Starz’s COUNTERPART, now in its first season on Sunday nights and renewed for a second, is a combination of espionage thriller and speculative fiction. In the series created by Justin Marks, reality split in two 30 years ago. At first, the two mirrored each other, but now there are significant differences. Most people don’t know about the schism, which has its connecting point in a tunnel beneath Berlin in Germany. Those who do know are involved with either keeping the peace or trying to destroy it.
Nazanin Boniadi and Sara Serraiocco (pronounced “Ser-ee-O-ko] play two very different spies from the Other Side. Boniadi portrays Clare, who was sent to kill and replace her counterpart, then engaged to a high-level intelligence agent (Harry Lloyd) on our side. Since then, Clare has become a mother, which may or may not affect her loyalties. Serraiocco’s character Nadia, code-named Baldwin, is an assassin who was briefly involved romantically with Clare, and is now on the run from everyone on both sides.
Born in Tehran, Iran and raised in the U.K., Boniadi costarred as CIA analyst Fara Sherazi on two seasons of HOMELAND and also had arcs on SCANDAL and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, and has appeared in features including IRON MAN and the recent BEN-HUR remake.
Born in Pescara and trained in Rome, Serraiocco has been in a number of features and series in her native Italy. The two women sit down to talk about their work in COUNTERPART.
ASSIGNMENT X: How similar or different is your experience acting in COUNTERPART to your previous acting experiences?
SARA SERRAIOCCO: Working on COUNTERPART was an incredible experience for me – probably one of the best experiences of my life. And it was an honor for me to be working with J.K. Simmons [who stars as our side’s mild-mannered Howard Silk and his cynical counterpart from the Other Side], Justin Marks and all the other actors and directors, because they made me feel part of a family, and I’m really happy.
NAZANIN BONIADI: Coming from HOMELAND, for example, or other TV shows, you’re used to getting one script at a time for every episode. But what ended up happening on this show is, we had all ten scripts before we started shooting. So we very much felt like we were filming two feature films. We were able to map out our characters over the course of the entire season before we even started shooting. So it really helped get us to the right tone and the right universe and the right world. It just felt more like a film than shooting a TV show.
AX: It’s unusual in television to get all the scripts for the whole season at once. Were you reading through it like a novel?
BONIADI: Usually, I read one script, and then I’m like, “Oh, I need a break.” We read so many scripts, we’re just over it by the end of whatever it is sixty-page script, but I literally couldn’t put it down. So I went for the second script, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m tired, but I really want to read the third script.” That kind of addiction made me realize that people will want to binge-watch, and they’re going to want to watch this show. And that’s initially what made me hooked and what made me want to be part of the project, because if I can’t put the script down, then hopefully that translates to the screen and people aren’t going to want to put the show down.
SERRAIOCCO: Yeah, the story is very interesting and captivating, so when I read the script, I was fascinated by the philosophical side of the show, and how all the characters were written. I thought, “Oh, my God, this is a huge opportunity.”
AX: Justin Marks and the other executive producers were talking about the fact that they have charts for all of the mythology, who knows what at which level and so on. How far did you as actors get into that?
BONIADI: We were given a character biography by Justin, and then there was also an interchange kind of guidebook [with] the minute details of climatic differences between the two worlds, and whether they shake hands on one side but they don’t shake hands on the other side, and there’s a reason for that. Wardrobe, what people wear – clothing is different, fashion is different, architecture is different. He really knew minute differences between the two worlds, and for him to paint that picture for us and to give us a guidebook of, “Here you go, this is the world we’re creating” was very helpful.
AX: Had either of you worked in Berlin before – maybe when HOMELAND was shooting there?
BONIADI: I had not, no. I was on Seasons 3 and 4 of HOMELAND, so I shot in North Carolina and Cape Town, South Africa.
SERRAIOCCO: I’ve been in Berlin so many times, and of course, for the past several so many times, but I’ve never worked in Berlin before. It’s a beautiful city.
AX: I know you don’t want to give out spoilers, but what can you say about your characters?
BONIADI: Clare is basically from the other side. She’s Baldwin’s handler, she’s essentially a mysterious woman with a curious origin, and she’s on a mission. She’s a soldier on a mission. And her loyalty and allegiance is first and foremost to that mission. And she embodies, I think, that quote – “One man’s rebel [terrorist] is another man’s freedom fighter.” I don’t think of her as a straight-faced villain. She’s very much multifaceted and complex, and as the season goes on, you’ll understand what her motivations are.
AX: Had you played anyone like Baldwin before?
SERRAIOCCO: No. It was my first time as an assassin. For an Italian actress, it’s really exciting, because we don’t have a lot of action films. And it was a challenge for me, because I worked a lot on the physical side of my character. I trained for a whole month, seven hours a day, to prepare for Baldwin with a professional stuntman who taught me how to hold a gun, run and jump while holding a gun, everything that was necessary to make my character realistic and tough on camera. So it was a beautiful experience.
