Sammy Sheik Interview
Q: So you're playing the blacklister Zal bin Hasaan - who is this character?
A: Yeah, that's kind of his alter ego. His name is Hasaan, and he gave this name to himself. He's the brother of Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò), and we originally grew up together in Iran, and while he was in college he became a student activist asking the government for reform. They were both there, and explosion happened, and she thought he died. But he didn't really die. He planned the attack, and they made it look like the government did it. So he went into hiding and started running his operation in secret, and mainly his objective was to get rid of every single Mossad agent out there. He had to do this in hiding because this would help his cause. People wouldn't be looking for him. If everybody thought he was dead, he wouldn't be on anybody's radar.
So what he does, he knows there's this intelligence Israeli company that's operating in D.C. so he's planning on taking them down. Then when Samar and her team come in and take these hostages, he pretends to be one of the hostages. And, of course, because he's her brother, he appeals to her softer side and reminds her of how close they used to be and plays innocent so that they don't suspect him until he gets what he wants.
Q: What's the sibling disconnect, or rivalry if you will, between Samar and Hasaan? They're sister and brother, but seem to be on opposite ends of the moral spectrum.
A: They're both super, super smart. And I'm from that region. I'm Egyptian, and growing up I had a sister and I didn't realize that most males have a much higher tendency to go toward the fundamentalist, absolute-type of belief. So we're always going toward the fundamentalist kind of black-and-white type thing, whereas women are usually mostly on the fence and they think more about things.
So they grew up in the same household, but because what was going on in Iran at the time, he went onto that side where people want absolute answers and they didn't want the west interfering, and in order for him to be operating in this, and of course he had people training him, he had to hide his views and his tendencies. But the main reason they split - the reason that disconnect happened - I think is because we just think differently. We grew up in the same household, but men tend to think differently, into that black-and-white direction more than women do.
Q: You're Egyptian, and Mozhan Marnò, who plays Samar on the show, is Iranian, so how much did the two of you discuss Iran to connect with what might be the fundamentalist political sensibilities of the character?
A: I have a lot of Iranian friends, so I really didn't get to have the conversation with her because in TV you don't get a lot of time. TV is almost like a factory. You show up on the day, and you do the work. You have to kinda do everything before you meet the actors you're going to do scene with. But I spoke to a lot of my friends, and from my own experiences in Egypt remembering the Revolution and stuff, it's really polarizing. So we talked about the relationship between them a lot more than the political situation that they're in. Because the political situation was pretty clear, she chose the side that would almost change Iran into what it used to be, more Westernized and open to the world and everything. And he chose the other side where it has to be what the people from the Islamic Republic want it to be.
The political points were very clear, but the relationship between them is what we really talked about because there's an area where he's really manipulating her so that she will help him. But then at the same time, I didn't want to make him be that ambivalent about her. I mean, he loves his sister. They grew up together. So at some point, he's really confused with what to do with her. She is the enemy. She's working for the Mossad as an agent. But at the same time, she's his sister. So how far can you go in order to achieve you goal: Do you sacrifice family? Or is family out of the question? Or do you use them? We asked those questions a lot.
Q: What answers did you come up with for these characters?
A: Hasaan is pretty set in his views. He's very clear about what he wants. And unfortunately what we got to is his sister is no longer his sister. A lot of people in this area, and I'm not talking about the cities, but in rural Iran, they would kill a sister who had an extramarital affair, for example. They would easily kill her just because of the dishonor to the family, especially if they have religious values. The honor trumps any kind of relationship, and this guy is so fundamentalist that he would sacrifice his own sister to get what he wants.
Q: How do you connect to a character like this?
A: Oh, it's hard. It's rough. We had a scene where I'm telling her what happened after the explosion and I'm telling her I need her help, we were rehearsing, and I just start balling. I'm just telling her this story about what happened and I just started balling, and that just came out of nowhere, but it also showed that this relationship is there and the love is there. But he chooses to step on it. He chooses not to acknowledge it so he can get where he wants. And it really helped both of our characters because you don't want someone who's completely cold to be in this relationship, then he has no obstacles really; he's just going through the motions. But he does have that love that he kinda has to have step on to get what he wants, and it made the character more interesting. And that just came out of rehearsal. We didn't plan anything.
The guy was there, the guy was very clear about his views, but being in front of his sister broke him down a little bit, but then he kinda picked up himself and was like, 'No. This is not who I am. I need to get done what I have to do.'
Q: How is what's happening between Samar and Hasaan come into throes with Reddington and Liz?
A: Hasaan to Red is a bargaining chip. That's it. I don't think he's really that interested in him, he's just a bargaining chip to get what he wants and he succeeds in doing that.
