It’s nine in the morning and U.S.-based Afghani actress Azita Ghanizada is “snuggled up in Toronto” preparing for a day of being shot at as she struggles to come to terms with her newly acquired super-senses. Or, at least, pretending to be shot at.
Ghanizada has just started filming Alphas, a new show in which five “ordinary citizens” with enhanced neurological capabilities solve crimes for the Department of Defense.
“I play a young woman, Rachel, who was raised in an extremely strict, traditional Middle Eastern home – a conservative, traditional culture. She’s been gifted with this ability where she can hyper-intensify her senses,” says Ghanizada. “But what makes her special is also what curses her.”
That’s a neat summary of Ghanizada herself. Throughout her life – from when her parents fled Afghanistan as refugees when the Soviets invaded when she was a young child, through school in Virginia (“in that blond, Christian beltway of America”), to trying to build her career – her ethnicity and cultural background have been both a help and a hindrance.
Like Rachel, Ghanizada was raised in a strict conservative home. “My parents fell victim to the ideas of their culture and their family members,” she says. “We weren’t allowed to stay and play sports after school. We weren’t allowed to be seen with boys. We were not allowed to actively participate in American culture.”
That didn’t make things easy for Ghanizada and her sisters. “It was tough,” she says. “I think we were lost in translation. I had really brown skin and really thick eyebrows. And everyone else was really blond, preppy and rode horses. My mom thought witches would come and get us if we showered at night. I was going to school and reading Judy Blume, then, at home, my mom’s showing me pictures of children missing limbs from landmines in Afghanistan. It was so… weird.”
While her parents didn’t approve of much American culture, there was one area where Ghanizada and her mother bonded: Television. “My mom watched American TV religiously,” Ghanizada explains. “We’d just sit and watch soap operas. That’s where I learned a flair for the dramatic. My mom did too. She still, to this day, thinks she’s Joan Collins back in 1984.”
The family also made regular trips to the one cinema in Virginia that showed Bollywood movies. The young Ghanizada would dream of being on screen herself. By the time she was 12, she’d already practiced and perfected her Oscar-acceptance speech. She has, she says, “always imagined a life on television.”
That was not the life her parents imagined for her, though. “When I talked about it, they laughed.” Regardless, she decided to head to Los Angeles. Her parents, of course, weren’t happy about it, and Ghanizada “lost touch” with them for a few years. “I arrived in Hollywood with a maroon suitcase from Kabul with three wheels on it, no money and no family,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anyone, so I decided to live in the 90210 district. I thought it was safe, because I’d seen Beverley Hills 90210.”
Gradually, she began to get work in TV commercials, thanks to her “non-descript ethnicity,” which enabled her to play Mediterranean, Indian, and Arabic roles. “I did some bad TV, some short films and some plays in 40-seat theaters that no one came to see,” Ghanizada says. “Then I was up for a big movie – the lead girl in The Kite Runner. I got down to the last two. The other girl got it. That was really devastating for me.”
Things looked up a little when she landed a role in a spin-off of the popular daytime soap General Hospital (imaginatively entitled General Hospital: Night Shift). It wasn’t The Kite Runner, but it did give her regular work. And another unexpected benefit.
“In the Afghan community, I don’t think I could ever do any better,” she says. “I was on a soap! I got to kiss Antonio Sabato Jr.! They were so proud.”
By this point, her parents had also begun to reconcile themselves to their daughter’s life choices. “As time went on, they started to see that, ‘Hey, she’s bright. She’s earning a living. She’s capable. She’s kind. All the things that we wanted for her to become, she is.’ I think they’re proud to see an Afghan girl on TV – particularly their own daughter.”
They are even, she says, OK with her racier roles. “I spoke to my dad a little while ago about some of the sexy stuff that’s happening. I said, ‘I don’t want you to be surprised, but we’re promoting my show. I’m proud to be the first Afghan girl to break on U.S. TV and I’m proud of my body.’ He asked ‘Are you naked?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well then, f*** ‘em.’ Go poppa!”
Following General Hospital, Ghanizada notched up a number of guest appearances on hit shows including Castle, Ghost Whisperer and Entourage. “I built kind of a fanbase,” she says. Then Alphas arrived. So Ghanizada is set to be a superhero for a while.
She won’t be content just being an action hero, though. “I want to play complicated, interesting women,” she says. “Whether they’re in a funny situation or a serious one. So long as they’re multi-dimensional, I’m happy.”