into that world. So we actually got assigned a book to read this season, which was a Council on Foreign Relations book, which was how I became a member. So I had the luxury of calling the author of the book and picking his brain about what life is like in Pakistan. So I basically just asked him every single question that I had about how my character would be in that setting and what the customs and mores are of being in that country. Because although Fara’s Muslim, she’s Iranian, so I wanted to make that part realistic. People assume that all Muslim countries are the same, when they’re not. So you have to kind of find your own answers. And then you are going to find that Fara is very different this season than she was last season because she’s not an analyst anymore, she’s an agent. So she’s in the field and she’s undercover, so she’s continuing to learn the art of espionage throughout this season. So I spoke to people in the national-security arena and then just did a lot of reading, a lot of YouTube watching, and a lot of talking to experts.
DETAILS: Is there anything more action-oriented in store for her this season now that her role has changed?
Nazanin Boniadi: It’s definitely more action-oriented. She gets her hands dirty. Weapons training? Not yet. We are halfway through the season, so let’s see what the rest of the season has in store. [Laughs.]
DETAILS: What about any sort of fight training?
Nazanin Boniadi: Not yet, but she’s definitely out there as far as taking risks. I will say that the thing I love most about Fara is that she’s a very strong character but she often surprises herself with her strength. I don’t think she realizes quite how brave and strong she is, so when she does something that’s quite risky, it’s this moment of, ‘Oh, goodness. I just did that!’
DETAILS: She’s also a very intelligent, strong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, which I think can make her intimidating at times. And seems like something you could relate to. Do you think that people find you intimidating in real life?
Nazanin Boniadi: I’m quite petite in real life, so I think that there’s an assumption that people who come in small packages are sweet and demure and naive. And not to say that I’m not sweet, but I definitely am outspoken and anybody who follows my human-rights activities knows that I have no problem standing in front of hundreds of people and speaking my mind. It’s interesting this whole idea of looking at someone and assuming who they are, which is also why I love playing [this character] because I can relate to that.
DETAILS: Speaking of your activism: I just read a piece that you wrote on gender-based violence for The Huffington Post, which was great. How does your activism influence the roles that you choose? Do you look for work that allows you to say something about the causes that are most important to you?
Nazanin Boniadi: I try to, definitely, [but] I don’t always have the luxury to. Because at the end of the day I just have to work. And those roles are very limited. Not too long ago I was actually telling Alex Gansa, our show runner and creator, ‘Thank you for giving me this job because it fuses the two worlds that I love so much together.’ And then I have a film coming out, Desert Dancer, where I have a relatively small, supporting role, but it was a passion project. It comes out in March in the States and it’s being released by Relativity. Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen and Reece Ritchie are the leads, and I loved it because it’s based on a true human-rights story set in Iran. And how often are you able to find material like that? I thrive in those roles.
DETAILS: Activism has sort of become a part-time pastime in Hollywood for some people, who are really just lending their name or face to a cause. You’re actually out there doing the work, traveling to speak to groups, and writing articles about these issues. Do you think that anytime somebody lends his or her name to a cause is a good thing? Or is it important that really get their hands dirty?
Nazanin Boniadi: I love working at ground zero. I love grassroots activism as much as I love lending my name to something. I think the most important thing is that it comes from a genuine place. I was born in the height of the Iranian Revolution; it’s part of my consciousness to want to change conditions for the better in Iran. It’s something I was raised with, so it’s in my blood. But people around me sometimes have to say, ‘No, you are an actress. Don’t forget that.’ Because sometimes I throw myself into the activism and make that the priority in my life. So it just has to come naturally. And if it’s genuine, then I always applaud it.
DETAILS: Did you have any desire to step behind the camera and document some of the work that you’re doing, or write or direct a project based on these issues?
Nazanin Boniadi: I don’t know about the future, but for now I will leave it to people who are much, much better at it than I would be. I will stick to the acting and try to perfect this, or try to grow as much as I can as an actor and be the type of actor I want to be before I even embark on something that sounds to me so all-encompassing.
DETAILS: I know you can’t tell us very much about the new season of Homeland, but what’s one little thing you can tease us with about the upcoming season?
Nazanin Boniadi: You’re going to see Fara in a way that you’ve never seen her. In fact I think the first moment she’s reintroduced in the storyline, which is episode three, you’re going to see Fara and say, ‘Wow, that’s not the Fara that we’re used to.’ She’s going to be very different from what she was last year. She’s headed in a different direction. And the characters have shifted. Saul used to be the director of the CIA, now he’s out on the field, outside the CIA. Carrie has been elevated in the CIA. You’re going to see Quinn facing a lot of demons and more things that he needs to overcome. And then Fara’s being mentored by Carrie this season. It was Saul last season, now it’s Carrie. So it’s a fresh start.
DETAILS: And the women are finally taking over.
Nazanin Boniadi: Exactly. [Laughs.]