On NBC’s The Blacklist, criminal mastermind Raymond “Red” Reddington” (James Spader) wouldn’t have survived this long without his trusty mate, Dembe Zuma, played by Hisham Tawfiq. For eight seasons, the pair have overcome a lot — including near-death experiences. Their chemistry as partners on the screen is evident which makes some wonder if Tawfiq and Spader hang out in real life. It turns out, Tawfiq does have a close relationship with a few co-stars. Here’s what he said.
Hisham Tawfiq’s character on ‘The Blacklist’ was never meant to stay
Tawfiq is a natural performing next to Spader in all eight seasons of The Blacklist. Yet, the original idea for Dembe was that he was an ex-freedom fighter from Sudan with little to no backstory. The star told Absolute Music Chat in 2017 he was only slated to appear in one episode saying he “didn’t know anything” about the role.
“I went to the audition and they just asked me a whole bunch of questions; as an actor I created some answers and they liked it, and they called me back a couple of more times,” he said.
With a snowboarding trip scheduled in Argentina, Tawfiq said he received a call the day before he left.
“The Blacklist people said, ‘Hey, we need you for another week.’ So I pushed my trip back a week. It was a two-week trip so I said, ‘Okay, I will catch the second week.’ And then [The Blacklist] were like, ‘Oh, we need you until December,’ and I was kind of upset,” he said. “I was like, ‘Aww man, I’m losing all of this money on my Argentina trip!’ And my manager was like, ‘Are you crazy? You can go to Argentina anytime.’ That turned into four years!”
Tawfiq mastered ‘less is more’
To master the role of Dembe, Tawfiq relied on the old acting class addage of “less is more,” specifically because he didn’t know upon casting that Dembe would prove to be a laregely silent character.
“As it started to roll out and I could see that, you know… it was very hard for me. I struggled a lot with, ‘When is it going to happen? When is it going to happen? When is it going to happen?’ And there was a phase of, ‘Okay, it’s not going to happen and I will have to learn to enjoy what this is, and become a master of what this is, and what can I bring to it by being silent,'” he said.
Tawfiq added that a lot of what he put into Dembe initially came from growing up in Harlem with family members who took shifts watching out for “drug dealers, or people breaking into the buildings, or people getting robbed.”
“I actually began to take on a lot of my family members and uncles and my dad, who I used to see on security, how they carried themselves and how much pride they took in doing it,” he said. “So I basically just took that on and challenged myself to just be the best person I could be.”
That said, Tawfiq’s place on the show is a necessary one and with eight seasons under his belt, he’s made a few close friends.
Here’s who Tawfiq considers his ‘Blacklist’ BFFs
Though Tawfiq’s scenes are mostly alongside Spader, he spends his time outside of the show with other castmates.
“Amir [Arison] and Harry Lennix are probably the two cast members I’m closest to because Amir and I both entered the show in the same way as far as knowing what our role was and it slowly turned into something,” he said in the same interview.
“I think that’s how we connected, then we have just continued to do so. I don’t know what it is that we have in common. When I’m on set I do chat with everybody but as far as being offset, Amir has been to my house for barbecues, or we have hooked up for birthday parties. He and Harry came to my fire service retirement party. So there are just different levels of friendships.”
He also mentioned interacting on Twitter specifically in terms of a “fantasy football thing.”
What about Spader?
Fans of The Blacklist would love to believe that Tawfiq has the same relationship with Spader as Dembe has with Red. It’s not so far from the truth. Though they never did a screen test together, their working chemistry is clear.
“On my first day on the set, James really went out of his way to introduce himself and we basically had a conversation about my father, about my religion about politics, about where I grew up,” he said. “We learned so much before we even shot the first scene, which I really think helped with the chemistry for both of us. So that was the genesis of us working together.”
Tawfiq added that he’s learned more about his on-screen partner over the seasons — not all in one conversation — but admires Spader’s dedication to the performance details.
“It’s the way he moves his fingers, it’s the way he turns his head and if you look at this you will see,” he said. “James will come in, and one the first things he does is he takes in the surroundings of the set, and he will be like, ‘Okay, that lamp would be over here,’ or, ‘that shade should be a different color,’ or, ‘you know what…the sun would have set,’ or, ‘my hat would have been over there.'”
He continued: “So, before he even gets into the dialogue of it, he is solely looking at the surroundings of the set that’s also going to help tell the story, and he is making sure that everything is in place to help facilitate the storytelling; which I’ve never seen an actor do before.”
‘The Blacklist’ star never met anyone like Spader before
The star noted that he’s worked on projects where the lead didn’t introduce themselves or acknowledge his presence. With Spader, it’s quite the opposite.
“What speaks volumes as to who James is as a person, is that we had this hour-long conversation on our first meeting, a real in-depth conversation, about who I was as a person and what my makeup was, where I come from,” he said. “I’ve never had anybody do that before in my life, especially the main person on the show.”
While he and Spader might not barbeque together, it’s obvious their working relationship is everything The Blacklist fans want it to be, and more.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8:00 p.m. ET on NBC.