Spies and Lovers: Interview with Smash's Raza Jaffrey

By , Contributor

Patrick Randak/NBC

Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram in NBC's Smash

From performing on stage in London to helping protect the United Kingdom from terrorist threats, multi-talented actor Raza Jaffrey has had the opportunity to play a number of varied and challenging roles so far in his career. Currently, the British-born actor is appearing on this side of the pond as Dev Sundaram in NBC’s new hit musical TV drama Smash. The series follows a group of stage professionals who come together to mount a Broadway musical production called Marilyn, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, the characters’ personal as well as work-related lives clash, including those of Dev’s girlfriend, Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee), who is in the running for the lead role of Marilyn. While she is busy trying to prove herself on stage, Dev is focused on impressing those he works for at the New York mayor’s office. Introduced in Smash’s pilot episode, Jaffrey’s character experienced a bit of a metamorphosis prior to appearing onscreen.

“I think Dev was originally intended to be an all-American boy and was quite different to what he’s ended up being,” notes Jaffrey. “Happily, the show’s producers decided to go with a Brit, though, and here I am.

“With a show like this, which was and is so ambitious, it was felt early on that given the pedigree of people involved, you hope for good things. However, as is often the case in this business, you never really know how a production is going to turn out. So it was quite reassuring to arrive on set on the first day of work and see that we were in such good hands.

“I also got really lucky in that my co-star, Katherine McPhee, who I have most of my scenes with, is so brilliant to work with. She’s a lot of fun and so alive in all of the scenes, so it was kind of a relief as well as a reward and something to look forward to, knowing that I’d be working with someone who is incredibly good at what she does.

“We started filming in a very wintry New York last March, which was quite a culture shock after arriving from Los Angeles,” jokes the actor. “We took a month to make the pilot, and it was directed by Michael Mayer, who is very well-known for many Broadway productions. It was amazing from the start about how much love was being lavished on the show from the creators. It was a project that all those involved really wanted to succeed from the onset, and everyone went over and above to try to give it the best start possible. Being around that sort of energy from the early days of the pilot was truly wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”

Along with a clever concept, a fledgling TV series needs strong writing as well as believable characters in order to have the best chance at not only staying afloat but also rising above the competition. Jaffrey believes that Smash has all three of these elements.

“We’re just working on episode 14 now [early February], and I’m happy to say that it’s a mark of distinction to read [series creator/executive producer] Theresa Rebeck’s writing and that of the whole team behind the show,” he says. “With something like this, you need to invest in a whole ensemble of characters, and the great thing about the Smash pilot is that I think they make sure you care about all these characters in that first hour of television, really. Not only that, but sure enough, over the next 15 episodes there is plenty to make us care more and more about the characters involved.

“I think the writers have done a fantastic job with my character of Dev. It would have been so obvious in a way to make him the loyal boyfriend and little more. Actually, and hopefully, you’ll see in the episodes to come that it’s much more real life. I mean, there’s a tremendous amount at stake with Dev and Karen and with their two lives kind of pulling apart from each other. By making Dev a career guy and not someone who is waiting for Karen, he’s got his own life and own career happening. So it might not be what you would expect in terms of where the pull comes from in their relationship. All those twists and turns have been fun to play and, again, I’m glad that they’ve fully invested in all the characters in the show.”

The actor chuckles when asked if he can speak about how Dev’s and Karen’s relationship develops as the show’s first season unfolds. “Well, I can’t really say too much, but the way things go with Dev and Karen I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone that they’re going to be facing pressures in their relationship because they both live in such separate worlds. The pressures that are on Karen and where they’re taking her are different from the pressures Dev is under. He’s up for a promotion at work in the mayor’s office and, as I mentioned, my character is living his own life, too, but over and above all that there’s all the human relationship stuff and those types of stories. All that makes for good drama.

“So throughout the season you’ll see all these pulls towards and pushes away from one another with Dev and Karen, which I think works really well. I’ll let the viewers ultimately decide that for themselves, though, but when it comes to Dev and Karen there might be some broken hearts along the way.”

