In Starz’s critically lauded Counterpart, which airs its series finale tonight, two parallel Earths exist in opposition to one another, with one ravaged by a deadly flu that derails its inhabitants’ lives. A faction from that Earth sends operatives to the other reality, which they blame for the epidemic, killing and replacing their identical “counterparts” as a means of sowing the seeds of a covert campaign for revenge. As Clare, one of those deep-cover agents, Nazanin Boniadi has spent the last two seasons of the twisted sci-fi drama exploring the what-ifs, about-faces, and dualities of knowing things could have gone very different for you, that who you are is just one version of who you could have been, if not for….
Offscreen, Boniadi devotes herself more decisively to a double life, albeit one much less fraught. The Iranian-born actress has appeared on shows such as Homeland and Scandal and has had starring roles in movies like this year’s Hotel Mumbai, based on the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and has long devoted equal effort to the role of international activist. Not satisfied to just dash off the woke hashtag du jour, she’s packed her calendar with speeches, op-eds, and meetings for several organizations, to the point that, early in her career, during her first steady gig on the soap General Hospital, Boniadi says, “There was a moment where my manager had to say to me, ‘Look, I just want to gently remind you that you make a living as an actress and not through your advocacy work.'” Boniadi served as a spokesperson for Amnesty International, and is now an Artist of Conscience with the organization, as well as a board member at the Center for Human Rights in Iran since 2015, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank based in New York.
As Counterpart enters its closing act, Boniadi reflects on embracing the show’s themes, facing the challenges of being a Middle Eastern actress (via both authentic representation and colorblind casting), and how her acting and advocacy become more intertwined—particularly when she was cast in Hotel Mumbai.
The characters on Counterpart have gone through a lot of evolution over two seasons. Looking back, what drew you to Clare, and how is that connection evolving?
Interestingly, they initially gave both me and Sara Serraiocco, who plays Baldwin [an assassin from the parallel Earth], the choice to audition for both Clare and Baldwin. I chose Clare, and she chose Baldwin. We both immediately knew what spoke to us. When I first took the role, Justin [Marks, the show’s creator] assured me that while she is technically the antagonist in season 1, she’s multilayered, multifaceted, and that we will explore the reason she is the way she is. Which we are.
The beauty of playing this character is that she has flaws, major things that she does wrong in life—she can be good, bad, and all of the above. And none of it is tied to her race, her religion, her ethnicity. In fact, one of the main conversations I’d first had with Justin was, “The character’s name is Clare, and I know she’s an antagonist, but I don’t want you to all of a sudden, because you cast me, give her a Middle Eastern name or make her Middle Eastern.” And he very quickly said, “Oh, no, no. We have no intention of doing that. The character is Clare. You are playing Clare.” I just want to play a complex, kick-ass woman.
Middle Eastern actresses often have to contend with the challenges of representation. As you mentioned, there’s the fear of your ethnicity being inorganically imposed on a role after you’re cast. Or having your experience written by white or male writers who haven’t done their research. How have you faced those issues in your career?
It’s one thing if you audition for a role like, for example, Adnan Salif in Scandal, and the character was only Adnan Salif. (Though the odd thing is that Adnan is a male name and they cast me, so maybe the initial intention was for the character to be a man and then they made it a woman, which is great.) I’m cool with that. But it’s another thing if you take a role, you accept it and then [it changes]. I’ve never had that experience, or at least I’ve put up a fight every time that’s been attempted. Luckily, with Counterpart I didn’t need to put up a fight. I asked the question and it was very quickly addressed. So I felt very safe.
And I do think white writers can write minority roles. I feel safe in the hands of someone who is open to listen. For example, I’m filming [Fair and Balanced] the Roger Ailes movie [as journalist Rudi Bakhtiar] and people may say, “Well, [screenwriter] Charles Randolph is a white man and [director] Jay Roach is a white man, so why are they making a movie about women?” But these are two men who, in my experience, listen to women. They collaborate with women. They champion women. Frankly, there are women who don’t champion women. So just being a woman doesn’t qualify one to be a voice for women, and just being a man doesn’t disqualify one to write for or direct women. I think the key thing in our industry is to find people who are collaborative, open to listening, and being champions for the voices that they’re writing and portraying.
