On the new original SyFy drama Alphas, actress Azita Ghanizada plays the timid Rachel Mizrahi. A sheltered girl in her early 20’s, Rachel has the special mental ability of being a synesthete, which allows her to enhance one sense while rendering her remaining senses temporarily useless and leaving her vulnerable to danger. This Alpha skill has brought her to the attention of Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn) who brings her to his clandestine group of ordinary individuals who investigate cases that point to others with Alpha abilities.
During an exclusive phone interview with Collider, Azita Ghanizada talked about how fascinating it is to play a character that is very different from who she is personally, what it’s been like to work with actor David Strathairn, what Zak Penn and Jack Bender bring to a project like this, and what it’s like to be an Afghani woman, making it in America. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
AZITA GHANIZADA: I was the last one cast on the show. They had been looking for Rachel for a couple of months, and I think casting thought I wasn’t right for the role. They had known me for a very long time and, in my real life, I’m a little outgoing and a little confident, and Rachel was somebody who was timid and conservative and shy, so they didn’t want to see me for it. They also didn’t see me for the Nina role, for whatever reason. When I finally went in, on the last day, I did it and they called the next day and said, “You’re going to get on a plane to go to Toronto tomorrow.” I was like, “What?! Can I get a script?” I hadn’t even read the script. I really only had the audition material. So, I was contracted into it before I even knew what I was getting myself into, but all I needed to know, from the beginning, was that Jack Bender and Zak Penn were involved, and that David Strathairn was in it, and I knew I was fine. I knew I would be on a terrific show, so it wasn’t much of a troubling scenario to be put under, with those names attached. So, when I got there, I had to find it on the day.
In my real life, I’m probably more like the Nina character, so it was more interesting and more fascinating, as an actor, to be able to play somebody that I’m a little bit more opposite of. After the pilot, there’s a big jump to the next episode. The pilot introduces so many characters, so when you find us in the next episode, we’re a more tight team, we’re faster, we’re smarter, we know what we’re doing a little bit better, and we’re getting our groove. The chemistry of us, as a cast, is really much more defined. I’m really excited for everybody to see where it goes from the pilot. If you even kind of like the pilot, I think you’ll love the series. It’s been such a wonderful journey, since we shot the pilot last summer.
GHANIZADA: Ultimately, Rachel was somebody that I could rearrange myself and become. I definitely connected to her coming from a very conservative, strict home and not really being accepted, and trying to find a balance between who she is in her home life and who she should be in her professional life. That was something that was really appealing, both because of my heritage – being from Afghanistan – and growing up in a pretty strict home and wanting to be an actor, and not really being allowed to do that or being encouraged to do that, and being held back from those types of things, and being able to explore myself completely and have all the opportunities that kids can have in America. I didn’t get those. So, I understood a lot about her, right away. There was also something that was really pure and honest about her. I think she’s the most honest character, and the most emotional one, and that was so appealing to get to play. As the show progressed, everybody got to see a little bit more of who I was and realized that writing for me would make the character even a bit more interesting. So, she’s gone through this really great arc. You get to see her frumpy and not sure where she belongs, and going to the office because she’s just eager to get out of the house. And then, when you get into the series, you see that she’s pulled herself together and she’s more confident in what she does and she starts to take control of her life.
Since the pilot doesn’t really give much background about where these people came from and how they all ended up together, how did Rachel end up working on this team and what makes her willing to put her own life on the line?
GHANIZADA: You’re going to learn a lot about where these people come from in the season. We will give the audience definite peeks into their background and why they’re there with Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn), which I think is terrific. You get to learn a lot more about these characters, as the season progresses. Rachel has had this ability since she was born, and even though she considers it to be something interesting, her family made her feel like it was a curse. She’s extremely bright and capable. She ended up working at Langley, translating Farsi and got discovered by an agent there. He realized that she was a little bit more special than she let on, and he introduced her to Dr. Rosen, who is a world-renowned neurologist that studies these brain anomalies in people that give them super-human abilities.
