Showtime’s Homeland delivered an devastating twist in Sunday’s episode that resulted the loss in a series-regular character. Spoilers below for those who have not seen the episode.

Tonight’s hour saw the demise of the brave and empathetic CIA analyst Fara Sherazi (Nazanin Boniadi) after the terrorist Haqqani seized control of the American embassy in Islamabad. Below Boniadi exclusively spoke to EW about the episode. (And here’s EW‘s recap).

EW: When did you find out about your exit?
Nazanin Boniadi: I found out three weeks before we shot that episode. I got a call from [showrunner] Alex Gansa and we had just had our season premiere screening in Cape Town for the cast and crew and he told me he had difficult news for me but that the writers had decided to end Fara’s journey, but in a very poetic way, I think. He explained to me the reasoning behind it and it all made sense. As actors it’s always hard for us to hear that news, but in every case actors serve the story and when it makes sense to the story it is what it is and you go on.

What was your reaction?
It caught me off guard. I love Fara so much. I went through two weeks of mourning. It was very foreign experience to me; I’ve never experienced that as an actor. I was a fan of a character, I had grown to love her, it was hard to let her go. To watch the episode tonight was very difficult.

Your character has been sort of the moral compass of the show this season, especially since Saul has been sidelined.
Yeah I agree. I think they did great things with Fara.

What was that final scene for your character like to shoot?
It was gut-wrenching. When we shot the scene of Haqqani grabbing me at knife-point, and we had a rehearsal, but I didn’t hear them say we were just rehearsing, so I gave a full performance during the rehearsal and let it all out. I was devastated, so I really put it all into the scene. And then they said, “Let’s shoot,” I said, “Wait a minute, we weren’t shooting that?” I was right on the edge of the emotions and it was right there. I really love the character because she is in my eyes a groundbreaking character and I felt very privileged to play her for two seasons. And the fact I’m going to miss the cast and crew tremendously made the whole episode very raw for me.

You mentioned it’s a groundbreaking character. What’s it been like for you to portray a Muslim character working for the CIA on such an acclaimed show?
It’s been a real privilege. It’s nice to see a character that personifies this unity between East and West that’s rarely seen on television. Like you said, she’s a moral compass of the show, she was this season, she was last season. The arc of her character I think has really served Carrie’s arc. You had in episode six Fara questioned Carrie about the boy—”What about Aayan?”—and then in episode nine Carrie echoed that with regard to the boy with the suicide vest with Saul. I think she served a purpose on the show and it’s every actor’s dream to have a beginning and middle and end, and to have an arc that served a purpose.

What was your last day on set like?

It was bittersweet. Bitter because it was the end of a two-year journey that I cherished. Sweet because [the producers] surprised me with this very large [photo] they blew up and framed had all the writers and creative team sign, and it was a very moving send-off and I’ve formed very close friendships with [the cast] and producers. But to be on a show like this is a blessing.

You recently booked a new role, as the female lead in the remake of Ben Hur. Can you tell us about that?
I can’t unfortunately talk about that yet. My lips are sealed.

You’ve been very supportive of women’s rights issues in Iran. Has that situation gotten had any improvement this past year and what can people do if they want to help?
I can’t say that it’s gotten better. But more voices help the cause and amplifies the message if there are more people involved. I think the best way to get involved is through AmnestyUSA.org and find out how you can join a local chapter. And also to contract representatives wherever we may be and whatever our human rights cause may be and make sure our voices get heard.

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EXCLUSIVE: After a heated competition, Homeland star Nazanin Boniadi has scored the offer to play the female lead opposite Jack Huston in the Timur Bekmambetov-directed remake of Ben-Hur for MGM and Paramount Pictures. Boniadi plays CIA operative Fara Sherazi in the Showtime drama Homeland. She will play Esther in Ben-Hur, the role that Gal Gadot was in discussions before conflicts knocked her out.

The runner up for the role was Sofia Boutella, the young Algerian-born actress who plays the villainess in the Matthew Vaughn-directed Kingsman. Other actresses who did chemistry reads with former Boardwalk Empire star Huston were Israeli actress Moran Atias (The Next Three Days), and Natalia Warner, who wrapped Learning To Breathe. Boniadi is repped by UK-based AKA.

