Nazanin Boniadi: ‘My first protest was in the womb’

Nazanin Boniadi should be basking in the afterglow of a high in her acting career. The Iranian-British actor had a leading role in the first series of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the Amazon blockbuster that was watched by more than 100mn people when it aired last year.

But when she wanders into the Sadaf Garden, a Persian restaurant just off Kensington High Street, the world of showbiz is the last thing on her mind. She is focusing on the other main passion in her life: shining a light on abuses committed by the Iranian regime.

“I’ve literally put my career on hold,” she tells me. “It can’t be indefinite because I have to make a living . . . But in this moment, the Iranian people take priority.”

That “moment” is the social unrest that swept across the Islamic republic late last year in one of the most serious protest movements since the 1979 revolution. It was sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police in September after she was arrested for not properly wearing her compulsory hijab.

Boniadi has been among the most outspoken figures in the large Iranian diaspora, spread across the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere, about the nation’s theocratic leadership. She has held talks with top US officials, spoken at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council and addressed a demonstration attended by thousands. Her role, she tells me, is on the world stage, using her Hollywood profile to relay the messages of the protesters.

While the theocracy has been severely rattled by the resilience and scope of the unrest, experts inside and outside the country caution that it is not about to fall. But Boniadi, like others in an increasingly activist diaspora, has seized on it as a moment to intensify pressure on the regime, hoping it could ultimately usher in change.

The dramatic nature of the protests, with many women braving bullets and batons to demonstrate, has bolstered those efforts as it has ensured greater global attention on Iran compared with previous bouts of unrest. Boniadi likens the moment to the anti-apartheid movement, and describes what’s taking place as the “first female-led revolution of our time”.

“People keep saying, ‘But more men have been imprisoned and more men have been killed’. Sure, but what I’m talking about is it’s been sparked by women and the courage of women and what that means; what kind of threat that is to a regime that’s subjugated women and segregated them for 43 years,” Boniadi says. “That’s what makes it different to the protests of the past and what that can lead to, I think, is more substantive change.”

Sadaf Garden must count as one of the least pretentious restaurants in affluent Kensington, home to many of London’s Iranians in exile. I choose a table adjacent to a large framed poster of the Vakil Mosque in Shiraz, the ancient southern Iranian city. Boniadi enters shortly after I’m seated, dressed in a black turtleneck jumper, jeans and boots. We will enjoy “authentic” Persian food, she says. “Mediocre Persian just doesn’t do it.”

I get my first insights into Boniadi’s Iranian heritage as we scan the menu and she spots a dish, mirza ghasemi, from Gilan, a northern province from which her maternal grandparents originate and where women have traditionally been considered more liberal.

We decide to share and with neither of us wanting a heavy lunch, we avoid the traditional stews on the menu. Instead, she orders a meze-style starter, including mirza ghasemi, a tasty dish of grilled aubergine, fried onions, garlic, eggs and chopped tomatoes. For our main course, we plump for kebab soltani, served with aromatic basmati rice, Boniadi conversing easily in Farsi with the waiter.

By grim coincidence, on the crisp winter’s day we meet, Tehran has announced the first execution of a protester — a 23-year-old man hanged after being convicted of stabbing a security official and frightening people by blocking a street. It is a sign that the regime’s leadership is in no mood for significant compromise.

“It’s devastating,” Boniadi says.

After Amini’s death became public, the authorities insisted that she died of a heart attack. But many Iranians — including Amini’s family — believed she was beaten in custody. Her death triggered anger in the republic that crossed age, sect and class. Extraordinary videos started appearing on social media of women taking off their hijabs — a defining symbol of the republic — burning them in public and confronting security forces. “Woman, Life, Freedom” became the rallying cry.

As the protests gathered momentum, the demands grew more militant, with calls for the overthrow of the regime and the introduction of a secular democracy. Young Iranians, including schoolgirls and students, displayed an extraordinary fearlessness even as the toll mounted. Amnesty International estimates that more than 300 protesters have been killed, including 44 children. Thousands more have been jailed.