For example, there was a scene in Homeland where my character, Fara Sherazi, went to her own home with her father. They had put Urdu newspapers all over Fara’s house. I looked at the papers and said, “This is actually in Urdu and you’re going to want Persian newspapers, because we don’t speak Urdu in Iran.” It was an oversight, but it wasn’t by any means racist, and they corrected it immediately. It’s just something that we as actors have to do sometimes, to bring it to people’s attention if something is inauthentic or rings untrue.
You star in Hotel Mumbai, which opens on March 29, alongside Dev Patel and Armie Hammer. How did you come to be cast?
I read the script, and I was just enamored by it. They sent me [director Anthony Maras’] short films, because he was a first-time feature director. I thought his work was incredible and I really wanted to work with him. So I took a meeting with him over coffee and he said, “You know, Naz, I have to be honest. I have never seen you act.” I thought, Wait, then what am I doing here? It turns out a number of people had mentioned my name because the character is Iranian and Muslim, and he did some Googling and came across an Amnesty International women’s rights speech I did. He said, “I watched that and I immediately knew you were right for this role.” Now, the character in Hotel Mumbai is not a human rights advocate, she doesn’t give speeches of any kind, but I think what he saw was maybe an inner determination that really, Zahra, the character, had to tap into over her arc in the film. It was an emotional moment to realize what had led him to me.
The 2008 attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was explored in the documentary Surviving Mumbai. Were you confident going into your project that there was more to illuminate by revisiting the event in fictionalized form?
I think there’s something to be said about the beauty of filmmaking in a fictionalized form, because you get to immerse people in an experience. I’m actually an avid documentary watcher. I just watched Three Identical Strangers and loved it. I think it’s valuable to watch documentaries as case studies and character examinations—they make you feel informed and enlightened, like you’ve broadened your horizons. But what I also love about telling a story in narrative form is that as an audience member, you get a visceral, immersive experience.
As actors, you try to understand people, and you get to explore how even the bad guys were human at the end of the day. Some were pawns, they were manipulated, brainwashed, or radicalized. In documentaries, you very rarely get to sit down with terrorists and people who did those horrific things and get more insight into why. I’m not talking about the humanization of people who do evil things, but I’m talking about understanding their psyche. And [through the survivors] you get a sense of hope, of human resilience and working together to survive in the face of such horror.
Dramatizing radical Islamic terrorist attacks is a delicate high-wire act. In the movie, Muslim characters are notably heroes, victims, attackers, onlookers, all from different backgrounds. Did that draw you to the story?
You know, I play a Muslim woman who, in one scene, when faced with her own mortality, turns to her faith and says a Muslim prayer in Arabic [for strength]. You don’t normally see that. I feel like that moment is like a face-off between the perversion of a faith, and an authentic representation of it. I think it’s very important to have those nuances. Some people may say [movies depicting these events] might incite Islamophobia, but my answer to that is that it’s based on a true story. It happened. It’s like saying you can’t make a movie about the Crusades. It happened, and it shouldn’t reflect badly on every Christian, and [movies about terrorist attacks like the one on the Taj] shouldn’t reflect badly on every Muslim. The nuance in these stories is what makes the difference.
You’ve engaged in a lot of advocacy work, particularly in issues that affect your birth country of Iran. How did you first become inspired to do that kind of activism?
I was born in Tehran shortly after the Iranian Revolution, and because of the situation I was born into, my parents quickly decided they didn’t want to raise a daughter in a social, political, and legal climate that was growing increasingly oppressive towards women and girls. They fled to London, where I was raised. But I visited Iran when I was 13, for two months, and that experience touched me so deeply. So I never really felt severed from my own people—I have family there to this day. I remember being five years old and seeing footage of the Iran–Iraq War on BBC and crying. I always had this gut feeling, a desire to someday try to be a voice for the voiceless in Iran.
And through that work—whether it’s writing op-eds, or giving speeches, or visiting Capitol Hill, UK parliament, or the Bundestag, the German parliament—I want to remind officials that the Iranian people are suffering, and not to overlook human rights abuses in Iran, while they’re working on foreign policy. As actors, we have so much attention on us, and when I can, I want to divert that attention back onto people who really need it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.