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Her Homeland character Fara has leapt into action this season. We asked actress Nazanin Boniadi what she makes of the Channel 4 show post-Brody and why Benedict Cumberbatch would be her dream co-star.

The new season of Channel 4 drama Homeland has seen Nazanin Boniadi’s character Fara morph dramatically from quiet CIA analyst to a key player on the show, working out in the field as live-wire Carrie (Claire Danes)’s protégé. In the flesh the 34-year-old – who also recently squeezed in a run on another hot US TV series, Scandal – is teeny-tiny and more polished than her on-screen persona. “They put a scarf on my head in the last series and I’m wearing little to no make-up” she says. “It takes people a while before they go ‘oh you’re THAT girl!’”

Tehran-born but London-raised Nazanin (pronounced ‘Nazaneen’) originally wanted to be a doctor, but a change of heart in her final year at University of California, Irvine (where she moved from home in London to study) switched her onto a new career track that began with bit parts on General Hospital, How I Met Your Mother and a cameo on Iron Man before she wound up scoring her ‘dream role’ on Homeland. We sat down with her to find out what makes her tick.

So let’s talk about Homeland. Is the show proving there’s life after Brody?

“I absolutely loved Brody on the show, so I was really cautious when I got the script for the first episode. But reading it I just thought ‘wow, how have they managed in one hour to completely reboot it?’”

Your character Fara has a bigger action role this season…

“She proved herself last year in Carrie’s eyes because she put her own family at risk to help Brody, so she’s been brought into her team and is working on the ground in Pakistan. She really does get her hands dirty. She’s an agent now, not just an analyst.”

Do you think it’s a good time for women in television?

“In a lot of ways I think television is better for women than film. I look at Claire [Danes] and her character and how incredibly multi-faceted she is, and I’ve also come from working on Scandal where Kerry Washington is another strong female lead.”

Like Fara you’re originally from Iran. Do you remember much from early life there?

“No, my parents fled to London when I was 20 days old during the revolution. Going back to visit in my early teens it was so different to the way my parents had described it. Back then my mum would walk around in a miniskirt with red lipstick on and nobody would think anything of it. I remember feeling appalled that I had to wear a headscarf. Clothes are a big part of a free society – I think – and what you wear is so indicative of the political climate you’re living in.”

How did your family react to you becoming an actress?

“The entertainment industry isn’t a line of work encouraged in the Persian culture. When I called my dad to say I wanted to quit medicine there was about three minutes of silence. I’m not sure he knew what to do with himself! I said ‘give me a year and if things don’t work out I’ll have a rethink.’”

Ironically your first part was on General Hospital!

“Dad never let me live that one down, he’d say, ‘you’re not a doctor, now you’re an actor playing a nurse on television’, but it was the second audition I ever did. It’s been an interesting progression, going from soap to a sitcom with How I Met Your Mother and now being a series regular on Homeland. It’s exactly the role I’ve always dreamed of.”

Do you get recognised much?

“I get recognised more for How I Met Your Mother and Scandal as I look so different on Homeland. I’ve only really seen crazy fan interactions from watching Damian [Lewis]. He just gets mobbed. I think it’s the female fans, the men don’t quite have that level of energy!”

What’s in your wardrobe at home?

“It’s quite fitted. Though when I do fashion shoots or I’m filming my style often shifts because I’m influenced by the clothes. When I was on How I Met Your Mother I wore my character’s brown leather jacket for a year after I wrapped the show!”

Who would be your dream co-star to work with next?

“Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s absolutely amazing. I love that keen sense of intelligence. Claire is bursting with it, too. It makes me go ‘this is great, I want to learn from you’.”