AX: In your mind, is Baldwin based at all on LA FEMME NIKITA?
SERRAIOCCO: Yes, absolutely. Because she has no friends, no place to live, she doesn’t really know too much about life. But during the series, she will discover that she has feelings she never thought she could have, as in the Luc Besson film.
AX: Does Clare have any cinematic archetypes that you can point to?
BONIADI: No. I would say she’s unique. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this type of [character] – she’s not one thing, is what I’m trying to say. I would say she’s a rebel, but also a freedom fighter, and I think she’s a woman who’s on a mission. There’s very little I can talk about, because it’s a big reveal, so I don’t really want to spoil anything.
AX: In the spirit of asking non-spoilery questions, how is it working with J.K. Simmons?
SERRAIOCCO: It was an honor working with J.K. Simmons. He was a great help to me on the set, and I learned a lot from him. I was impressed by his work. He’s really good at switching between two different characters, and it was a huge opportunity for me.
BONIADI: He’s a consummate professional and I think it was an honor for all of us to be on the show with him. He’s worked for such a long time and done such wonderful-caliber work that to get this kind of success now, it’s so well-deserved. And also, he’s such a giving actor. He wants everyone to be on their A game. He’s not at all in any way, shape or form a selfish actor. He truly wants the best for the show, and he’s a great team leader for all of us to kind of follow in his footsteps.
AX: You were on HOMELAND and you were on SCANDAL …
BONIADI: I was on SCANDAL. I can’t believe I’d actually been off television for three years. I had the wonderful privilege of being sent the [COUNTERPART] script after HOMELAND to consider. And really, when I found COUNTERPART, it was the first time where I felt like, “This is exactly the right project I wanted.” It just spoke to me on so many levels, so I’m excited that this is my next venture on television after HOMELAND.
AX: Are you particularly drawn to political-themed projects?
BONIADI: I love projects that have a conscience or a message or raise awareness or are not just pure entertainment. I know there’s a space for that, and I love pure entertainment – sometimes that escapism is necessary in the world we live in – but I feel kind of morally obligated to either empower or provide hope or a message, something that either lifts people up or just compels them to either be a better person themselves, or to help the world in some way. I think the thing with politics is, I love that we live in a country [Boniadi is a dual American/U.K. citizen], and that’s the thing with America, there’s nothing wrong with America that you can’t fix with what’s right with America, and I love that concept, that we have our freedoms, because right now on the streets of Tehran, tens of thousands of people in Iran were protesting, and unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears. And so I don’t take the freedoms that we have here for granted, and I hope that we use those to gain greater freedoms for ourselves and for the people of the world.
AX: Back to fiction, do we know what’s going on in Iran on the Other Side in COUNTERPART?
BONIADI: No, nothing to do with Iran on the show. We haven’t portrayed Iran on the show.
AX: What about Italy?
SERRAIOCCO: No, Berlin. Because Nadia lives in Berlin, and Baldwin on the Other Side is in Berlin. They were Italian, but raised in Germany.
AX: How did you enjoy playing the two different characters?
SERRAIOCCO: It was really challenging for me, switching from one character to another. It was really a great opportunity as an actress to play two different roles.
AX: Did either of you have to deal with the tech that they use to put two of J.K. Simmons on screen at once?
BONIADI: I can’t speak to that, but I don’t know if you [Serraiocco] can, either. I think it’s a spoiler.
AX: Fair enough. Do either of you have other projects going on that we should know about?
BONIADI: I have a film called HOTEL MUMBAI coming out with Armie Hammer, Dev Patel and Jason Isaacs sometime this year. I’m very proud of that, and hopefully, I’ll get to share it with everyone soon.
SERRAIOCCO: Yeah, I have an Italian film. The director Alessandro Capitani will be really happy to know that I’m [discussing it]. The Italian film is IN VIAGGIO CON ADELE – TRAVELING WITH ADELE – and it’s an interesting story, a beautiful story. It’s an independent film. It takes place in the south of Italy.
AX: And what would you both like people to know most about COUNTERPART?
SERRAIOCCO: I hope the audience loves the show, because it’s a very interesting project. It is a new project, and this real side of COUNTERPART makes it different from most thrillers here that I have seen so far.
BONIADI: I haven’t seen anything like it on TV or in film ever. I think it’s a unique universe that Justin has created, and I urge people to just tune in, because I think they will be compelled to keep watching, and hopefully love it as much as we do.
This interview was conducted during Starz’s portion of the Winter 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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Article: COUNTERPART: Cast talks spies from different worlds – exclusive interview