Azita Ghanizada

TV Features

When an ethnic civil war caused Azita Ghanizada’s parents to flee Afghanistan and seek asylum in the U.S., they had no idea the little girl they brought with them would grow up to be a superhero. But among the team of extraordinary crime fighters on Syfy’s brand new series Alphas is a young Afghan-American woman named Rachel Pirzad, who can enhance any of her senses at the expense of the others. Not only do her parents disapprove of her acclimation to America; they consider her gift a curse.

Though Rachel still has trouble knowing where she fits in, the much more carefree Ghanizada can relate to the character she plays. As she quickly adapted to the culture around her, eventually pursued an acting career, her parents had a hard time understanding. “I grew up in a very strict home,” she says, “and I know what it means to have to understand where you fit into a new culture in society, and where you fit in at home, what your responsibilities and duties are for that kind of traditional home life. That was something that I struggled with for the first 17 years of my life, is trying to fit into two different kinds of worlds, and not knowing where I belong. And I think that’s very evident in Rachel. She wants to be her own person and use her abilities and her brain and her intelligence and everything that she’s got to become her own young person, [but she’s] disappointing her family.”

Ghanizada grew up in Northern Virginia, speaking both English and Dari, and spent part of her high school years working on Capital Hill. But she left any political aspirations in D.C. when she took off for L.A., getting her first TV guest spot on TNT’s The Closer. Work was sporadic—of the 14 TV series she appeared on since 2005, only one role lasted more than an episode. She thought she’d found her big break, though, starring in the comedy pilot Tough Trade. The series looked like it had everything going for it. Weeds creator Jenji Kohan was signed on as the showrunner, Sam Shepard played the patriarch of three generations of hard-living Nashville musicians, and T Bone Burnett was on board to make sure they got the music right. But EPIX (the joint TV venture service of Viacom, Lionsgate and MGM), which had ordered the pilot, passed on the series.

Soon after, when she was asked to read for the part of Alphas’ Rachel, she took it all in stride. “I got lots of panicked phone calls, and I read it, and it was fine. I was like, ‘everybody, calm down!’ She’s written very conservatively, and I can be kind of edgy in my real life, so I think they were just trying to make sure I read the material and understand. I responded to it right away, and I got the part. I got on the plane two days later and left for Toronto and shot the pilot.”

With a group of superhumans adjusting to their special abilities, comparison’s to a certain now-canceled NBC show seem unavoidable. “I don’t think that our show is as slick as Heroes,” she says. “I thought it was a great show, and for a few of the seasons I watched pretty religiously. It was a really intense show, and it was very glossy.” I think our show has more of a human, silly element to it. I think its got some X-Files elements in it, and its got some Heroes elements, but I think it’s a little more fun and humorous than those other shows.”

David Strathairn plays Dr. Lee Rosen, the leader the of the team of Alphas that includes Bill, who can summon super-human strength; Nina, who can control thoughts and actions; Gary, who can read broadcast and cellular waves; and Cameron, who can precisely control his motor skills. But where there are superheroes, there are supervillains, and one makes an appearance in the first episode.

But Ghanizada thinks her character is up for the challenge. “Rachel is someone who’s so bright, and so capable,” she says, “but like most girls who grew up in a very strict religious home, she kind of had to fight to be able to be her own person with free will— to get to go to work and get to go to school and use all of the freedoms that she’s afforded in this society to push forward into being her own young woman. And I think the thing that’s so exciting about what Rachel’s doing, she’s using her abilities in a new way, and she’s using them to solve these crimes, and it’s all so new to her. She’s breaking free from a long life of living under someone else’s rule and she’s kind of setting her own rules now.”

Ghanizada is using her own position as an actress to help other Afghani refugees and flood victims in neighboring Pakistan, volunteering with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Refugee Agency. Now, even Ghanizada’s mother is proud. When Azita warned her that her guest role in Castle was as a sexy dominatrix, her mother still told all her friends to watch. “You were so beautiful, Azita,” was all she said.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin