Child of the Revolution
Born in Tehran in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, Nazanin Boniadi was just 20 days old when her parents immigrated to London in 1980. “They were forced to flee,” she says. “My parents didn’t want to raise their daughter in a place that was growing increasingly oppressive towards women and girls.” Boniadi channels her independent streak as Ben-Hur’s Esther, the courageous wife of the titular Jerusalem prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). “She really is a moral compass in the film,” the 37-year-old says. “She pulls Judah through.”
After graduating with honors in biology from the University of California, Irvine, Boniadi swapped the security of a medical career for her dream of becoming an actor. “Luckily, nine months after I made that decision, I got my SAG card,” she says. She landed her first role as a nurse on the soap opera General Hospital: The Night Shift. Since then, she’s played a seductive terrorist on Scandal, a clever CIA analyst on Homeland, and a charming girl next door on How I Met Your Mother. She prides herself on being able to move between genres and mediums—and hopes Hollywood will one day make it easier for other actors of color to do so. “I’m grateful for every Middle Eastern role I’ve done,” she says. “But it’s very limiting when people only look at you for your skin color.”
Ben-Hur fulfilled a lifetime wish for Boniadi, who has always wanted to make a film about the ancient world. “It was on my bucket list to do a period piece set in that era,” she says. “I feel really connected to antiquity for some reason.” An added bonus: picking up horseback-riding skills and a renewed appreciation for Roman cuisine. Says Boniadi, laughing, “When we wrapped, I binged on all the wine and pasta and cappuccinos and gelato.”
“I entered the acting world at a time when there was a higher demand for Middle Eastern actors in the post-9/11 world, and yeah, the roles weren’t great,” Boniadi says. Most parts were one-dimensional, or sinister, or both. “But when that one interesting role did come along, I was ready to win it.” Her latest victory? A starring role opposite Armie Hammer and Dev Patel in Hotel Mumbai, a dramatization of the 2008 terrorist attacks in India that killed 164 people. “I’ve hit my stride,” she says.