In the new Syfy series Alphas, premiering July 11, Azita Ghanizada plays a young woman with special abilities trying to find her place in a new world. And that could very much describe the path Ghanizada herself took to success.
When she was very young, the actress and her family came to America as refugees, arriving in Virginia after the Soviets invaded their home country of Afghanistan.
“My parents watched the demise of their country,” Ghanizada tells us, describing a nation in terms surprising to most of us only familiar with Afghanistan’s struggles in recent decades. “For them it was really intense and severe, because my mom and dad, growing up in the ’70s and late ’60s, [Afghanistan] was very [different]. There was a lot of fashion, a lot of Western influence. My dad was in a Beatles cover band. My mom wore Candie’s and skin-tight bellbottoms. Then all of a sudden we were in America, and my mom is actively getting the majority of her family out of refugee camps and into the United States. And it was really a struggle watching them feel so defeated and emotional, and watching the news and listening to the Afghan news. … I wouldn’t say I had any type of typical childhood. I definitely grew up very fast. I watched them live in pain and live in fear … and then going to my very pretty, middle-class elementary school and trying to also find my role there, trying to figure out how to fit in.”
She certainly has fit in. Saying that she mainly learned English by watching television, Ghanizada explains that she comes to her acting roles, which until now have been primarily guest spots (she was also up for the lead female role in The Kite Runner), not only as an actor, but as an audience member. She is particularly a fan of the action genre.
“My dad was a huge action fan,” she says. “The action stuff was huge to me. I didn’t have Barbies. I’m from Afghanistan, I didn’t have those things. I had my imagination, I wanted to climb the trees with the boys, and I wanted to get a little bit rougher. So I’m a little bit more of a fan of these types of films and TV shows. [In Alphas,] I’m kind of an audience member that’s getting to be an actor, so it’s like I’m part of the audience watching from the outside, too, so I’m hoping we get [the series] right. It’s important to me to service people like me who are just as obsessed [with film and television].”
Actual audience members will get their chance to see if Ghanizada does represent them well with Alphas. The premise sounds like it should indeed draw in fans of the action/sci-fi genre.
“[It's] a bit of an investigative thriller,” Ghanizada says of the series. “It’s about ordinary people with superhuman abilities. They aren’t superheroes by any means. They’re just your normal ordinary citizens who actually have these brain anomalies that cause extreme abilities within them, and they’re called Alphas. The Alphas have kind of come together under the watchful eye of Dr. Rosen [played by David Strathairn]. Dr. Rosen actually works for the Department of Defense, and his Alphas are good Alphas, and they work to solve crimes that are kind of X-Files-type crimes that the government can’t handle. So we go on the hunt for these criminal Alphas each week.”
Ghanizada’s character, Rachel, has the ability to hyper-intensify all of her senses.
“I can super-see, hear, taste, touch and smell,” she says. “But when I go into one of my senses, I lose all the other senses. Which is a very dangerous thing, both if I’m out in the field doing something, but [it was] also very dangerous for [Rachel's] emotional growth as a child. She’s kind of suffered a lot and suffered within her own family dynamic. It’s been considered a “condition” by her family. She grew up in a very strict Middle Eastern home, and they see what other people would see as a gift, really as a curse on their family’s name. So Rachel’s really battling and struggling with breaking free from her home life and dealing with these superhuman abilities that her family sees as a curse and working with these people who really help her hone her abilities and utilize her help to solve these crimes. So she’s kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to separate herself from the family she’s known and loved her entire life, but [which she] knows is holding her back, and moving into this element which is kind of dangerous and not exactly what she wants to do, but for the first time really is the only place she’s ever belonged.”
It’s this focus on belonging, and the exploration of the sometimes troubled personal lives of the Alphas like Rachel, that Ghanizada believes differentiates this series from shows and films with similar premises, such as Heroes or X-Men. (Co-executive producer and writer Zak Penn in fact also wrote the second and third X-Men films.)
“We’re not superheroes with capes on,” Ghanizada explains. “I feel like X-Men, which I’m a huge fan of, is a glossy, very heightened version of reality. Alphas is very much set in reality. I think that’s the big difference between them. Heroes, I was a big fan of what they did the first season, then there were so many characters that it became diluted. I don’t think we’re anything like Heroes. … I think there’s a different tone to our show. I think there’s more of a loose, kind of improvised office setting. There’s a lot more humor in the show. I think Zak Penn is a little irreverent in his humor, and I think that plays a lot in our show. It’s kind of a whole new spin on looking at X-Men or Alpha-type individuals. It’s more looking at their home lives, and the humor of being in the office with people you don’t really want to be with, as opposed to just solving these crimes or just dealing with the Alpha abilities.”
As Alphas doesn’t skimp on exploring the personal lives of its characters, neither has Ghanizada forgotten her personal life, and the lives of her fellow former country people. As one of the few Afghan actors in Hollywood, Ghanizada uses her voice, which should become even stronger with her lead role in Alphas, to continue to draw attention to what is going on in Afghanistan.
“The country’s now going into its fourth decade of war,” she says. “I think it’s important for me, as somebody who’s one of the first Afghan girls to break on television in the United States — it’s a relatively new ethnic population here — it’s important for me to lend voice. … The reintegration of the country is very important to me. Helping them get back on their feet and get out of needing all of the support from the different militaries is something I’m trying to focus on a little more. If I have a little mini-platform, I want to use it for the betterment of the country that I came from, and that’s something that lives inside of me and is very strong.”