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Hisham Tawfiq on Playing the Quiet Tough Guy on ‘The Blacklist’
April 20, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Hisham Tawfiq (top) admits he didn’t originally want his bodyguard character Dembe Zuma on The Blacklist to be the strong, silent type.

What he really didn’t envision, though, is that Dembe would be suspected of betraying the man whose body he has been guarding, James Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington (below, left, with Tawfiq's Dembe).

That’s the situation when The Blacklist resumes its fourth season Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.

In the cliffhanger that ended the first part of the season, Red had been poisoned, seemingly with a glass of wine.

Red had also declared there was a traitor in his inner circle. Then Dembe gave Red the wine, and after Red had fallen deathly ill, Dembe disappeared.

The evidence is circumstantial. But when Thursday’s episode opens with Dembe still MIA, things would seem promising for anyone who has Dembe in the traitor pool.

In keeping with the strong, silent business, Tawfiq isn’t ratting Dembe out.

“I think viewers will absolutely be surprised by what happens next,” says Tawfiq. In fact, he was surprised himself.

“I was surprised by this whole story,” he says, including the startling moment several episodes earlier when Dembe spilled one of Red’s deepest secrets to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) – that Red had personally shot another of his long-time close associates, Kate Kaplan, a/k/a Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert).

Still, Tawfiq says he understands why Dembe felt he had to tell Elizabeth.

“Dembe did a lot of soul-searching,” Tawfiq says, noting that in addition to protecting Reddington from a torrent of amoral, psychotic killers, “He has also been Red’s moral compass.”

Being Red Reddington’s moral compass, it should be noted, has to be one of the harder jobs on television. It’s sort of like having to arbitrate disputes between humans and zombies on The Walking Dead, that is, there rarely seems to be room for discussion.

It does make Dembe’s position surprisingly complex, a situation Tawfiq says crept up on everyone.

“Originally I was hired for one episode in Season 1,” he says. “I finished it, I was leaving on a trip, and I got a call to do a second episode. And then more.”

Through further appearances in Season 2, then a promotion to series regular in Season 3, Dembe’s character slowly blossomed and filled out.

“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” Tawfiq says with a laugh. “There was a lot of conversation about where Dembe would be going.”

He remembers one long talk with Spader that undoubtedly didn’t hurt the process.

“He’d apparently had a Dembe-like person in his life,” says Tawfiq. “He was talking about how Dembe should be more than just a bodyguard.”

What became clear early in the Dembe/Red relationship is that Red would do most of the talking, with Dembe, a man of a few well-chosen words.

“It was not my idea that Dembe would be strong and silent,” says Tawfiq. “But because we were playing it by ear, I didn’t push it.

“Then people started to like the silence. I wanted to talk more, but people didn’t want to hear Dembe speak. They liked his quietness, his loyalty.

“It was a struggle for me, and it took me the first two seasons to adjust to it. It took a lot of my family and my wife telling me I was doing a great job before I got comfortable with it. Now I don’t fight it.”

Instead, he says, he developed a non-verbal vocabulary by which Dembe would communicate, particularly with Red.

“Starting early on, I had to convey things in subtle ways,” Tawfiq says. “There are only so many times you can cross your arms, so I had to learn to leave them at my side, which felt extremely weird. I worked on things I could do, like a glance or a death stare, that would make a point quickly and quietly.”

Tawfiq also created a Dembe backstory he says “held up well” as the story has moved on.

Tawfiq made Dembe the son of a South Sudan freedom fighter. Dembe also grew up Muslim and had a son of his own.

About the only deviation in the show, he notes, is that the son became a daughter.

The 46-year-old Tawfiq’s own backstory is equally interesting. Born in Harlem, he joined the Marines and fought in Operation Desert Storm.

After leaving the service, he became a corrections officer at Sing Sing and then a New York City firefighter.

Stationed in Harlem, he was among those dispatched to the World Trade Center towers on September 11.

“When you got there, you couldn’t comprehend that it was real,” he says. “It looked like a movie set.

“It took three or four days for it to become real, to accept that we lost so many people and they weren’t just buried under the rubble.”

It was after September 11 that he got more serious about acting, doing workshops, theater, and short gigs during his vacations.

It wasn’t an easy road. “Because of my features, I was mostly offered African roles,” he says. “Like cab drivers.”

So he stayed with the Fire Department until 2015, when he reached 20 years and retired. Reluctantly, he says.

Since then he’s focused on The Blacklist, though he has a wish list, too.

“I love theater,” he says. “I’d love to do more August Wilson. I’d love to do Othello.”

First, however, this business with Reddington needs some sorting out.

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