EXCLUSIVE : THE BLACKLIST Scoop: Interview With Hisham Tawfiq

One of the most lethal characters on NBC’s THE BLACKLIST is Dembe Zuma (Hisham Tawfiq).  As Red Reddington’s (James Spader) personal bodyguard, Dembe is not someone to be trifled with.  But Dembe is more than just lethal, he is loyal — and that combination is what makes him stronger and more dangerous than anyone else on the show — and because of that, Red knows that Dembe can never be bought or broken.  Portraying the man who always has Red’s back, no matter what, is Hisham Tawfiq.  Just who is Dembe?  Hisham Tawfiq is the man with the answers.

In an exclusive interview, star Hisham Tawfiq shed some light on the mysterious character of Dembe and what drives him.  He also talked about his own miraculous journey that led to portraying this remarkable character and the impact it has had on his own life, including finally retiring from being the Station Chief at the Harlem Fire Department in New York City and joining THE BLACKLIST as a series regular in Season 3.

How excited are you about Season 3 of THE BLACKLIST?
HISHAM:  I’m extremely excited. Season 3 has been so far definitely been very exciting.  I’m really looking forward to its return on October 1st.

I understand that you are giving up some of your firefighting duties to work full-time on THE BLACKLIST this season.  How is it working out making that transition?
HISHAM:  It took a while to warm myself up to it.  It’s pretty scary.  I’ve been doing the job for 20 years and it was a steady paycheck. To leave that was extremely frightening.  I also love doing the job of serving Harlem and giving back to the community.  So it was extremely tough, but I just had to acknowledge that my dreams had been answered and just take on the next transition of my life.  

What is the one thing you are going to miss from being a firefighter that you won’t have on THE BLACKLIST?
HISHAM:  (Laughs)  Ah man, I love driving the fire truck!  I really love driving a fire truck.  There’s something about it that appeals to the kid in me.  So I’m going to really, really miss driving the fire truck and just helping the people in the community.  But the fire truck is going to be the biggest thing I’m going to miss.

So Dembe might be upgrading to a fire truck on THE BLACKLIST at some point then this season?
HISHAM:  (Laughs) Well, I’ll tell you what, if there’s a scene and they need someone to drive it, I’m ready for it.

What originally sparked your interest in originally joining THE BLACKLIST when it first started?
HISHAM:  The way I got involved was probably different than a lot of the other cast members.  Originally, I auditioned just for one episode and that one episode turned into two episodes and then it just kind of turned into this.  So originally, I just took it as another job — it was audition for one episode and then over time it turned into this.  It didn’t happen overnight.  Right now, it’s just really starting to sink in.  But as I became more involved I really liked the character of Dembe and was really excited about the possibility of exploring him more.  But originally, I had no idea who this guy was.  Like many of the guest-star roles, I was just coming in to do one episode and then look for the next job.  

It has been very fortuitous for you and an amazing journey I’m sure.
HISHAM:  Yes, extremely.

How in your mind do you describe Dembe? Who is Dembe to you?
HISHAM:  Dembe is somebody who has a lot of integrity.  He puts safety first — almost like a firefighter.  His job is to make sure that everyone else is safe and everyone else is taken care of.  So, to me, Dembe is like this trustworthy and loyal guy, this rock that is going to be there anytime you are in a jam or if you are in a jam and you just need a partner by your side.  It’s almost like your mother — you can call on her anytime and she is going to be there for you.  Dembe is that type of person.  

What do you see as Dembe’s essential ingredient?  What makes him that great guy?
HISHAM:  I think it is his loyalty. I think that is what is extremely attractive for the fans and the fans that I interact with on social media.  Everyone really likes the bond and brotherhood between Dembe and Red.  Being in that world where you can’t trust anyone and you have this one person that you can trust.   think that is something that we all yearn for just as humans.  We all want that one friend, a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a partner, just someone who is going to have our back through the thick and thin.  And I think that is what is attractive to the public about Dembe.

Could you ever foresee a circumstance where Dembe might betray Red?
HISHAM:  There was a scene last season where Dembe told Liz (Megan Boone), after Red got shot, to go to Red’s apartment and retrieve some files — and when I read that scene in that episode, my heart sank.  I thought just giving up Red’s living space which no one knew about, I thought that was betrayal.  But in that scene it shows that Dembe couldn’t leave Red’s side and if he didn’t send someone else to do it, he would die.  So I had to kind of wrap my mind around that to make myself feel better that Dembe was not really betraying Red’s lair.  But when I first read it, I was extremely upset that Dembe would go behind Red’s back and give up his address. 

Maybe at this point Dembe is extending his loyalty and protection to Liz.  Maybe he is really starting to trust her like Dembe trusts Red.
HISHAM:  Ah, I like that!  See, that’s makes me feel even better.  But I think that is absolutely right.  Red is so bent on protecting Liz that you does fall under the umbrella of Dembe’s loyalty and making sure that she is taken care of.  

How does Dembe view Liz at this point?  Does he understand who she is or is she just someone he has to watch over?
HISHAM:  Me personally, I don’t know, who Liz is.  But I think Dembe knows exactly who Liz is and her relationship to Red.  He doesn’t look down on her.  She is a very important part of Red’s life and she plays an important role in Red’s life.  So he looks at her almost the same way and second to the way he looks at Red, as far as his obligation to protecting her.  

