Ashraf Barhom as Jamal Al-Fayeed in Tyrant
As children, most people have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. However, in some parts of the world, a child’s future is determined the moment he or she is born. With the powerful and privileged Al-Fayeed family in the FX TV drama Tyrant, Khaled Al-Fayeed, the long-serving dictator of the (fictional) Middle Eastern country of Abbudin, began grooming both his sons at a young age to one day step into power. Such a prospect did not appeal to Al-Fayeed’s youngest son Bassam (“Barry”), who left home as soon as he could to start a new life in the United States, while his older brother Jamal had no choice but to remain in Abbudin. Jamal’s eventual rise to the presidency and his struggle to keep hold of that title is a big part of what attracted actor Ashraf Barhom, who plays Jamal, to the project.
“I actually had the opportunity to work with Gidi [Tyrant creator/executive producer/writer Gideon Raff] two or three years ago,” says Barhom. “We both felt that there was something that really connected us in a way, which is still true today. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out back then, so Gidi and I decided we would try again in the future. About a year ago I received the pilot script for Tyrant, and the thing is I am always debating with myself about taking on political projects like this; it’s something I don’t always want to do. I try to keep some type of balance between me and my [acting] work and the political issues going on in the world, do you know what I mean?
“So my first impression of Tyrant was that I didn’t want to do it. However, my agent then suggested to me, ‘Maybe you should just read the script,’ and I said, ‘Okay, fair enough.’ So I read the script and realized the material was really quite good. Gidi had written something very unique and deep and not at all stereotypical. Objectively, I then wanted to be part of the [creative] process and help tell this story that really attracted me. So after that, there was a series of auditions for the role of Jamal. The first one was in Tel Aviv, then I did a second one, and before the pilot, I met with [director/executive producer] David Yates for the third audition and that was that.”
In the Tyrant pilot, Barry (Adam Rayner) reluctantly returns to his home country of Abbudin along with his wife and their two teenage children for the wedding of Jamal’s only son Ahmed (Cameron Gharaee). Once there, he is reunited with his family, and soon realizes that his father has not changed much over the years.With the unwavering support of Khaled’s brother, General Tariq Al-Fayeed (Raad Rawi), the country’s top military leader, Khaled Al-Fayeed still reigns over Abbudin with an iron fist. Not surprisingly, it also appears that Jamal is prepared to follow in their father’s footsteps when the time comes. Having embraced the script, Barhom not only enjoyed shooting the pilot, but also the days leading up to the start of the cameras rolling.
“I’ll never forget our preparation with David Yates. We [the cast] got together with him and dove right into into the material, learning about it and digging into the background of the story and discussing all aspects of it,” recalls the actor. “That was such a pleasure, and the same is true when it came to the actual filming of the pilot. It really was an amazing work experience, because as a director, David is so unique, so open and so cooperative. He gave all us actors the space to do our jobs and was very flexible with us. By working with David, we created a solid base to further build upon, and that base allowed us to translate the script in a believable and real-life way. I’m very proud of my work in the pilot and of all the people I worked with, including David. It’s because of him that the pilot turned out as good as it did, and, of course, Gidi, who wrote an interesting script from a very objective point of view.
“What is so special about Tyrant is that it’s someone from one culture writing about someone else’s culture,” continues Barhom. “This story deals with issues involving a different culture, a different place, a different history and can be interpreted by others in a variety of ways. A lot of people from a number of backgrounds came together to work on this project, and one of the challenges with that was how to create a space in which to present this story and do it in a way that best represents all those who are trying to tell it. As someone who lives in the Middle East, I know many things about this area, and American writers or people living in America see the same things I do, but from a different angle. So this was very much a quest or chance to explore history, reality and all types of other elements so we could say something that is not just from the imagination, but can also actually be relatable to those who are watching.”
When Khaled Al-Fayeed falls ill and dies, Jamal takes over as the new president. Instead of waiting until after his father’s funeral, Barry and his family prepare to return home, but after a failed assassination attempt on Jamal, he decides to stay in Abbudin until things settle down. However, Jamal’s transition into power is far from seamless, and the situation becomes more complicated when Ihab Rashid (Alexander Karim), son of the exiled former resistance leader Sheik Rashid (Mohammad Bakri), challenges Jamal’s presidency. As he tries to hold tight and steer the reins of his newly-acquired public persona, Jamal must also deal with issues unfolding privately. Presenting viewers with a realistic portrayal of what is going on in both sides of his character’s life was a tricky and also welcome acting challenge for Barhom.
“For me, when it came to this role it was always a matter of using the script and trying to figure out how I could relate to the text,” he explains. “I had to find a way to ‘live’ with and make a connection with a character who had a perspective different than mine. With Jamal, I wanted viewers to be able to feel what he was feeling as a human being and show a character that represented any world leader, but who at the same time represents Middle Eastern leaders. I also wanted to make sure I took the right [creative] path that would allow me to bring something to the character beyond what we might already have in our minds and to add some details that we perhaps didn’t think about.
“So I tried my best to maneuver when playing Jamal, sometimes going with the text, sometimes fighting the text. Always, though, I tried to show more than what some people might expect to see or what they think they know. We all think we know about other cultures, but we don’t know enough about them. So this was a chance just to mix up the cards and say, ‘Okay, let’s create a little bit of confusion, or do the unexpected.’