There is no organised opposition inside Iran or outside beyond the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a shadowy, cult-like group in exile that has little following inside the republic. And in the absence of any credible organised opposition, the voices of Boniadi and others in the diaspora, like Reza Pahlavi, son of the last shah, became magnified.

Boniadi tells me that, in the past, the diaspora was deeply polarised and many members of it were too centred on an “anti-imperialist narrative”, meaning they were tempered in their criticism of the republic for fear of being seen to be meddling or pursuing foreign agendas. Others clung to the hope that there could be reform from within. Boniadi was never in the latter camp and believes the cries for regime change from inside Iran are causing a rethink.

“For some of us it’s hugely vindicating to have this moment of everyone recognising that the will of the Iranian people has only ever been freedom,” she says. “For 43 years we’d been addressing the symptoms of the problem and not the cause of the problem itself, which is the regime. So, I think that’s the awakening right now you’re seeing in the diaspora.”

When the waiter brings our starter, Boniadi is startled by the size of the plate with its six dishes and accompanying naan bread, warm to the touch, crispy at the edge. She offers to cancel the kebabs. I assure her that there’s no need for such drastic action, and we nibble away at the rich assortment, my plate quickly a mess of hummus, salad and squishy aubergine.

I’m curious to know what role Boniadi envisages the diaspora can play. She insists her intention is to use her platform only to “support the will of Iran”. 

“I don’t think anyone intends . . . for a government in exile to be [formed],” she says. “I think an alliance would be the right word, in my mind, of people coming together to best serve the interests of the Iranian people.” Some wanted to call it a coalition, but “then there are thoughts about that being too political because a coalition essentially means various political parties coming together”.

She has never considered herself “a political figure”. “There’s no other goal than for me to relay what I’m hearing because essentially the leaders of Iran, in my opinion, are currently in prison or their voices are being silenced,” she adds. “This is not about interventionism . . . that doesn’t mean we need to do anything, other than ensure that they [Iranians] can communicate freely.”

Boniadi does, however, support the calls for an end to all diplomatic engagement with Iran, including efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers, as well as the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from embassies. “We shouldn’t continue to throw lifelines out for the regime or to think that the only way forward is through engagement,” she tells me.

Such messaging helps explain why some Iran experts and foreign officials worry the diaspora may influence western policy debates towards Iran, and not always in a realistic way. I put to her concerns that anybody speaking, writing or working on Iran can find themselves trolled on social media and accused of being an apologist for Tehran.

“It’s absolutely awful, Andrew, and I condemn all of it,” she says. “I think there’s an element of cyber attacks that bleed into, for example, what they [Tehran] do. What they’re very good at is pitting us against each other.”

Sadaf Garden
3-5 Campden Hill Rd, London W8 7DU

Mixed starter £28.50
Kabab soltani £18.99
Nann £1.50
Pot of tea £6.50
Large water £5
Complimentary baklava and zoolbia-bamieh
Total £60.49

Boniadi is no stranger to the abuse, and has been trolled, both by regime supporters and from within the diaspora. “One perfect example is my speech at the UN Security Council. There are some people who, even if they agreed with what I said, they’re shooting the messenger,” she says. “So, it’s like, ‘Well, she’s not qualified, she’s a dumb actress’.” 

Boniadi, who has been an ambassador for Amnesty since 2008, is no neophyte activist. The kebabs have arrived, but she is speaking with such passion that I have to remind her to eat.

When I ask how she became involved in activism, she replies simply: “It’s in my blood.” The way she tells it, it was almost preordained that she would embark on a life in opposition to the Islamic regime. “I always say my first protest was when I was in my mother’s womb,” she says.

It was early 1979, and Boniadi’s mother, then 19 and pregnant, joined a middle-class minority protesting against the Islamic revolution, believing that the millions across society who supported the overthrow of the western-backed, autocratic shah were making a “huge mistake”. 

Her father was the chief accountant and occasional writer for Rastakhiz newspaper, which was owned by the shah’s political party. Her parents sought to flee Iran as Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime took hold, but when they reached the airport it was announced over the tannoy that her father was summoned by the revolutionary authorities. The family feared he was on an execution list and were forced to return to Tehran, where Boniadi was born in May 1979.