I’m sure Dembe doesn’t feel that way about Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold).
HISHAM:  (Laughs) No.  That’s been made very clear.  Dembe does not like Tom.  

Tom is a wild-card.  You never quite know what he is going to do.

What would Dembe do with his life if Red was one day just gone?  Like if Red died or just vanished.
HISHAM:  Ah, that is a great question.  The funny thing is that in Season 3 — well, Season 3 doesn’t really answer that question.  But because Season 2 ended with Red and Liz on the run, Dembe has kind of left by himself.  So you will get a little peek into what Dembe does in a way.  But as far as if Red were completely gone, that’s a question I have, actually.  One of the things I would want to see more of is Dembe’s personal life.  Would he go back to South Sudan in Africa and do some kind of work there?  Or what would he do here without Red?  That’s something I would love to see the show explore.   I think you will see a little slice of that in Season 8.  (Laughs)

If you could sit down with Dembe and give him some advice, what would you tell him?
HISHAM:  Wow, what advice would I give Dembe? I would probably tell Dembe that opposed to just talking to Red only as things are troubled and things are clashing, he should talk more to Red about pulling away from that kind of sort of lifestyle.  I think deep inside that Dembe would love to have a family and some peace.  He always has his guard up, so I would like to see some relaxation in Dembe’s life.  And for that to happen, there would have to be some relaxation in Red’s life.  I would tell Dembe to talk to Red about just chilling out a little bit and go on a vacation.

What would you say that you have learned from Dembe?  What have you learned from portraying him as an actor or just as a person? 
HISHAM:  It’s so funny because from the beginning of my career, especially in acting class, I’ve been told “less is more.”  And I think that has been my number one lesson with portraying Dembe.  Originally, because he was not really written into the story, a lot of his silence and all that was required in a scene was his presence.  So it took me a while to figure out that it reminded me of the lesson of “less is more” and I learned to have fun with practicing that, without having lines and just giving a look.  Just the power in stillness.  Those type of things are huge things that I can take away from playing this role.  

Is that something you could incorporate in other roles or do you actually use it in your personal life as well?
HISHAM:  I’ve been told I use that in my personal life, but I think in your personal life it might be an unconscious action.  But I think as actors, we want lines.  We want action.  We want to be big.  So it is much harder to do it as an actor than it is in my personal life.  But it is definitely something that I think I do in my personal life, but it is nothing I do consciously.  It’s just a part of my DNA, I guess.

What has brought you the greatest joy or moment of pride in portraying Dembe in THE BLACKLIST?
HISHAM:  There was a scene in Season 1 where Dembe is outside the box and he is about be killed and there was a moment where he did a prayer with Red.  I come from a Muslim background.  I was raised Muslim and the prayer was an Arabic prayer.  To be able to use that prayer in a scene, for me, it was probably one of the best moments in the season.  Just being able to call on something that was a part of me and was also befitting of the scene at that moment, and not have to learn it and worry about getting the pronunciation right, that was a great moment for me.  It was a huge sense of pride.  I think my father would have patted me on the back.  

What has been the biggest surprise working on THE BLACKLIST?
HISHAM:  The thing that surprised me was just the whole BLACKLIST cast and crew.  It is a real tight-knit family.  I’ve been on other sets where some actors don’t really speak to you or it’s just “hi” and “bye” and that’s really it.  But on this show, the whole cast is really interested in people’s weekends, people’s personal lives with their kids, and ask “how are you doing?”  It’s almost like going home for Thanksgiving and really catching up with your family.  That’s how it is everyday on the set.  That was very surprising for me.  I didn’t think it was going to have that type of tight-knit family atmosphere.  

Do you think that happened once everyone realized that the show was going to be such a big success?
HISHAM:  (Laughs) That might be a part of it.  But I really think that the show has great human beings working on it.  Everybody is just a great person.  There is no — for the lack of a better word — assholes.  There is no one with these egos or anybody who is arrogant.  It’s just a great group of actors.  I think that is part of the reason for the success of the show.  It translates.   

If you had to pick for Dembe, who else would he want to have, besides Red and Liz, as a drinking buddy from all the other characters on the show?
HISHAM:  I think he would hang out with Harold (Harry Lennix).  It’s a toss up between Harold and Aram (Amir Arison).  I think they would have some bonding moments where they would actually talk.  Amir and I joke about it that there should be some scenes between Aram and Dembe.  I think that would be very interesting to watch.

What teasers can you share about what is upcoming in Season 3 of THE BLACKLIST?
HISHAM:  We have this new villain, Mr. Solomon who is played by Edi Gathegi.  He’s definitely bringing an interesting twist and there are going to be some fireworks.  You’re going to see some interaction between Dembe and Mr. Solomon.  It’s going to be fun.  

To find out just what Dembe and Red are up to in Season 3 of THE BLACKLIST, be sure to tune in for all new episodes when THE BLACKLIST returns on Thursday, October 1st at 9:00 p.m. on NBC.