Ben-Hur‘s Nazanin Boniadi Tells R29: “This Is A Great Time To Be A Woman Of Color”

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.
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.”

"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."

Nazanin Boniadi
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."
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
So why would you leave that stable and Persian parent-approved lifestyle behind?
"I remember just filling a void. I had this artistic, creative side that I was suppressing. I think when you're a creative person and you're not creating, you get depressed and feel miserable. I was like, I should be on cloud 9 right now and yet I still feel unfulfilled. That feeling shouldn't exist when you're accomplishing. At that point, I needed to reexamine and reassess what it is that makes me happy. Performing arts was always a part of my life. could never make a career of it. I was in Southern California and thought that I could actually possibly do this." How’d your parents take the news?
"I called my dad up in London and said, 'Hey. I love you. Thanks for college, but I'm going to go be an actress now.' Needless to say, it didn't go down very well, but rightly so. I understand. I was in my mid-20s, and he was like, 'Wait, what? You're going to do what? You haven't done this professionally. You haven't studied this.' I said, 'No, but I will. I'm going to do this the proper way. I'm going to get training. But I need to give it a shot because if I don't, I'm going to end up regretting it.' So I did, and luckily, it all worked out pretty well. I gave myself a year. I promised them, 'If I make zero progress, I'll go back to academia because clearly it's not for me.' I didn't think I had 10 years to devote to trying because I was already in my mid-20s. So luckily, nine months after that decision, I got my SAG card, and I haven't stopped working since. Let's touch some wood." [She leans over and knocks on a the arm of a nearby chair.]

"I think the post 9/11 mentality on casting — that Middle Eastern people can only be cast as one dimensional or sinister or both — is improving."

Nazanin Boniadi
What was the first step?
"I got my SAG card by doing one scene in an independent film. I immediately booked General Hospital and I was on there for two years. I came out of that, and I thought I needed to get proper training. So I did the intensive RADA program in London. I lived and breathed that over the summer. That changed me as an actor. I had these tools now. I branched out into prime time. I got How I Met Your Mother then Scandal and Homeland. And now, I'm here." I imagine that being a woman — and a person of color to boot — didn’t make it easy to break into the business. Do you have horror stories of having to deal with sexism and racism?
"I've experienced all of the above. The first time I experienced anything like that was in the very beginning before I had an agent. I was taking meetings with agencies. And one agent from a very small agency which shall remain nameless, basically said, 'You look ethnic. You sound British. I have no idea what to do with you.' He also said suspiciously, 'How long have you been acting? And how old are you? And yeah, I don't know that you're ever going to make it, to be honest, as a theatrical actress. Go take some acting classes and maybe come back and we'll consider you for commercials.' It was brutal.
"Those obstacles continue to exist. But there are also strides being made like Ben-Hur. How I Met Your Mother was great because it was an open-ethnicity casting. There was no attention on where Nora came from or her background. And she had a British accent, and I have a British accent, by the way, in Ben-Hur. And I still look ethnic. So clearly, there is a world in which I can get cast. And things are improving. I think the post 9/11 mentality on casting — that Middle Eastern people can only be cast as one-dimensional or sinister or both — is improving. I love where we're headed and I think this is a great time to be a woman and a woman of color. I'm really happy because I feel like for the first time there is hope and opportunity."
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Well, you showed him. The Ben-Hur cast is like a rainbow coalition.
"I’m proud that this diverse cast was assembled before the diversity debate even came up and before the Oscars controversy. Rodrigo’s Brazilian. I'm Iranian. Ayelet Zurer is Israeli. Moises [Arias] is Colombian. We have a fantastic Turkish actor, Haluk Bilginer, who plays my father. And actors from Denmark and Holland, and the U.K. and the U.S. like the fabulous Morgan Freeman. And a Russian director. We filmed in Italy. So it's really universal. So many languages could be heard on our set. It was like the U.N. Another thing I love about this is that outside of Morgan, none of us are household names so it wasn’t stunt casting. Everybody was just basically looking for the right person for each role and that is refreshing. I think they were casting with authenticity in mind."

"I was actually on a pretty strict diet for most of the film because authenticity mattered to me."

Nazanin Boniadi
What drew you to the role of Esther, the slave-turned-prince’s wife-turned disciple of Jesus?
"I love that she's a strong woman. When you look at period pieces like this, set in that era, usually women are demure, docile and don't have much of a voice. Here, you have a character that really drives Judah toward Jesus. Their relationship is the emotional heart of the film along with the Jesus character. So the two of them together bring Judah toward enlightenment. I also am so attracted to the fact that Esther is essentially an activist in her own time. She fought for equality and justice and helped the disenfranchised, and that's my sort of overall mission in life. I connected to her in that sense."
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Do you think you have to be Christian to enjoy the movie?
"I'm not Christian, so I can tell you as someone who is inspired by the story, that forgiveness and unconditional love are universal messages. Anybody with a heart should be able to connect with the message of this film or hopefully be inspired by the message of this film, to be and do better. Whatever kind of vehicle is being used to tell this story, and in this case, it is the story of Jesus inspiring this person, Judah, Ben-Hur, to be and do better. I think if you're inspired by that, then, that's a beautiful thing. It shouldn't be confined to one faith. I love that it should appeal to people of any faith or even the faithless. If it can inspire hope, that's a beautiful thing." Had you ever been to Italy? Did you have a chance to explore while you were filming at the Roman studios?
"I had been to a film festival in Ischia and was in Capri in 2011. Beautiful, but I didn't really get a taste of Italy. And of course, there's all this gelato and wine everywhere. I was actually on a pretty strict diet for most of the film because authenticity mattered to me. As a slave and then a follower of Jesus who helped the poor, she wouldn’t have looked like she never skipped a meal. She would have only eaten what she absolutely needed. It was very important for me not to feel overindulgent with food. To stay in that mindset, I didn't binge on gelato or pasta or wine and cappuccinos until I wrapped. And then, bring it. Which restaurants haven't I been to and what non-gluten-free pasta I can eat? And then always yes to gelato."
Why do you think the story of Ben-Hur resonates as a novel in 1818, in 1959 and today?
"It was just mind-blowing to realize that people back then had the exact same issues as we have now. We're so advanced in so many things like technology — we can travel to the moon, have automobiles and cell phones — and yet, we still don't have justice or equality. We have turmoil and chaos, hunger and poverty. We haven't been able to fix these things. So when people say to me, 'Why are they remaking Ben-Hur' I say, 'Because we really haven't learned our lesson.' We haven't reached the state of unconditional love and forgiveness. We haven't stopped pointing the finger at other people and taken responsibility for our own actions. And until we do, this movie and this message and this story continue to be relevant."

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