Nazanin Boniadi is on screens now as the mysterious Adnan Salif on the hit show Scandal.
The Iranian-born actress tells NPR's Michel Martin that she loves the role because it plays with people's perceptions. "The beauty of Adnan Salif is, is she a bad guy, or is she just completely lost, is she just damaged goods?" she asks. But she believes that ambiguity is also the key to the show. "The thing that I love about Scandal is every character, it's not clear if they're good or bad. Everyone is both good and bad."
Boniadi admits her other current TV role is less of an enigma; she plays strong-willed CIA analyst Fara Sherazi on Homeland.
"Here's a Muslim women who has ambition, who has goals, who has a strong sense of self, who has a strong sense of justice, what's right, what's wrong," she says. And she points out that the feedback she has got from playing the role has been overwhelmingly positive. "I love that role from the depth of my soul just because I think it is very ground-breaking, in the sense that Muslim women aren't usually portrayed in any kind of positive strong light on television or on screen."
She also loves the fact that her character Sherazi works towards a very American goal. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the American dream, and keeping America safe," she explains. "Because Fara understands that what she's fled from is a life of repression. What she wants to guard more than anything is freedom."
On switching from medicine to acting
You know, medicine, anything academic is a very Persian Iranian route to take in life, in one's career. but I always knew I wanted to help people so that's really why I wanted to pursue medicine. I thought that was maybe the only way I could help people ... But as I grew older, I realized it wasn't really my true calling. I had to work really hard to get those good grades, and I did graduate with honors from [University of California Irvine] ... and then I had to call my very Persian father and tell him, "thank you for paying for university, but I'm going to go act now."
On her father's reaction to the decision
I understand the concerns. He just wanted me to be secure and safe and happy, and have an income really. But I said to him, "give me a year, and if I'm not making a living as an actor in a year, then I will take whatever you say seriously, and I will reconsider." But fortunately it took me about nine months to start working professionally as an actor, so I knew I'd made the right decision.
On how she is feeling as she celebrates Nowruz (Persian New Year)
Being upped on Homeland to series regular and having this amazing ride on Scandal. It's been...2014, I'm still pinching myself!
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. If you are a fan of the hit TV show, "Scandal," you might have noticed a new character on the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")
COLUMBUS SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) What do you want?
NAZANIN BONIADI: (As Adnan Salif) Your boss has friends at the justice department, yes?
SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) She knows people. Why?
BONIADI: (As Adnan Salif) Because I may be looking for an escape route. You know what? Never mind. Forget this ever happened.
SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) Adnan, hey.
MARTIN: Well, hey, that mystery character is Adnan Salif and she is played by actress Nazanin Boniadi. If you haven't seen her on "Scandal," then you probably know her from that other hit drama "Homeland," where she just became a series regular. She's been making a splash on American television, but she was born in Iran and grew up in London. And since today is Persian New Year, or Nowruz, we thought this would be a good time to ask her to tell us more about her work and the holiday. Nazanin, thank you so much for joining us and eyd-i sal-i now mobarak.
BONIADI: Thank you, Michel. Thanks for having me and Nowruz Peruz, happy Persian New Year to everybody listening.
MARTIN: Tell me more about the Persian new year. Nowruz literally means new day in Persian or Farsi. And Nowruz is celebrated really around the world, I mean, Afghanistan, Albania, Turkey.
MARTIN: What about London? Do you remember - can you tell us about some of your celebrations there in London where you grew up?
BONIADI: Yeah, well I grew - exactly, I grew up in London until I moved to the state and so I had 19 years in London of celebrating Nowruz. And, you know, there's a quite big Persian community in London. We do tend to gather. There's a lot of outdoor activities if the weather permits, 'cause usually it's quite damp and overcast. But the parks get filled up with Iranians, Persians celebrating, having picnics with family and loved ones. So it's a very cheerful day.
MARTIN: Did you have a haft-seen, the ceremonial table with the seven S's?