Q: So did you chance to interact with James Spader or Megan Boone on-set?
I was lucky enough to have a scene with James, and it's so interesting to watch him work because every actor has a different process and his is so precise. Every single nuance that he does, he repeats to the exact millimeter of a thing with each take, and that was really interesting to watch. Every single word will be done in a certain way, and everything he does is the exact same way which is an editor's dream. And it was really cool to watch. Because other actors will change their performance with each take just so they can get variety. And I really like his approach because it takes a lot of confidence for an actor to do the same thing in every take, you really have to know your character really, really well, that this is what this character would be doing as opposed to experimenting with every take, and have the final edit be messy.
Q: Is that your approach as well? Or was that a take-away after having watched Spader work?
A: In film I think you have time to do that with the rehearsals and because there's character development and because you can sit down and talk to the director. In TV because the pace is so fast you have to be very precise. Nobody has time for you to kind of explore on the day. Come in on the day knowing exactly what your character is doing, but still feel like you can change it if a director tells you. But you want somebody who walks in and knows exactly who the character is, and watching James was kind of a confirmation of what I believe.
Q: As an actor, how do you tap into a character like Hasaan; to get into the head of someone who's obviously a villain?
A: Nobody's a villain. Once you start looking at it as someone who's a villain you start doing a caricature as opposed to a real character. You have to map out who the guy is, and you have to figure out what is the one thing he wants in life. Like if they tell him: You're going to die tomorrow what would you want to achieve? And that's how you get into the head of a villain. The villain has one goal that he is so clear about, and he would sacrifice every single thing that he owns and he would destroy anything that stands in his way. But you have to find that one goal. If you don't have it, you're just playing a caricature, or a guy who's just angry.
In this really, really ghetto neighborhood. So the families really clash. Nobody understands anybody. And I'm playing the protagonist. It's a really, really cool film, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I haven't seen it yet. People who have said they've seen it say it's really funny. And I don't do a lot of comedy, so it's good that the one comedy I did do, people think the one I did is funny.
I went back to Egypt about three years ago to start acting again and I did a TV show, it's like a spin on 'Sex and the City,' kind of an Arab 'Sex and the City,' and I played Mr. Big. It's super, super fun, it's just that shoots there take so long; takes about six months to shoot a film usually, and I told them I didn't want to do Egypt anymore until this script came.
And 'One' is a film written and directed by Murali Thalluri. Murali's first feature was in competition at Cannes when he was 19 years old; a brilliant, brilliant director. And it's slated to shoot in the spring of next year, which actually coincides with another film called, 'Hell,' and that's being directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky who won an Oscar for The Counterfeiters in 2008, and they're both kinda shooting back-to-back, and I'm playing the antagonist in that one.
Q: With your bad guy on 'The Blacklist,' I know some of the blacklisters go through varied degrees of costuming, hair and makeup. Did your character have a significant metamorphosis?
A: I look really dirty. [laughs] Dirty was my look. He was supposed to have been pretending he's been a hostage for a few weeks, so he needed to be almost emaciated and dirty, so I kinda had to wear a shirt on top of my T-shirt because I've got some muscles on me [laughs] and they had to hid them somehow because this guy hasn't eaten. So I just went with the shirt, and dirt in my hair - no gel or nothing. I look dirty. [laughs]
Q: Then no more dirty-haired, emaciated hostage guys for you?
A: [laughs] Yes. But we can do dirty again, but has to be a different kind of character. I was talking to Mozhan, and I said, 'If Hasaan was not your brother, if he was just a random bad guy just going to blow up shit' - sorry, blow up stuff - 'I probably wouldn't have done it.' But the fact that he's her brother, and there's this little game that's being played in the episode, made him a lot more interesting and made me a lot more excited about it because there's work to be done, and there's layers this guy could have and not just someone going in to do bad things.
But you know, it's funny, the episodes I'm doing for 'The Blacklist' and 'Scandal' are airing on the same night, and I think at the same time. So I'm trying to promote both at the same time, and they're completely different characters, too. So I'm at the dilemma now of should I promote one over another, or which one was more interesting for me to do, and I love both of them equally, too.
Q: Will you then ask people to watch one live; then DVR or stream the other?
A: They're almost different audiences that watch it, so the people who like 'Scandal' will watch 'Scandal' and DVR 'The Blacklist' and vice versa. Their audiences are kinda specific.
Q: Which will you watch live, and then DVR?
A: I won't actually, because I'll be in Jordan filming. So I'll have someone record both for me, and send it over.
Q: Then you'll have the best of both options…
A: Yeah, it's all fun. I have the best life in the world.