Homeland airs Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4

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If brains, beauty, and talent are the holy trifecta in Hollywood, then Nazanin Boniadi has hit the jackpot. And then some. Had she followed her original career path, the Tehran-born, London-raised actress would be better known as Dr. Nazanin Boniadi by now. But in the midst of applying to medical school after earning her degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine, (where she was awarded the Chang Pin-Chun Award for her work in cancer and heart transplant-rejection research), Boniadi realized it wasn’t meant to be her path in life. But acting? Well, that was a different story.

Less than a year after trading classrooms for casting calls, the now-34-year-old actress who is better known as “Naz” to her friends landed her first part. Shortly thereafter she became a series regular on—wait for it—General Hospital, where she blazed new trails by becoming the first Iranian-born actress on contract to an American soap opera and the first Middle Eastern series regular. Roles in Charlie Wilson’s War, Iron Man, and The Next Three Days followed, as did a one-season guest spot on How I Met Your Mother (where she played a love interest for Neil Patrick Harris).

But the past year has been the big one for Boniadi, who landed major roles on the third seasons of two of television’s biggest series: as FBI analyst and Saul Berenson protégé Fara Sherazi on Homeland, and as the mysterious terrorist Adnan Salif in Scandal. This month, Boniadi will reprise her Homeland character, now as a series regular and full-on field agent. At the same time, she’s become a familiar face on the activist scene, working as a spokesperson for Amnesty International and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Boniandi spoke with us from Cape Town, South Africa, where she’s finishing up filming on the Showtime hit’s fourth season, to talk about acting, activism, and starting from scratch.

DETAILS: You earned a degree in biology and were on your way to medical school. How did you end up in Hollywood?
Nazanin Boniadi:
I think my goal in life was to try to find an occupation where I could help people. Now how I ended up in acting? [Laughs.] Being from a Persian background, the culture encourages you to follow a very academic career—medicine, law, engineering—but the arts aren’t really encouraged. So while I was in high school, I was very much into the performing arts—I was in school plays, I did ballet, I played the violin—but it was only encouraged as a hobby. So I got my degree in biology, with honors. And I worked really hard to get the honors. It wasn’t one of those career paths that was like, ‘OK, this feels right because it’s really easy for me to get an A.’ I worked so hard. And with that comes the feeling of, ‘Well, this doesn’t feel right because it doesn’t feel like home to me.’ It felt like I was working a lot harder than everybody else who was getting As. So I called my dad in England and said, ‘Listen, I graduated with honors in a degree that you feel happy with. Now I want to do what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘What’s that? Do you want to go to law school?’ And then he listed all these very academic things, and I said, ‘Actually, I want to act.’ There was about three minutes of silence, and I said, ‘Dad? Are you still there? Are you okay?’ I think it was hard for him to accept because I was in my mid-20s at that point, and he was understandably worried because I was embarking on something that I had no professional experience in—or even academic experience; I hadn’t studied it or anything. So I said, ‘Listen, give me a year. If I fail miserably and make no progress, then I’ll go to medical school or I’ll do something academic.’ I guess I’m lucky, because nine months after that I got my SAG card and I booked my first job.

DETAILS: Was there a particular event or moment that you can point to that really made you decide, ‘Okay, I’m doing this! I’m switching gears and I’m going to take a chance on an acting career?’
Nazanin Boniadi:
As I was applying to medical school I had this kind of epiphany that I was about to commit myself to four more years of studying, of going to medical school, and then the whole residency and internship. And that’s not where my heart was leading me. So it was really a matter of just being very honest with myself, as scary as that was. And it was very scary, even for me, as I was halfway to the finish mark of being a doctor and I decided to start from scratch. Being from an academic background I knew that I had to study acting; it wasn’t like I was just going to say, ‘Okay, I’m an actress now.’ So I really started from the bottom and became a student in something that I had no experience in. So it was very scary. Part of the medical-school application is writing essays on why you want to be a doctor, so it’s really like therapy. [Laughs.] You really have to start being honest with yourself. And as I was writing these essays as to why I want to do what I want to do, I realized, Yes, I do have a primary goal of helping people, but there are other ways of doing that.

DETAILS: Which makes it fairly ironic that one of your first major roles was on General Hospital. At least you could call your dad and tell him that!
Nazanin Boniadi:
Yes. But of course he said, “Why are you playing a nurse? Couldn’t they have made you a doctor?” [Laughs.]