BONIADI: Yes, it's a massive tradition and we would accompany that with the poetry book by Hafez, who's a very well-known Persian poet. And my father would read poetry to us. And that was our tradition in our household. And yeah, we had the seven S's, things like vinegar and garlic and apple. These all signify various things. For example, apple, which is seeb, starts with an s. That's why it's called the seven S's. It signifies beauty and vinegar signifies patience and old age wisdom. It's a really beautiful tradition.
MARTIN: Do you have any favorite dishes that you used to have or that you're looking forward to having this year? In small quantities, I'm sure, because, you know, you have to keep your TV-ready figure?
BONIADI: Well, that's the thing. Persian food is filled with rice and so it's not conducive to a TV diet, really, but I can't help it. That's the one day that I have to eat everything there is to eat 'cause, you know, my mother's an amazing cook. And I love the sabzi pollo mahi, which is fish and rice. It's a massive tradition in our house to have that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with actress Nazanin Boniadi. She might have seen her on the hit television show, "Scandal" or on "Homeland," where she has just become a regular and will be when that series resumes. So how did you get into acting? I understand that you wanted to be a doctor first? And I hope it won't embarrass you if I recall that you won a prestigious award as an undergraduate at the University of California Irvine for your work on heart transplant and cancer research...
MARTIN: ...Before you switched acting.
MARTIN: Congratulations on that.
BONIADI: Thank you, very much.
MARTIN: What made you switch?
BONIADI: Well, you know, medicine - anything academic is a very Persian, Iranian route to take in life and in one's career. But I always knew I wanted to help people, so that's really why I wanted to pursue medicine. I thought that was maybe the only way I could help people, devote my life to helping people. But as I grew older, I realized it wasn't really my true calling. I had to work really hard to get those good grades and I did graduate with honors from UCI in premed with a degree in biological sciences. And then I had to call my very Persian father and tell him, thank you for paying for university, but I'm going to go act now. And needless to say, it didn't go over very well because...
MARTIN: How far away from your head did you have to hold the phone?
BONIADI: Well, he didn't shout. I think he was very confused.
MARTIN: He was like, what? Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?
BONIADI: Exactly. He's like, wait. It's one thing if you flunk out of college, but you just graduated with honors. What are you doing? Honestly, I think he was just very concerned for me and rightly so. I understand. I was in my mid-twenties and he thought, you know, you've devoted half of your academic career to pursuing one thing and now you're going to go start something completely anew and from the beginning without any experience. And, you know, this is a route that people start as kids. And a lot of people study acting and they still can't really make a career of it.
So I understand the concerns. He just wanted me to be secure and safe and happy and have an income, really. But I said to him, I said give me a year and if I'm not making a living as an actor in a year, then I will take whatever you say seriously and I will reconsider. But fortunately, it took me about nine months to start working professionally as an actor, so I knew I'd made the right decision.
MARTIN: How did you do it? How did you break in? What did you do? Trading your lab coat in for a lot less clothes, sometimes.
BONIADI: Yes. Exactly. It was very scary, I'll be honest. But I think when you love what you do, I think you'll find a way. And my way was to literally take jobs for free just to make a reel, a showreel, to send to managers and agents to be able to get representation, 'cause that's really the first thing you need to get a foot in the door in this industry. You know, I took as many free jobs as I could get in doing student films and putting a reel together and sent it out with my scant resume.
And one thing led to another and I landed on "General Hospital" for two years. And then I took a bit of a break and went to RADA, which is the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and took an intensive study in acting there, which really honed my skills, I think, and made me a better actor. They're brilliant over there. And yeah, and then I came back and I continued on in prime time, yeah.
MARTIN: Tell us little bit about "Scandal." How did you get on the show? And what else can you tell us about your character, if anything?
BONIADI: I can't tell you much about the character.
MARTIN: Or you'd have to kill us, right?