Dr. Rosen was probably the first person that ever let her know that what she had wasn’t a curse or a condition, but was actually special, and he validated that for her. This isn’t a weird thing, but it’s actually a gift. Because he’s the first person who actually ever made her feel confident and comfortable with her abilities and actually lets her see that she can do so many things with that, she’s completely committed and devoted to him, which is why she’s willing to take these chances to put her life in jeopardy on a weekly basis. She’s thrown into these situations that she’s not necessarily prepared for. She has zero background training in any kind of criminal investigation, and you see her learn how to be quick on her feet and figure these things out, as fast as possible. It’s better for her to be with the Alphas than it is for her to be stuck at home. She feels like she’s finally somewhere where people understand her for who she really is, and everybody wants that.
GHANIZADA: It’s the human aspects, 100%. This is rooted in reality and the thing that makes it so cool is that she’s as human as any girl in her 20’s, becoming an adult and trying to find love and trying to figure out how to date and become who she’s going to become. The human aspect is the most interesting part. The hyper-reality of her abilities is super-easy and cool to play. I latched right onto understanding how when she uses one sense, the other senses go to sleep. I looked up things that have happened to real people who have microscopic sight or sound and watched how their bodies are. The sense stuff is really a physical experience for Rachel, so when I play her, what happens to my body is all very physical. That’s not hard to play at all. It’s easy to make it physical. The human aspect is really what’s the most fun and the most interesting for me to get to do.
Was it important to you that these characters have consequences that come with their abilities?
GHANIZADA: Oh, god, yeah. What makes them special, makes them flawed, and we really show that. We have a character, played by Ryan Cartwright, who is autistic and has to be home at a certain hour. He can’t be running around solving these crimes because we’ve got to drop him off at home. We can’t break the reality of these people’s lives at home. Rachel lives with her parents and, in the pilot, you see that she’s dressing like a little kid still because she doesn’t really know how to dress for herself, as an adult. As the pilot moves on and she’s breaking free from her family, you see her look like a young professional and a young adult, and you see her start to care more about her appearance and put that energy into herself. She’s stalled in her own human growth because of her ability and because of what’s gone on. You see Malik Yoba’s character, Bill Harken, lose his job. He was a devoted FBI agent for many years, who lost his job because he has this ability where, when he gets upset, he breaks things by accident and hurts people in ways that he shouldn’t. You see how they’re all struggling to have these abilities, and yet be normal human beings. The constant question that arises is, “What are you going to do, be normal or be an Alpha? Which one are you going to choose?” They have to come to terms with the fact that, even though they are socially awkward, they’re completely genetically superior and have to use that to figure themselves out without looking like complete assholes.
GHANIZADA: My relationship with David is awesome. Rachel’s bond with Dr. Rosen is extreme, and that’s something that really formed itself and is being written more because of our relationship with one another, on set. He’s such a generous person and such a kind-hearted human being. He’s an old school actor. He cleans up after himself, and he cleans up after other people. He’s there to make it happen, as a team, and do whatever it is that we need to do, in order to make the show. Every day we go and we’re building a play together, and there’s no hierarchy. Nobody is more important than the other person. We’re all there together, pitching in and doing our parts to make it come to life, and that’s how he behaves.
What is your dynamic like, as an ensemble?
GHANIZADA: Our dynamic, as a cast, is extremely good. We are madly in love with one another. We have so much fun. The scenes where we’re all together as a group, as the season progresses, you just see how much we appreciate the other person and what our specific relationship is with them. We just have such a good time, and that translates on camera. Now that we’re in Episode 6, we love each other. We’re like a family. It’s dysfunctional, at times, but we really love each other.