DETAILS: You became the first Iranian-born actress on contract for an American soap and also the first contract actress to play a Middle Eastern character on daytime television, both of which are pretty big feats—especially for someone just starting out in her career. Did you feel any pressure when it came to being a bit of a trailblazer in Hollywood for Middle Eastern actors? Were there certain aspects of the character’s heritage that were important for you to portray?
Nazanin Boniadi:
Sure. Because there aren’t too many Iranians in Hollywood, there was the responsibility of trying my best to represent the community as best as I could. But there were definitely people who opened the doors for me: Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Academy Award nominee from House of Sand and Fog, is a trailblazer, Shaun Toub, who was on Homeland last season, he’s been around for decades in Hollywood. Being in my own kind of category, of course there comes a responsibility with that. But, for me, I can’t take that too seriously. At the end of the day the goal is to do the best job you can do, go home, and forget about it.

DETAILS: You also spent a season on How I Met Your Mother, which allowed you to transition into a bit of comedy. For you personally is it easier to do comedy or drama?
Nazanin Boniadi:
For me, drama always feels a lot more comfortable. I remember when I was cast on How I Met Your Mother, thinking, ‘This is interesting that they think I can be funny.’ Because I’ve never found myself to be funny. But then family members would say, ‘Naz, you’re quirky!’ In my personal life I’m told that I’m pretty quirky, and I still to this day don’t really know what that means. I guess it means that they find me odd? [Laughs.]

DETAILS: On the show you played one of the few actual loves of Neil Patrick Harris’s notorious ladies man, Barney. What is it that attracts you to someone in real life?
Nazanin Boniadi:
Physically, it’s the eyes. As corny as it sounds, they are the windows to the soul. But by rule I find a good sense of humor extremely attractive. Somebody who knows how to laugh and smile at life.

DETAILS: You’re coming back to Homeland this season as a series regular. Were you a fan of the show before you were cast on it?
Nazanin Boniadi:
I had had friends who were guest stars, so I had followed the show—I found it gripping and extremely well-written and well-acted, of course—but I hadn’t watched it from the beginning. I wasn’t an avid watcher until I got the job, and when I did, I marathoned it in about 48 hours. Not because I had to, but because I was glued. [Laughs.] Then I realized what the fuss is about because I basically became a fan of the show that I’m on, which you can’t always say as an actor. You can’t always say that you’re a genuine fan of the show that you’re doing.

DETAILS: What was it that most attracted you to the character of Fara?
Nazanin Boniadi:
I think that Homeland has created a ground-breaking character. She is so multifaceted and, in my opinion, the first prominent Muslim on television that is just a human being. She’s not a cliché. She’s no angel, she’s no devil, she’s just a person. And just like Carrie, the protagonist of the show, who is flawed but is basically good. Fara’s the same; there’s no difference. And being Muslim is secondary to the fact that she is just a girl trying to make her way through life. So in that sense I found her very compelling. The way she was written was not cliché to me at all, and it was a great moment when I booked the role. I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I remember just looking at an e-mail from my agent and I literally squealed. All of these film people were looking at me like, “Why is this woman squealing?” But it was that exciting for me to get this job, because there are just so many directions that she can be taken in.

DETAILS: What sort of research did you have to do for the role?
Nazanin Boniadi:
Luckily I am Iranian, so I drew from just growing up in an Iranian family and knowing the culture firsthand. But also, because of my ties with Amnesty International and now the Council on Foreign Relations, I’m very tapped into that world. So we actually got assigned a book to read this season, which was a Council on Foreign Relations book, which was how I became a member. So I had the luxury of calling the author of the book and picking his brain about what life is like in Pakistan. So I basically just asked him every single question that I had about how my character would be in that setting and what the customs and mores are of being in that country. Because although Fara’s Muslim, she’s Iranian, so I wanted to make that part realistic. People assume that all Muslim countries are the same, when they’re not. So you have to kind of find your own answers. And then you are going to find that Fara is very different this season than she was last season because she’s not an analyst anymore, she’s an agent. So she’s in the field and she’s undercover, so she’s continuing to learn the art of espionage throughout this season. So I spoke to people in the national-security arena and then just did a lot of reading, a lot of YouTube watching, and a lot of talking to experts.

