Azita Ghanizada Interview
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Azita Ghanizada is a witty, down-to-Earth, extra-attractive actress who’s appeared on TV shows like Entourage, How I Met Your Mother, Castle, Bones, Psych and NCIS: Los Angeles. As a child, Azita fled Afghanistan with her family and sought refugee asylum in the States. She was raised in Northern Virginia and eventually moved out to LA to pursue a career in acting.
Azita is set to start in the new SyFy series Alphas, a show that follows a team of ordinary citizens with extraordinary mental abilities who tackle cases that other government agencies are unable to solve. Alphas was created by Zak Penn (the writer of X-Men and X-Men 2) and will be directed by Jack Bender, who previously directed Lost. Star Trek vet Ira Steven Behr will serve as the show’s executive producer/showrunner.
We got to chat with Azita about her unique upbringing, Alphas, working with Jack Bender, what it’s like on the set of Entourage and who the funniest cast member is on How I Met Your Mother.
AG: How did I first get into acting? I started acting in commercials actually. I did a bunch of what every day actors do. You come out here and you start taking acting classes and you study and you sign the commercials. I started working commercials and hanging out in a dark theatre with a bunch of other acting kids. I did a couple little LA plays and then started doing guest stars on television, and at the same time was kind of up for very big movies and not getting them. Things kind of shifted. There was a writer’s strike and then I kind of focused on TV. Just really did it that way in terms of how I got engaged in it.
When I was little, I learned English on television. I’m from Afghanistan. When we came over, we came here as political refugees. I was a baby and my mom was obsessed with American television and I watched TV all the time and I just thought, what a wonderful place to be, in TV. They had such great lives. I wasn’t allowed to be an actor. My parents really were very strict, concerned Afghans and they just thought that that was an obscene career for a young adult and for a woman especially. I just kind of defied them and packed my bags and moved to LA. I decided, “all right I’m going to give it a go,” and that’s what I did.
CS: Do your parents support you now?
AG: Well of course it’s all their idea (laughs). Of course now I’m like the pride and joy. I’m like the shining star of Afghanistan. They’re like “that is my daughter and I’m like, really? You’re full of shit!” So yeah, I think they’re so excited. I don’t think they’ll ever understand what it is that I’m doing. I think they would probably prefer for me to be married and be a doctor and have babies or something. But I think they’re very happy when they get to see me on television.
AG: “Please don’t tell people to watch that!” and my mother’s like “who cares it looks so sexy” and I’m like “oh my god you crazy foreigner!”(laughs) But she’s very supportive now. I kind of was very defiant and independent my whole life and so whether or not they supported me never mattered. It was what I wanted to do and I worked my little butt of to do it. So as long as I did it with integrity and I did it in a way that I valued, it didn’t really matter whether they accepted my profession. I never expected them to and the fact that they’re supportive and watch all those things now is icing on the cake.
CS: So you were very young when you and your family fled Afghanistan and came to the US as refugees and were granted asylum. Was there kind of a conflict with having an American upbringing with a more traditional family setting?
AG: Absolutely. For whatever reason my parents had the hindsight to bring us into the States, but at the same time it was everything that they had no power over. They didn’t understand staying after school. They didn’t understand doing plays. They didn’t understand girls and boys working together and on the playground, things like that. It was a real struggle for them and it was a real struggle for us, because I have two sisters. So for three girls that were really kind of … I don’t know. We struggled quite a bit to fit in both the American culture and to try and fit in at home as well. But we were all very strong willed and we fought for what we thought was right both in school and at home. I think that’s a part of why I am able to achieve any amount of success. I think I’m just a fighter and I’m a little brave. And yeah, they struggled. They ended up separating when I was just in middle school. It was really hard for them because they broke all the rules of their tradition by doing so, but it was the best thing they could have done for themselves and for us. There was just a very black cloud over their names for a while because they were discouraged to do something like that. That was unheard of in the Afghan culture. You stayed married. But they didn’t. The majority of the family really kind of shunned them.
Now that things are a little different and it’s been like 10 years or so, more people are separated, more people are divorced, more people know they have more rights. It’s definitely different now, but back then it was hard. I mean trying to be an actor, it was like I might as well have become slut, you know what I mean? It was like the worst thing, it was a terrible, terrible idea for them.
CS: You’re also involved in different United Nation refugee causes, the UN Refugee Agency, the High Commissioner for Refugees, have you been back to Afghanistan recently? What does your involvement with these different UN organizations entail?
AG: Well you know I have not been back to Afghanistan. My sister went back. I was up for the lead girl in “The Kite Runner” and I thought okay this’ll be shot in Northern Afghanistan so okay, I’m going to back. It’s just me and the other girl and in my head it was mine. When I didn’t get that, I decided to dye my hair blond. I was kind of like a little broken from that and I felt like that was so much my story, which it kind of was. When that didn’t happen I kind of retreated a little bit.