GHANIZADA: The thing that Zak [Penn], Mike Karnow, the other creator, and Jack Bender (the director) wanted to do with the show that would set it apart from your typical one-hour, procedural, episodic television series is to make it as honest as possible. There’s a lot of ad-libbing and improvising and finding magical mistakes on the day that we shoot, and that’s very rare in episodic television. Without the words and without the story, there’s absolutely nothing, but there’s a sense of play that Zak has given to the actors, to make this show and this story special and unique. We really get to have some freedom and don’t have to be word-for-word or line-for-line. This is like real life. And, knowing the comic book genre so well and working in all those movies, I think that Zak was more interested to see what it would be like if he had an ability and had to go home to his wife and three kids. Those things were more fascinating to him. He came at it from a place of, “What if Magneto had to take off his suit to go pee?” That’s the joke. Finding those little human moments, even though you’re special and you’re super in some element, you still have to take off the costume and pee, or go home to your wife and kids, or go home and cook for your mom. He’s really pushed for us to maintain that integrity through the series, and we’ve been really lucky that SyFy has been so open-minded and generous with letting us have some fun with the show.
GHANIZADA: The rest of my family really went through the refugee camps. We just got on a plane and said we had friends at Langley. I was a baby. TV and film has defined my entire life. I learned how to speak English watching television. I am an audience member, through and through. I really respect our audience because I watch television, and I’m bright, I’m smart, I know when they’re lying to me, and I know when they’re diluting things. I watch like an audience member. Seeing American culture and understanding it through a number of TV shows just shaped me in ways that I can’t even explain to you.
I just always knew I wanted to be an actor. I gave my Emmy acceptance speech when I was 11. But, I wasn’t allowed to do plays and things like that. It was considered dangerous. My parents didn’t think it was safe for a girl to do that, and they definitely didn’t think it was interesting to participate in the arts. I wanted to do right what everybody else’s ideas were, for a very long time, much like Rachel, and then I just finally decided that I wanted to explore what was bigger than me. It just came out and I did it, but I struggled with it. I had never seen anybody from Afghanistan on TV before. I had never seen anybody that looked like me, and I was confused by it all, but I fought hard and I struggled. I did a ton of guest star spots, and I was up for a bunch of movies and not getting them. I’ve had every job, literally. You name a job, I’ve had it. I did everything I could to be able to do it without people telling me I couldn’t, or having to depend on other people to get me there. There was just something inside of me. It was like an obsession.
Do you see yourself as a role model for other Afghani women who are looking to follow their dreams in America? Is that why it’s important for you to give back and assist others who are in similar situations?
GHANIZADA: It’s such an interesting balance. Now, in America, so many of the young Afghan Americans are going to university and getting their education, and they’re becoming doctors and lawyers. It’s a relatively new ethnic population in America. It’s really only been here for the last three decades. So, it’s nice to see the young people moving towards those goals. As far as Afghans and the arts, it’s still a big struggle. I have young women and even adults just wanting to know how I did it and what the trick is. It’s just hard work, dedication and obsession, and being able to do whatever you want to do. What’s so special about being in the position to talk to people is to get the under-30 crowd involved in caring about reintegrating their country and getting it back on its feet, and being awake to what’s going on over there and assisting in as many ways as possible, and not just saying, “Goodbye! See you later! We’re somewhere safe now.” That’s something that I’m committed and dedicated to because I escaped a very different life, and here I am on TV, and people do my make-up and I get to wear pretty clothes.
My life would have been very different, had we not left. I’m very fiery and feisty, and I’m sure a lot of people would have tried to put me in my place, and I wouldn’t have accepted that. You feel a strong sense of responsibility, and want to be as kind and generous as possible, and give back as much as possible. When your entire life could have been different, you wake up with this weird reality of life and the real world, in a very intense way. You don’t take anything for granted, and you don’t act like a petulant actress. You behave accordingly and try to be as charitable as possible, devoting that time to change the perspective of it globally and give people a different image of it.
Are there any types of roles or genres that you’d love the chance to do, that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?
GHANIZADA: Basically, I was a career guest star. This is my first pilot to go to series. And, I’ve been up for a lot of very big movies, and I did not get them, but I wasn’t ready. Being on set every day and learning has been a really valuable experience. Nothing can teach you that except for the experience of it. I think it will be fun to come out of this first season and play something a little bit closer to the bone for me. I’m very physical. I’m extremely active, and I would love to do something a little more sexy and dangerous, a la Sophia Loren, or funny and humorous, a la Woody Allen. Getting to do things along those lines would be extremely wicked and a dream come true.