“Jamal is very, very strong, but he is very, very weak as well. He is also quite intelligent and can be extremely sensitive, but this is a man trapped within his abilities and power. It’s like when an advantage turns into a disadvantage and something that can be used as a weapon against you. Power itself is important, but you need the wisdom to maintain the balance of power. Jamal has the power, but the idea of how you maintain that balance is something that is not easy for him to wrap his head around.
“My character is full of aggression, too, but at the same time he needs love as well, just like all of us. In my eyes, he represents, first of all, each of us, a human being, and second, he represents being a leader and the complexities of being in a control position. It’s not an obvious thing to be a leader. We may think it is, but it is not. It’s very complicated, and then there’s the whole issue of tyranny. This show gives us an opportunity to explore the idea of tyranny as well as that element of control and how, if control is out of balance, it can destroy a country, its people, and the person in control.”
Jamal is overjoyed when Barry decides to remain in Abbudin, so much so, that he appoints his younger brother as his official advisor. When Jamal was just a young boy, his father, in order to prepare him for the future, handed him a gun and ordered him to execute a so-called traitor. He could not, though, so to help his brother, Barry picked up the gun and fired it. Years later, he again wants to help Jamal, this time to become a good president. However, Barry sees things in a different way, and the more he attempts to help Jamal, the more he begins to steer things towards his concept of what being a leader should be.
“When my character and Bassam were children, Jamal was always the first son and the one that their father really took care of first, because he would become the leader after his father,” notes Barhom. “Being in that position and under such pressure made Jamal struggle and pushed him to be more conflicted within himself. If we go back to his childhood, what kind of childhood could a person like him have when he is only supposed to walk on the path of becoming a leader? That forced Jamal to focus his entire essence as well as all his energies and abilities on only that one thing. As a result, all of his relationships became trapped beneath that singular goal.
“If you saw the pilot, you remember the scene where Jamal’s father ordered him to kill that man. When Jamal failed to make a decision that, in his father’s eyes, all leaders should be able to make, it flipped everyone’s roles. All of a sudden, their father, Jamal and Bassam were now confused when it came to their relationships with each other. Everything that then followed was built on that moment. Bassam left Abbudin because he couldn’t live in a country where he didn’t feel safe or where he felt he couldn’t fulfill what he was meant to be. Meanwhile, Jamal stayed in that place and, over time, adapted to living in that tough and fearful reality.
“So he became more and more a person who wanted to prove he could be aggressive and that he could lead. At the same time, and in a weird way, he wanted to save himself through that aggression. I think something in Jamal really wants peace of mind. He doesn’t want pain, but he’s being forced to behave in such a way because of the reality that he is living in. It’s like a prophecy. It’s like the reality around Jamal made him into what he is. When Bassam returns home, we see all Jamal’s hidden energy, hidden questions and hidden conflicts come to the surface, specifically about how to rule. While you have Jamal believing in power and aggression, Bassam believes in a kinder, gentler way.”
In last week’s Tyrant, "Meet the New Boss," Barry goes behind his brother’s back and begins to organize a coup to oust Jamal from power and pave the way for him to (supposedly) take over as interim president. With only two more episodes left until the season finale (August 26), the futures of Barry and Jamal must be left to the viewers’ imagination. However, looking back at the episodes that have already aired, does Barhom have a favorite?
“The pilot is definitely my favorite because that’s where it all started,” says the actor. “It is the seed and, for me, the soul of the series. Without the pilot, we could not have carried on. It was the base for everything that followed.”
Born and raised in Galilee, Israel, Barhom became interested in acting while growing up, but it was not until he became a young adult that he began to entertain the idea of pursuing it as a profession. “When I was a child, I never thought very much about what I wanted to be when I got older,” he says. “As someone who comes from Galilee, I had a very simple childhood and we lived our lives very simply. I was always connected or attached to acting, but I never thought of it, or anything else, as a profession. When I began going to university, the only thing in my mind was just to do something I was capable of doing. I enjoy history as well as philosophy and studied both, but, ultimately, I discovered that acting was my true passion.
“I started out working on stage in Israel, and then I began working as well in Israeli and Palestinian cinema. Every year I would book a job or two and have the chance to play very different roles. In 2005, I was cast in [the feature film] Paradise Now, which was a big success. Peter Berg, who directed The Kingdom, saw me in Paradise Now, and gave me a chance to audition for and then work on The Kingdom. So that really started my career abroad, and because this was my first time filming in America, I didn’t have anything else to compare it to. I really didn’t know much about the industry, the people or the actors involved in it, and that actually helped me because I was focused on the work. It turned out to be one of the best acting experiences I’ve ever had, getting to work with Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and everyone else.”
Clash of the Titans, Inheritance, 300: Rise of an Empire and the upcoming The Savior are among the actor’s other big screen credits. Just as his passion for his craft comes through in each of his performances, so does it when he speaks about what makes it rewarding to him to be an actor.
“I don’t know what else I could do if I want to make myself a better person and, in the process, maybe help make the world around me a little bit better,” muses Barhom. “I’m talking about the core of it, the essence of the relationship between me and acting. It’s the only thing I can do or know how to do. I hope I get more chances to further develop myself as a human being and affect in a positive way those who see my work.”
Tyrant airs Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on FX. Please note, all photos copyright of the FX Network.