I was offered another film in Afghanistan – an Afghan Dari foreign language film called The Black Tulip – last year. The security element wasn’t quite what I would want to see considering I had fought my whole life to be an actor. The men were extremely intolerant and I wasn’t necessarily about to go back into the country and be like screw you I’m an actor! I was like so maybe this isn’t the best idea. So instead I shot a pilot with Sam Shepard and Lucas Black called Tough Trade and it was set in Nashville.
But the UN Refugee Agency and Women for Women both work so much with the women in Afghanistan who, you know they just legalize rape, they’re setting themselves on fire. The UN Refugee Agency literally takes care of- I mean they were right there on the front lines helping these Afghans and these refugee camps. As a product of the war – that’s what I am – and the majority of my family, they were all refugees.
So for me it’s such important kind of thing to show both an example of what can happen and what you can become, as a positive story out of almost four decades of war. I’m probably the first girl from Afghanistan to really break in American television. And to be in HCR and Women for Women, it’s important to kind of have a role model. Somebody that can come from circumstances that aren’t the most ideal and with education, fight, hope, and perseverance, you can make it. You can make anything happen.
CS: So based on you and your families’ experiences, is that what led you to study politics and international journalism at Virginia Tech? Did you want to learn more about global affairs and be an active voice in those matters?
AG: Well I think I did that because that’s what my family wanted. I thought, okay Peter Jennings was another person that I followed and I thought, okay well I can do that. I can shed light on what’s going on with Afghanistan and I can be a journalist – a broadcast journalist – things like that. I also studied English and thought, well I can write books and I can do all these things.
But you know I wanted to be an actor my entire life. It was the first thing I dreamt of. I gave my Emmy acceptance speech when I was 11 years old on the dining board at my birthday party. It was just something that was stronger than the desire to do anything else.
I knew that if I had any type of a platform as an actor and if I can break as an actor as an Afghan, then I could shed some light – in a really positive and a different way, not in a neutral way – on what’s going on. And kind of create awareness to teach people how to help in small ways and to inspire. If I can inspire ten women in a country that doesn’t have a lot of inspiration, then I have done a wonderful thing.
So yeah, I grew up in Washington DC so I grew up around colleges, I grew up around politicians. But in Virginia you have to have an understanding of current events and global affairs and what’s going on. Being an actor and being in the entertainment business is the furthest thing from anybody’s mind. And so coming to LA and experiencing this entertainment business, which is very separate, I still held on to being committed to, I don’t know, applying a voice to people that don’t have a voice.
CS: You’ve had a few different roles over the years, but now you’re going to be the new female lead on a SyFy channel show called Alphas.
AG: Well, you know, it was really funny. I thought I was going to be in Nashville doing Tough Trade. And I thought, okay this show is going to go. I mean T-Bone Burnett was executive producing it and we had a stellar cast. It was from the creator of Weeds. When that didn’t happen, you know, I kind of had to go back into auditioning. I was actually auditioning for a big comedy film that’s going to be released next year, and I was going to be in the mix for that and at 10:00 at night they called and said “you have to audition for Alphas tomorrow morning.” and I was like what’s Alphas? And they were like “you have to do it first thing in the morning.” And I read it, I memorized it, and there was a lot of scientific jargon and a lot of using that part of your brain that can explain things to people in a positive way.
My character also had a moment where she went into one of her senses and I thought, okay this is a really different thing for me. This girl is really soft, she’s awkward, she’s self conscious, she’s so smart, but she doesn’t know how to communicate. She lives in a very conservative home. She’s still under her family’s roof and they’re a little embarrassed of her because she has these super abilities. So there were a lot of things I related to right away and it’s also very different than what I’ve gotten to show. So I just went in and they’re like “it’s yours” and then I got on the plane and read the script and it was so interesting and really, really familiar. And I mean the fact that David Strathairn was the lead, I was just so excited. I’m such a fan of his. To get to work with him is so exciting. And then Zak Penn is so funny and as far as sci-fi stuff goes he’s kind of awesome. And then there’s Jack Bender, who’s the director of Lost and I just thought, well I can’t really do anything wrong if I’m in there hands, you know what I’m saying?
CS: Yeah totally.
AG: So it was kind of- I show up on day one and my girl you know she has the ability to hyper intensify all of her senses. I kind of had to figure out a way to do that. We decided that she kind of goes into these little trances which feeds into her awkwardness and her self-consciousness. I think that she’s going to kind of come out of her shell and become something special, so we’ll see what happens this season.
CS: Now is David like a super intense actor to work with? He seems like kind of an intense guy.
AG: He is the nicest, classiest man ever. He’s intense when the cameras roll and he’s practicing with the other actor and that’s what you want. He’s available, he’s ready, he is going to connect with you. He is a generous actor. He was telling me these awesome stories about doing Shakespeare in the Park in the 70s and hitchhiking across America and being part of the theatre movement. He just loves actors and he loves what he does. So no, he wasn’t intense at all. He’s quiet and he’s private but when the cameras are rolling he’s 100% available for you. He wants to make sure it’s the best production and the best show. He was really focused on my ideas and seeing that the majority of my stuff is with him I was really blessed to work with him this time and Sam Shepard last year. I mean I had like two cowboys, you know? So he’s just terrific. He was so good.