With help from a manager at the newspaper, they succeeded in leaving when Boniadi was 20 days old and began a new life in London, where her father set up a minicab business and edited an opposition newspaper. There is a part of her, she says, that is driven by the idea of wanting her father to be able to go home. Many of the diaspora too “want to go back, want to see relatives, want to be able to celebrate a loved one’s birthday, an anniversary, weddings and to mourn them at funerals”. 

Boniadi, who moves between southern California and London, has only returned once to the country of her birth. That was when she was turning 13, and she and her mother had to pretend they were no longer in touch with her father to secure the necessary travel documents from the Iranian embassy. She recalls the warmth of relatives in the republic and the small roadside kebab shops, but also having to wear a hijab and her mother, whom she describes as a “fearless lioness”, challenging a security officer after he took her camera.

“I understood at 12, at that time, that she shouldn’t be doing this. But she was doing it anyway, and out came the words, ‘you’ve ruined our country’,” Boniadi says with obvious pride. “And he said, ‘Ha, your time has gone’, and I just remember thinking, please don’t arrest her.”

Growing up in a council flat in west London, Boniadi won a scholarship to a private school, where she excelled at sciences and English. But not drama. “I was in every school play,” she says, “but our dear drama teacher would always just be, like, ‘You’re not cut out for this, but here’s a role.’” After A-levels, she graduated with an honours degree in biological sciences from the University of California, Irvine with the ambition of becoming a doctor. But she shocked her father by ditching medical school for acting.

“When I started acting, it was so natural,” she says. But “my dad couldn’t understand why I wanted to be an actress. It was, like, what are you doing?”

An early break was securing a regular role on General Hospital, the long-running American drama, which was followed by a part in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. On the big screen she played Esther in the 2016 remake of the classic Ben-Hur and stars in Bombshell, the drama based on the accounts of the women at Fox News who exposed Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.

Yet even as we are discussing her acting career the conversation winds its way back to Iran and the hijab. In the US series Homeland, Boniadi played Fara Sherazi, a veiled CIA analyst of Iranian heritage. She tried to explain, to no avail, that a typical Iranian in the diaspora opposed to the Islamic regime probably wouldn’t wear the hijab.

“What that reflects in my mind is this idea that if you want to show someone is Muslim, you have to have a visual cue of them being Muslim,” she says. “Later on, I figured out that, as a Middle Eastern actor, I found that my ethnicity has often been either erased . . . or it’s been exoticised, meaning you have to have some kind of an accent, or a visual cue to show that you’re of the region, or you’re religious.” 

She makes another connection to Iran when we discuss her role in The Rings of Power, in which she plays Bronwyn, a single mother in the Southlands, a human settlement in Middle Earth. When the evil Morgoth’s forces approach, Bronwyn rallies her people to fight them, and Boniadi dedicated her role to Iranian women two months before the protests erupted.

“In her I saw all those women; all those countless women that we’ve heard of . . . reluctantly there . . . none of them are trying to be leaders,” she says.

It’s when our conversation returns to Iran’s female protesters that Boniadi’s emotions get the better of her. We are into the third hour of the lunch, drinking Persian tea poured from an ornate pot emblazoned with a picture of a former shah, and she is explaining how she views the protests as a “bittersweet moment”. 

“I always thought that the people were courageous and that they were being oppressed, but I never expected this level of truth to power . . . because I don’t know if I’m that courageous, I don’t know what I would do in their shoes,” she says, wiping away tears.

The lunch is drawing to an end and neither of us are in the mood for dessert, but the waiter brings a complimentary dish of baklava and zoolbia-bamieh, a syrupy, crispy Persian sweet pastry that is far too rich for me.

The waiter brings the bill, but says he doesn’t want me to pay the service charge, as it’s my first time in the restaurant. Both Boniadi and I insist that he deserves a tip, but he’s having none of it, crossing out the service charge on the bill.

“This is very Persian,” Boniadi says. “You should write this in the paper.”

Andrew England is the FT’s Middle East editor

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