“I’ve never really known how to identify myself,” says Nazneen Contractor. No wonder: the vivacious, 26-year-old actress was born in Mumbai, raised in Nigeria, London and Toronto, currently lives in Los Angeles and, with her flawless, mocha-coloured skin and indeterminate accent, can play both South Asian and South American characters. One thing’s for certain, however; she’s poised to become Canada’s hottest thespian export.
Contractor has just joined the cast of the hit American espionage show 24. On the day that we meet at Terroni, her favourite restaurant in Toronto, she’s still electrified by the development. Her acting career has been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey. After abandoning a promising ballet career, Contractor decided to give drama a shot. She envied the acting students at her high school, the Etobicoke School of the Arts, with their agents and disposable income. But by 17, Contractor had her own agent and, four months later, her first gig – a part on the now-defunct TV show Starhunter. (She met her boyfriend, Carlo Rota of 24 and Little Mosque on the Prairie, on her second job, Relic Hunter.) At 20, she answered an open call at Stratford Shakespeare Festival and subsequently spent two seasons there, starring in Pericles and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Offered a third season she turned it down, opting for the allure of an American sitcom, written by Borat’s Anthony Hines, about an Indian family’s immigration to the U.S. The show, alas, never aired.
“Then I went through what I call my dark period,” Contractor says, laughing. Always an avid reader, she went back to U of T to study drama, sociology and psychology – “Social interaction is my job, so they complement each other beautifully.” Her study was strictly theoretical, however; feeling the need to “catch up,” she simply wanted to analyze the Shakespeare that she had already spent years performing. (She regrets now never having appeared in any university productions, but says she was in the audience for all of them.) She worked as a server at The Drake Hotel in Toronto, and travelled a lot – through such countries as Cambodia, Belize and India. But Contractor also continued to audition and, in 2006, snagged a role on CBC’s new crime show The Border, playing a sexy, brash Muslim-Canadian border cop.
At the end of season 2, however, Contractor’s character was abruptly killed. Dismayed, she tried L.A. again. She points out, with the provocative realpolitik of the professional actor, that, while 9-11 was a horrible event, it also opened up a lot of doors for people “my shade.” She auditioned relentlessly, as often as nine times a week. Last spring, Contractor returned to Toronto to visit family and earn the one remaining credit she needed for her U of T degree before heading back to L.A. Three days before classes started, the producers of 24 called – she had won the part of a new recurring character, the demure Muslim daughter of a Middle Eastern leader. (Contractor herself is Zoroastrian.) And she’d be playing opposite Slumdog Millionaire’s Anil Kapoor. Cameras started rolling in May and the new season will première in January. “I had the best job in Canada,” she says, still struck by the fairy-tale quality of it all. “And now I have the best job in America.”