DETAILS: Is there anything more action-oriented in store for her this season now that her role has changed?
Nazanin Boniadi:
It’s definitely more action-oriented. She gets her hands dirty. Weapons training? Not yet. We are halfway through the season, so let’s see what the rest of the season has in store. [Laughs.]

DETAILS: What about any sort of fight training?
Nazanin Boniadi:
Not yet, but she’s definitely out there as far as taking risks. I will say that the thing I love most about Fara is that she’s a very strong character but she often surprises herself with her strength. I don’t think she realizes quite how brave and strong she is, so when she does something that’s quite risky, it’s this moment of, ‘Oh, goodness. I just did that!’

DETAILS: She’s also a very intelligent, strong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, which I think can make her intimidating at times. And seems like something you could relate to. Do you think that people find you intimidating in real life?
Nazanin Boniadi
: I’m quite petite in real life, so I think that there’s an assumption that people who come in small packages are sweet and demure and naive. And not to say that I’m not sweet, but I definitely am outspoken and anybody who follows my human-rights activities knows that I have no problem standing in front of hundreds of people and speaking my mind. It’s interesting this whole idea of looking at someone and assuming who they are, which is also why I love playing [this character] because I can relate to that.

DETAILS: Speaking of your activism: I just read a piece that you wrote on gender-based violence for The Huffington Post, which was great. How does your activism influence the roles that you choose? Do you look for work that allows you to say something about the causes that are most important to you?
Nazanin Boniadi:
I try to, definitely, [but] I don’t always have the luxury to. Because at the end of the day I just have to work. And those roles are very limited. Not too long ago I was actually telling Alex Gansa, our show runner and creator, ‘Thank you for giving me this job because it fuses the two worlds that I love so much together.’ And then I have a film coming out, Desert Dancer, where I have a relatively small, supporting role, but it was a passion project. It comes out in March in the States and it’s being released by Relativity. Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen and Reece Ritchie are the leads, and I loved it because it’s based on a true human-rights story set in Iran. And how often are you able to find material like that? I thrive in those roles.

DETAILS: Activism has sort of become a part-time pastime in Hollywood for some people, who are really just lending their name or face to a cause. You’re actually out there doing the work, traveling to speak to groups, and writing articles about these issues. Do you think that anytime somebody lends his or her name to a cause is a good thing? Or is it important that really get their hands dirty?
Nazanin Boniadi:
I love working at ground zero. I love grassroots activism as much as I love lending my name to something. I think the most important thing is that it comes from a genuine place. I was born in the height of the Iranian Revolution; it’s part of my consciousness to want to change conditions for the better in Iran. It’s something I was raised with, so it’s in my blood. But people around me sometimes have to say, ‘No, you are an actress. Don’t forget that.’ Because sometimes I throw myself into the activism and make that the priority in my life. So it just has to come naturally. And if it’s genuine, then I always applaud it.

DETAILS: Did you have any desire to step behind the camera and document some of the work that you’re doing, or write or direct a project based on these issues?
Nazanin Boniadi:
I don’t know about the future, but for now I will leave it to people who are much, much better at it than I would be. I will stick to the acting and try to perfect this, or try to grow as much as I can as an actor and be the type of actor I want to be before I even embark on something that sounds to me so all-encompassing.

DETAILS: I know you can’t tell us very much about the new season of Homeland, but what’s one little thing you can tease us with about the upcoming season?
Nazanin Boniadi:
You’re going to see Fara in a way that you’ve never seen her. In fact I think the first moment she’s reintroduced in the storyline, which is episode three, you’re going to see Fara and say, ‘Wow, that’s not the Fara that we’re used to.’ She’s going to be very different from what she was last year. She’s headed in a different direction. And the characters have shifted. Saul used to be the director of the CIA, now he’s out on the field, outside the CIA. Carrie has been elevated in the CIA. You’re going to see Quinn facing a lot of demons and more things that he needs to overcome. And then Fara’s being mentored by Carrie this season. It was Saul last season, now it’s Carrie. So it’s a fresh start.