One of Jaffrey’s favorite Smash scenes to have shot so far involves his and Katherine McPhee’s characters along with two guest stars. “There’s a really interesting scene with Dev, Karen, and her parents that we actually filmed after we finished the pilot,” he says. “We came back about a month later and added that scene to flesh out Karen’s and Dev’s relationship. It was, in fact, a bit of a different scene on the day we shot it as opposed to how it had been written. Becky Ann Baker and Dylan Baker are a real-life married couple, and it was much of their bouncing off each other that led to how that scene ultimately turned out. It was a real turning point in Karen’s and Dev’s relationship as well as an important one in the eyes of the audience.

“Later on in the season there’s an episode we recently shot that might surprise people, and it's one that I especially love. I can tell you that it involves the entire cast, including Uma Thurman [who plays a recurring character and famous movie actress who wants to star in Marilyn]. It was one of the best working experiences so far on Smash and I’m hoping people enjoy it. It’s episode 12, which is a little bit of a ways to come, but it’s well worth a watch.”

Born in Liverpool, England, Jaffrey grew up in London where he attended Dulwich College. Although he went on to study English and Drama at Manchester University, performing on stage or in front of a camera was not at the top of his list back then as far as a career choice.

“I wanted to be in the Royal Air Force and fly planes, so acting was kind of a sideways move to be honest, although people who know me would probably tell you that I knew all along,” he says with a laugh. “I also toyed with the idea of journalism for a while, but it wasn’t until I got to university and began doing more and more plays that I thought, ‘I quite enjoy this [acting].’

“I got very lucky. I was with a great bunch of people at Manchester University at the time and who were creating some really interesting work. After that I went off to The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and took some post-graduate courses. Over the years,The Old Vic has taught people like Daniel Day Lewis and Anthony Hopkins and everyone in between. It’s an extraordinary place, and just being on that hallowed ground also helped further motivate me to want to become an actor. If I was going to do this [acting], I needed training and to learn how to do it properly, which is why Bristol came up.”

After graduating from The Old Vic, the actor began a long stint in the theater, appearing in such shows as Romeo and Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, East is East, and 14 Songs, 2 Weddings and a Funeral. In 2001, he landed the role of Sky in Mamma Mia! at The Prince Edward Theatre, which was followed by his critically acclaimed lead performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of A.R. Rahman’s Bombay Dreams at London’s Apollo Theatre. What does Jaffrey enjoy most about working on stage?

“There’s such an adrenaline rush and focus of clarity to what you’re doing to make it all happen,” explains the actor. “That’s particularly true when you’re carrying a show, which I was fortunate enough to do with Bombay Dreams, and in many ways that type of creative ‘process’ is also being documented in Smash. Even though television is fast, you still have time to actually hone things and get them as good as possible. On stage it’s coming at you, ready or not. There’s no time to stop and ask, ‘Can we try this again? It’s not working for me.’ You’re out there taking control and it’s ultimately your responsibility. A director isn’t going to come up on stage and say, ‘Look, can we try it like this.’ It’s your baby for those moments.

“So it’s a different medium altogether, but in comparing stage and screen, they each have their merits. They’re both wonderful and I hope to continue to work in the two mediums.”

Following Bombay Dreams, the actor booked roles on a number of TV productions including M.I.T.: Murder Investigation Team, Dirty War, and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee. His big small screen break came when he was cast as Zafar “Zaf” Younis in the long-running BBC One spy drama Spooks (a.k.a. MI-5 in the States).

Spooks was quite a secretive show and one where they killed off characters rather quickly and people came and went,” he recalls. “That was always the nature of the show. So we were kind of sworn to secrecy, and I went in really not knowing an awful lot about my character and what they had in mind for me. I got the job and found myself very quickly on-set with the incredible Peter Firth [Sir Harry Pearce], who is every bit as extraordinary as you’re led to believe in his role of Harry on the show. He truly is a wonderful actor.

