A Man of Conscience: Interview with Tyrant's Ashraf Barhom

By , Contributor

FX Network

Ashraf Barhom as Tyrant's Jamal Al-Fayeed

As a leader, you look to your conscience to guide you when making decisions, especially those that impact others. Sometimes, though, that is easier said than done, especially in the world of politics, where complex, delicate and often dangerous factors come into play. In season one of the FX TV series Tyrant, Jamal Al-Fayeed became president of the (fictional) Middle Eastern country of Abbudin, following the death of his father Khaled Al-Fayeed, whose dictatorship made him feared and hated by his own people.

Given the public’s dislike of the Al-Fayeed family, Jamal faced an uphill battle in taking over as leader. However, he had no idea that his biggest threat would be his younger brother Bassam (“Barry”), who left Abbudin 20 years ago to live in America. When Bassam returned home with his family for his nephew’s wedding, he saw that Jamal was being led down the same tyrannical path left by their father. With some political prodding, Bassam attempted a coup, only to have his plan exposed in the first season finale. Such betrayal made Jamal even more determined to dig in his heals and lead Abbudin. That, in turn, gave actor Ashraf Barhom, who plays Jamal, a host of new and welcome acting challenges when reprising his role for Tyrant’s current second season.

“Starting back to work on season two was very interesting for me and I was wondering about and looking forward to seeing how my character would further develop and what new details would be revealed about him,” says Barhom, taking a break from filming overseas on the Tyrant set. “Jamal is facing a number of new challenges this season, the biggest one of which is not having his brother Bassam [Adam Rayner] as a companion. As president, my character is now forced to walk this path alone and deal with the issue of how to lead his country and resolve all of its problems, again, without Bassam.

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“In facing such a challenge, it helps him grow as a president and Jamal learns to lead in a very strict or determined way, which is almost like a victory for him in that he learns to have faith in himself. He wants to prove that he can be a successful president and leader on his own, but Jamal is finding it difficult to go out there without Bassam and actually achieve some of the goals he wants. The workload and challenges associated with such a position of power are quite big for one man, and Jamal needs the right people, including Bassam, by his side. So my character is caught up in quite a problematical situation this season, and I’m continuing to enjoy seeing how that plays out.”

One of Jamal’s loyalist and most influential supporters is his uncle and late father’s brother, General Tariq Al-Fayeed (Raad Rawi), the country’s top military leader. When it comes to dealing with those opposing the Al-Fayeed regime, the general does not hesitate to choose the most direct, and typically the most brutal, route in order to accomplish the task at hand. Jamal’s wife Leila (Moran Atias) is also a force to be reckoned with. Although she might be the “fairer sex,” Leila is powerful in her own right and has her own aspirations as First Lady of Abbudin. As Jamal continues in the second season of Tyrant to not let Tariq or Leila sway him politically, he is also trying to groom his newly married son Ahmed (Cameron Gharaee) to one day succeed him in office.

“My character seems to have difficulty and complexity in his relationships with most of those around him,” jokes Barhom. “Jamal’s relationship with his wife is quite ‘colorful’ in many ways. With Leila, he is constantly feeling this exertion or force that is intimidating and attempting to push him in a certain direction that is not exactly where he wants to take the country. We’ve seen that already in this season’s opener ["Mark of Cain"] where others around him, mainly Leila and Tariq, want Jamal to execute his brother. However, because of his love for Bassam, it’s not a simple issue that he can just fold on and agree with.

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“So Jamal is trying his best not to be affected by Leila’s wishes to follow through with things the way she wants him to, and it’s the same with his uncle, who is very harsh and strong-handed. Tariq always wants to resolve a problem with a show of force, and that leads to further political strife for Jamal in season two. As far as his and Leila’s son, Jamal wants him to be well-prepared for the future and what lies ahead. Ahmed receives a great deal of love as well as care from Jamal, and my character wants his son to be in the best position possible that a father would want his son to be in. However, it is taking a tremendous amount of patience by Jamal to try to help Ahmed achieve that position.”

In the recently aired season two Tyrant episode "A House in the Sand," Jamal’s mother Amira (Alice Krige) introduced him to Rami Said (Keon Alexander), a Task Force Commander working for the United Nations and Jamal’s illegitimate son, who the president never knew existed. How will his presence affect the Al-Fayeed family dynamic?

“Well, when this new story element involving my character’s illegitimate son comes into play, it, of course, flips the whole dramatic picture on its head,” says Barhom. “Things become more complicated for Jamal when his other son suddenly comes into the palace, and without giving too much away, it’s like in the real world and with many families, where such an unexpected arrival creates new tensions and changes.”

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At the end of Tyrant’s season two opener, Jamal is forced to bow to pressure from all sides and orders the execution of his brother Bassam, or does he? A hooded figure is hung, but it is another political dissident and not Bassam. Instead, Jamal secretly takes his brother out to the desert and leaves him to die. Fortunately for Bassam, he is rescued and taken in by a family, who he chooses to remain with. So far, Bassam has managed to keep his whereabouts as well as the fact that he is even alive a secret from his brother and the rest of the outside world, including his own family. Just how long, though, he can stay under the radar remains to be seen.

“Jamal thinks his brother is dead and has had to acknowledge that in his mind,” notes Barhom. “As he’s tried to move on, the political stakes around him have continued to rise and become further complicated. Jamal is facing more and more challenges in his efforts to keep the country stable, including a variety of new threats, one of which involves the possibility of war. As we draw nearer to the end of the season, there is a meeting of certain characters, who have come to better understand the journey they have each made and learned more not only about themselves but also the other person as well as about Abbudin, war, power and life in general.”

Tyrant airs Tuesdays @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on the FX Network. Please note, all Tyrant photos above copyright of FX.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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