I mean Malik Yoba, was probably a little intense but … (laughs). His character is a little intense so the stuff with him would be like – he’s kind of like an intense character. But when the cameras would stop rolling you’d all start laughing because he’s so good at it. He’d almost have me in tears. I’d be like flushed red because I’d be so frustrated with him and then he’ll stop and be like just splitting up laughing and I’m like, I hate you so much. But nobody was too intense. Everybody was amazing. Warren Christie I worked with before so, you know, it was easy to work with him. He’s hunky and easy to look at so it’s fine.
CS: (laughs) I’m sure he felt the same way about you.
CS: How would you describe Jack Bender’s style as a director?
AG: Jack is one of the grooviest – and that’s the best word to describe him – men I’ve ever met. He’s something out of a different era. He is a filmmaker. He sees everything. He knows exactly what to do, how to finesse it. He knows how to talk to actors. He was an actor I think in the very beginning of his career. He’s … I don’t know. For me personally if I can work with him for the rest of my life I would take that job. He gets it. I got him. I trust him. He’s just … he’s one of the raddest people and probably one of the most amazing directors I’ve worked with. I really loved working with Gavin Hood too but I just think that for me Jack Bender is the bee’s knees as far as what I want in a director. He was awesome.
And I get why the Lost fans love him so much, that’s what makes the show intense and exciting. All of those elements will be played in that because Jack’s got that background. Jack’s got this like kind of quirky, interesting take on the show.
I mean it’s kind of like X-Men meets The X-Files. We’re all ordinary human beings. It’s not like we live in this alternate universe. We live in New York City. It’s present day New York City and we’re kind of walking around with these powers that we can’t really do in front of people. It’s a really kind of interesting concept. It’s not this big glossy show, it’s more human.
AG: Oh yeah.
CS: Was that set really fun? Are those guys like really homies on the set? It seems like it would be a pretty fun working environment.
AG: Oh my goodness they are all so close. They are all so much fun. Kevin Connelly and Jerry Ferrara are two of my close friends so I went in there with friends on the set. We worked really long hours doing the premiere and they are the funnest group of guys. They make each other laugh.
Kevin Dillon does this like crazy insane laugh before we have to go to a laughing scene which makes everybody start cracking up. He is just so – he was so wonderful to work with because he’s so committed to the character. Jerry and Kevin are so fun and Adrian and Jeremy Piven were great. It was one of the funnest working experiences of my career because nobody had any attitudes. Everybody had fun. Everybody was excited to come to work. The director had been doing it for so long but they knew how to get their shots and stuff.
It really is a boys’ playground. Like it is just like a boy’s wet dream, it really is. It’s like you get to come to work and hang out with your best friends and you get to shoot some really cool television and there’s always pretty girls around and you’re in these awesome homes and these really cool cars. Nobody is being a dick. Everybody loves each other and it’s a wonderful environment.
CS: Who was the funniest person on the set of How I Met Your Mother?
AG: Oh I mean, wow. You know I only worked with Neil Patrick Harris and I mean he’s so funny I could have died. But you know I interacted with- it was their last day of shooting so everybody was there. Jason Segel is probably the funniest one to me. He was just- he’s so funny. But my scenes were with Neil and Neil was just … I mean that guy is just ballsy and he’s risky and he goes for it. He’s really fun. But I definitely think that Jason … I don’t know, they’re all funny. I mean even Cobie – who’s now in The Avengers – they’re all so funny and that’s why that show works so well. I don’t know. They’re all funny in their own way. And Alyson Hannigan, I mean come on, that’s like an embarrassment over the riches. They’re all funny. (laughs)
CS: (laughs) So I read somewhere that you exercise like something ridiculous – like five to six days a week. How do you keep up this acting schedule and still find time to stay so fit?
AG: You know I try to work out 60 minutes, six days a week. It’s kind of nonnegotiable for me even if I’m working. Maybe if I’m working I’ll drop to four days a week. But you know I just wake up and I run. I’m blood type O, and I’m a Scorpio, and I’ve got a lot of passion and if I don’t get it out somehow I might you know, murder somebody.
AG: (laughs) I don’t know. Exercise gives me endorphins. It’s really fun. You know that hour is my hour to kind of work out scenes too. I can work out scenes in my head. I can work out. I can day dream certain things. I wasn’t allowed to exercise when I was little. I wasn’t allowed to participate in sports or take dance or do anything like that, so as an adult I don’t take it for granted. I really enjoy it, I love seeing what my body is capable of doing and how it’s capable of transforming and I love being in shape.
Alphas will premiere on Syfy in the summer of 2011.
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