BONIADI: I would. I'd have to get B613 to do some kind of secret mission and wipe out everybody's memories. But yeah, the way I got it was I think Linda Lowy, who is a phenomenal casting director who cast me actually, in "Grey's Anatomy," which is another Shonda Rhimes' show - Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers created "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" and "Scandal." And when this role came along, she really championed me. And rightly so, I think there was some concern about me not perhaps having it - done anything quite like this in my past. So I went in and read for it and Linda showed Shonda and Betsy my tape and they were convinced.
And I will tell you, it's such an incredible experience to be surrounded by women such as Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers and Linda Lowy. That's three trailblazers, I think, in television and they're all women. And it's been a blessing, this job. And then Kerry, of course, Kerry Washington who is the lead of the show. Number one on the call sheet is another woman who's a trailblazer and groundbreaker. And I think to be in this environment with all these women doing such magnificent work and setting such great examples for other women to follow has been a blessing.
MARTIN: And you also, as we mentioned, working on the series "Homeland"...
MARTIN: ...Where you play a strong-willed CIA analyst named Fara Sherazi, a practicing Muslim. You do wear a veil. Tell us about that role, if you would, and how people have reacted to it.
BONIADI: Well, I think it's been overwhelmingly positive, the feedback that I have gotten. And I love that role from the depth of my soul just because I think it is very groundbreaking in the sense that Muslim women aren't usually portrayed in any kind of positive, strong light on television or on screen. And I think...
MARTIN: Certainly not as professionals.
BONIADI: Exactly, exactly. And here's a Muslim woman who has ambition, who has goals, who has a strong sense of self, who has a strong sense of justice, what's right, what's wrong. I love the juxtaposition of how different she looks than Kerry, who's played by the wonderful Claire Danes. You know, they couldn't look more different, they couldn't sound more different. Fara Sherazi has an accent, she's Iranian American, she dresses conservatively and she wears a headscarf and her features are dark.
And on the other hand you have, you know, Kerry who's blonde and westernized. And yet there's a strong, powerful scene in season three where they're standing side by side and they're working toward the same goal. And that is, you know, really life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The American dream and keeping America safe because Fara understands that what she's fled from is a life of repression. What she wants to guard more than anything is freedom.
MARTIN: Well, you've certainly had a happy Nowruz already, haven't you?
BONIADI: I have, especially being upped on "Homeland" to series regular and having this amazing ride on "Scandal." It's been - 2014, I'm still pinching myself.
MARTIN: You can't give us any hint about what's going to happen? Your character's already giving - making one of the characters, Harrison, very nervous.
MARTIN: Anything? Give us some kind of...
BONIADI: I will say, I think...
MARTIN: ...Give us a little crumb.
BONIADI: The thing that I love, I will say, is that again, playing with people's perceptions you look at her and she's very westernized, isn't she? She's the opposite of
Fara Sherazi on "Homeland." And we presume we know what people are like just by looking at them. And the reason I took on this role was because she is the opposite of Fara on "Homeland" in the way she dresses and in her sensibilities in her character. And so I think the beauty about Nazanin is is she a bad guy or is she just completely lost? Is she just damaged goods?
And I think the thing that I love about "Scandal" is every character is not clear if they're good or bad. Everyone is both good and bad. So in that sense, I enjoy playing her 'cause you never really understand is she pure evil or underneath it all is there a soft spot somewhere?
MARTIN: So presumably dad stopped worrying about your career?
BONIADI: I think now he's convinced. After a few people being like, oh yeah, you know, we saw your daughter on television. He's like, oh, so you're working? I said, yes dad, I'm working and I'm happy.
MARTIN: Good Nowruz present for him.
BONIADI: Yes, no he's thrilled for me. He really is.
BONIADI: Nazanin Boniadi is an actress. You can see her on not one, but two hit television shows, "Scandal" and "Homeland." And she was kind enough to join us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Happy Nowruz, once again, Nazanin. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on everything.
BONIADI: Thank you so much. Happy Nowruz.
MARTIN: And for more on the food traditions of Nowruz, check out our food blog, The Salt, at NPR.org. And you can tweet your Nowruz photos using #NowruzNPR. That's N-O-W-R-U-Z NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.