“I’d done a fair bit of stage work before Spooks, but this show was really my first sort of screen break, and I fell in love with it. I enjoyed doing it so much. It’s a bit like Smash in that there aren’t many opportunities on television where you get to work on a project that is both loved by the people who are making it and big in its themes, as both Spooks and Smash have been for me.

Spooks was the BBC flagship show when I was doing it, and the writers and directors involved back then made it an incredible journey,” continues Jaffrey. “It was great to arrive on that show and find that it was as cared about as I’d hoped it would be. I was there for three seasons during quite turbulent political times in the real world, and which were reflected in the show. I think some of the best scenes in Spooks were the corridors of power scenes involving characters like Harry Pearce and the Home Secretary. The show did political drama so well, with writers such as Howard Brenton and others who were involved in Spooks back then. It was a joy to be around them and I’m enormously proud of the program.”

Jaffrey made his debut as Zaf in the season three Spooks episode “The Suffering of Strangers.” In it, his character joins former colleague and fellow agent Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) in a mission to save two MI-5 officers. As the actor pointed out, he had very little back story to go on when starting out with his character and just had to put his faith in the show’s writing team.

“Again, we were very lucky on Spooks in that we had fantastic writers, so a lot of your work was done for you,” says Jaffrey. “Obviously there is very little you can do to research these types of roles because anyone who is willing to talk to you about a job in the security services probably hasn’t had anything to do with the security services. We did have advisors on the show, though, and like I said the writing was so good that it actually helped inform your [acting] choices most of the time.

“We had a great team of producers on the series, too, led at the time by Andrew Woodhead, who was meticulous in terms of the detail about things being truthful and not making the series too sensationalist. Again, this was at a time when things were politically quite stirred up, and it would have been very easy to have sensationalized what was going on in the real world, especially with the terror threats in London. I think Spooks always had far more integrity than that, though. So what we all tried to do was invest in that sense of telling the truth with the stories we had, while remembering that the show was still a drama, and as I said, being led by the amazing Peter Firth.”

Zaf’s swan song came in the season six opener “The Virus, Part 1,” when he is kidnapped by mercenaries intent on infecting all of mainland Britain with a deadly virus. “I loved doing my last episode. It was a good one,” says Jaffrey. “We had a great time filming in the woods in the depths of Surrey, which were doubling for Eastern Europe.

“One of the misconceptions on Spooks is that you’d be flipping through a new script and suddenly read that your character had been murdered or otherwise killed off. I don’t think that ever happened on the show. Everyone who left had asked to go, and after three seasons I was ready to move on and do other things. There’s only so much you can do on a show, and eventually you end up saying the same things over and over again, unless your character is put in charge of something always interesting.

“So when the chance came for me to move on from Spooks, I felt like it was time to go. I’d loved doing the show for the length of time I was on it, and I didn’t want to reach the point where I no longer felt that way. I was due to come back and do a discovery episode of what had actually happened to Zaf after he disappeared, but I was already filming [the TV series] Mistresses for the BBC, so that episode never happened. It would have been nice, though, to have given Zaf a proper ending.”

In addition to Mistresses and, of course, Smash, Jaffrey’s other post-Spooks credits include the feature films Sex and the City 2, Bounty Hunter, and Harry Brown as well as the TV movies Sharpe’s Peril and Accidental Farmer and a guest spot on another NBC series, The Cape. Along with all the roles he has played, the actor has worked with an array of fellow professionals, which for him is one of the perks of his profession.

“I can tell you about five or six pivotal people in my acting life so far who have made it worthwhile turning up for work every day,” he says. “Being around really talented actors and seeing them do what they do is riveting to me. In the same way I’ve been lucky enough to work onstage as well as in TV and films and keep my career varied, I hope I’ll continue to be around and work with great, creative people, because they make it worthwhile to be honest.

“This business can be fickle; people like what you do or they don’t. All you can do is go out there and hope whatever you’re working on finds an audience. The important thing that you have to carry with you is being proud of your work, and if you get to perform alongside people who you respect and admire, then it further helps inform that pride.”

Please note, all Smash photos copyright NBC, and all Spooks photos copyright BBC/Kudos.

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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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