DETAILS: And the women are finally taking over.
Nazanin Boniadi: Exactly. [Laughs.]

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Showtime’s Homeland concluded a trilogy of sorts with its Season 3 finale, as Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis) — a disgraced Marine sergeant who loomed large as both a sometime threat to his own country and as a pivotal figure in CIA officer Carrie Mathison’s life — was written off the canvas in a quite definitive manner.

With Brody removed from the equation, Carrie (Claire Danes) stationed in Islamabad and her onetime boss Saul Berenson toiling for a private military contract as Season 4 opens this Sunday at 9/8c (with two new episodes), “It is a clean start for Carrie,” showrunner Alex Gansa tells TVLine.

Yet as Carrie grapples with a massive crisis, one somewhat of her own doing, in the geo-politlcal arena, she will also have to juggle “a number of” significant relationships in her life, Gansa says.

“She has an important relationship with her little six-month-old daughter [Frannie],” Gansa notes. “She has an important relationship with the memory of Brody; and she’s got a burgeoning relationship — although not romantic yet — with Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend),” who now works alongside Martha Boyd (In Treatment‘s Laila Robins), the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. Complicating the Carrie/Quinn dynamic is the fact that since the events of Season 3, the latter has developed a distaste for the CIA’s comfort with “kill lists” and “bulletproof” decisions.

Carrie also will serve as a mentor to Farah Sharazi (Nazanin Boniadi), “who never trained to be a case officer, but Carrie needed people she could trust on the ground there,” Gansa explains, as well as develop a bond with Aayan Ibrahim (Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma), a Pakistani med student possessing a unique perspective on the calamity that sets Season 4 in motion.
Saul, meanwhile, Episode 404“is not happy at all” with his new position in the private sector, which portends to create new, unneeded friction with wife Mira (Sarita Choudhury). “The money is good but Saul is an archetypal Washington figure, a guy who’s lived at the center of things for so many years,” Gansa explains. “Now that he finds himself not in that gravitational pull of world events, he misses it desperately.”

Yet even with Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) still lording over the CIA, Saul will be rescued from his new, New York City-based existence as the season unfolds, when all hands are needed on deck to stem the bleeding of the aforementioned crisis. As a result, says Gansa, “Carrie and Saul both get to do things that they were trained to do, which is serve overseas.”

Moving on from the Brody years and returning Carrie to what she does best — which, as seen in early episodes, certainly is not mothering! — Homeland is poised to return to its own original mission, which is to hold a mirror up to the world and find drama to mine from that.

Notes Gansa: “It’s sometimes difficult to read the front page of the paper these days, and the tone [of Season 4] reflects whats going on in the world right now, which is pretty scary.”

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Homeland star Nazanin Boniadi has said that season four – the first without Damian Lewis – is “very much a reboot” of the series.

Lewis’ chracter – tragic ex-marine Nicholas Brody – was executed by Iranian authorities in season three’s finale, ‘The Star’.

“Alex Gansa [series showrunner] and the writers are masterminds at reinvention,” Boniadi – who plays CIA operative Fara – told Digital Spy.

“The fact that they kept Brody alive for three seasons and still kept it interesting is testament to that, because I think Alex has gone on the record and said that they had plans to kill Brody early on and they couldn’t, because he was just so good.

“But there’s only so much do with that character – because of the nature of the character – and I think everybody realized it was time to move on from that storyline. No character but Carrie (Claire Danes) is safe on this show.”

Boniadi described season four of Homeland – which premieres tonight in the US and next Sunday in the UK – as “a whole new adventure”.

“It’s very much a reboot – if you haven’t seen seasons 1-3, you can start watching season four and I don’t think you’d be too lost,” she said.

Homeland returns to Channel 4 in the UK on Sunday, October 12 at 9pm.

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