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TV Fresh Face: Sheila Vand Masters the Art of Briefing on NBC's 'State of Affairs'

We chatted with the 'Argo' actress about her upcoming CIA series, performance art, and what it was like to work with Robin Williams on Broadway.

Sheila Vand poses at a photocall during the 40th Deauville American Film Festival.
Sheila Vand poses at a photocall during the 40th Deauville American Film Festival.
Getty Images

You may remember Sheila Vand in Argo as Sahar, the Iranian housekeeper, whose small, albeit powerful role (as highlighted by the LA Times) aided in the safe return of six Americans during the hostage crisis in 1980. Vand will be returning to the screen in another vital and supportive role as Maureen Jones, a CIA briefer, on NBC's political thriller State of Affairs, which premieres tonight at 10/9c. 

We chatted with the talented actress about the much-hyped new series, as well as her diverse portfolio of projects that range from unique performance art to a Broadway role with the late Robin Williams. Check out the full interview below and be sure to tune in tonight. 

Zimbio: We are so excited for the premiere of State of Affairs, which we featured as one of our Top 5 Fall Shows. Can you tell us about your character (Maureen Jones) and what we can expect from the series?

Sheila Vand: My character’s one of the CIA briefers that the show revolves around. She's a really complex, strong woman who briefs the secretary of defense. This is a particularly hard job for a young woman because I'm dealing with homeland security, foreign policy, the military, and all of the stuff that’s going on abroad. I also play Katherine Heigl's (Charleston Tucker) best friend, so we’re kind of each other’s rock. State of Affairs explores how the intensity of their jobs also affects their personal lives. I get to dive into who these human beings are and what kind of person sacrifices their life and their time to serve the country in this way. 

Z: We have a ton of hit political dramas like Homeland, Scandal, and House of Cards. Why do you think this is the case? What makes SOA different?

SV: I think the reason why political shows are gaining so much steam is because there’s actually so much going on in the world right now. There’s so much material that’s ripe for TV dramas and I think that State of Affairs is seriously authentic. Two of our executive producers used to be in the CIA and we have a table read for every episode, so we are really making sure that everything we say is both serving the way it really is in the CIA and sensitive to what is happening in the world. It’s really complicated, the way they make these decisions in the White House. You start to realize that it's not black and white and that there are so many different agendas at play. Our show is very CIA centric, but the CIA isn’t the only place where the White House gets its intel. There's a competitiveness between us and the other agencies that are trying to influence the president. 

I can't put a lid on my own sass, so all my characters have a tiny bit of sass to them.

–Sheila Vand

Z: Would you ever go into politics? 

SV: I would not go into politics. I think that if I’ve learned anything, it's that this is actually such a difficult, heavy job and it really weighs on you. While it's fun to pretend, I think I'm too sensitive of a person to make these decisions objectively and not feel responsible for all those lives that are affected by the decisions we make every day. You see it with my character. Maureen is going through a divorce and then she’s navigating romance at work because she really doesn’t have a life outside of work. She’s only 28 in the show and she's already divorced and I think that runs rampant in the CIA because you have this job that you can't talk about with your closest loved ones. 

Z: If you could describe your character of Maureen in three words, what would they be?

SV: Strong, compassionate, sassy. She's super sassy. I can't put a lid on my own sass, so all my characters have a tiny bit of sass to them.

Z: You have done a lot of performance art, which is really fascinating. How has this played a role in your television acting? 

SV: It’s actually more connected than you think. I think performance art really works the muscle that forces me to take huge risks. It allows me to be more open and free to make bold choices. I also feel like it has helped me listen better. In performance art, there's so much that goes into my particular kind of performative work, but a lot of it is physical, about the space around you, and how you move through that space. I feel like I bring that on to set with me because you don’t really get time to rehearse. Television moves so fast that you just have to be alert and prepared from the second you get there. I think that’s something I know how to do from performance art. I know how to just be in a moment and give my self completely away to it.

Vand stars in NBC's State of Affairs with Emmy award-winning Katherine Heigl. 
Vand stars in NBC's State of Affairs with Emmy award-winning Katherine Heigl. 
NBC

Z: You've found success through so many mediums of acting. How is TV acting different?

SV: I'm still learning so much about TV. I've mostly done theatre and film. In TV, there is pretty much a different director every episode. I think you have to bring your own creativity to it, because they’re there for such a smaller period and they’re thinking about it in such a different way. You're the one that knows everything that happened leading up to that moment and you have to come in with choices already made. There's no time on set to say "let's try these different options." 

Z: Do you prefer one type of acting over another? 

SV: There’s something that I love about each one. They fulfill something completely different for me. TV has been amazing because regular work is awesome and it also gives you the time. I'm hyper self-critical. When I do a movie, it's a shorter period of time, so you're only shooting for three weeks. It's easy to criticize every little performance for that entire three weeks. With TV, eventually you're like "well there's always the next episode." You get a chance to apply what you learned in the last episode, so that's really been awesome. To continue to discover my character with every script we get, I've never experienced that before. So I'm getting to know her in a deeper way and if this show lasts for many seasons, I think it will be a cool experience to get to act, knowing the character totally inside your bones. Television is almost more like theatre, because you're doing it day in and day out the same way you're doing a play. You get into a flow. 

Z: Speaking of plays, you had the incredible opportunity to work with Robin Williams on Broadway in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. How was that experience?

SV: Robin was one of the best people I've ever met in my whole entire life. Hands down, an exceptional human being...so generous, so thoughtful. You hear stories, especially on Broadway, horror stories of huge name people. He was nothing like that. If he even wanted to change one line one night, he would make sure the whole cast knew he was going to try something different because he didn’t want to throw you off your game. He was that kind of actor. He was a team player and I feel so lucky. Doing a play, I got to see him six days a week for six months and watch his process unfold right in front of my eyes in rehearsals.

Z: What did you learn from him? 

SV: One of the things I took away was a lesson in work ethic. He would show up every day an hour before the rest of us. He clowned on the rest of us with his work ethic and it just made me realize you don’t become a legend out of nowhere. He worked really hard and he always cared. He was never afraid to try any choice. Any time a director wanted him to try something, he was game. Sometimes when an actor thinks something is stupid that a director wants him to try, they’ll just sabotage it. Robin always was right there with the director and wanted the director's vision to come to life. He was amazing. I'm lucky as hell to have known him. He had a huge heart. He let everything in and was so generous with himself, giving himself to other people.

Z: As we gear up for the premiere, do you have any final thoughts about State of Affairs that you'd like to share with our readers?

SV: I'm a pretty snobby person, but I really think State of Affairs is giving network TV a run for its money. I've been so impressed and inspired by how much integrity the show has had and how much they’ve really been trying to push the boundaries of network TV by following the example of cable and make this an authentic, smart show. The CIA is a bank of secrets, so this isn’t really a White House show. All of the secrets that pile up in the CIA have tons of twists and turns and nothing is what it seems. If people give it a shot and stick with it, it's going to take you on a ride. 

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