FOX UK’s latest high-profile US acquisition Tyrant premieres tonight (Friday September 12th) at 9pm.
The controversial series, which recently wrapped its first season on FX in the United States, has some heady auspices, having been created by Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff – two thirds of the three man team behind Showtime’s counter-terrorism drama Homeland.
Tyrant tells the story of Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed, the son of a dictator who returns home for a wedding with his American family and finds himself drawn into the workings of the turbulent Middle Eastern nation.
The diverse cast is led by British actor Adam Rayner and also includes Jennifer Finnigan, Ashraf Barhom, Moran Atias, Noah Silver, Anne Winters, Fares Fares, Salim Daw, Justin Kirk, Jordana Spiro, Mehdi Dehbi and Alice Krige.
TVWise recently sat down with Adam to discuss the show, what is was liking shooting in Morrocco and Israel, a potential Hunted spin-off and much more.
TVWise: What can you tell us about Tyrant?
Adam Rayner: In a nutshell, it’s the story of a man who is the second son of a fictional Middle Eastern dictator, who has rejected that life. He moved to America, became a doctor and married an all American girl. Through a series of events, he is drawn back to the country of his birth and inextricably drawn back into that world. Also, he is pushed towards his own destiny which is perhaps not what he thought it would be. It is in fact defined by the country of his birth rather than his adopted country. So basically, it’s about a man coming home to a country and himself in a sense.
TVWise: What was it about the role that attracted you to the project?
Adam Rayner: You have to understand that the people who were involved in it…I was just thrilled that I was sent the script. With Howard Gordon, Craig Wright and Gideon Raff, it was clearly from one of the top stable of writers in the States. The position I was in was pretty much a gun for hire and I was thrilled that they were even seeing me. Beyond that, it was a great script and a really fabulous character; the kind of character that you are waiting your whole career to come along. It’s a character that is full of conflicts, tensions and contradictions. I was just thrilled that I got the script.
TVWise: Did you have any concerns about being a British actor playing an Arabic character?
Adam Rayner: Well, obviously I don’t want to be part of something that might upset anyone. My answer would be that I am playing a half Arabic character. It would be as wrong to cast a fully Arab guy as it is to cast a non-Arab guy. We are not changing how I look in any way. I think if you have to change people’s appearance on racial and ethnic grounds, then no one is going to buy that anymore. If you don’t have to do that and it’s still plausible, I think it’s ok. A number of people have commented on the resemblance between Ashraf and myself. I also understand if people are upset about that to some degree, but personally I think it’s ok.
TVWise: Did you do a lot of research on Middle Eastern culture? Did anything stand out or surprise you?
Adam Rayner: I mostly read about the history and political comments around the region. It was clear to me that obviously Barry would have a far greater grasp of the area coming from it than I did. I thought, in terms of moving closer to the character, that was the most important shift I could make. Even if he never thought about it in a specific scene, just that generalized understanding that the character would have of the region which I didn’t have. The most surprising stuff for me was reading about the Arab Spring uprising of three or four years ago and the ramifications of that; how that totally shifted the nature of the region that no one predicted. Having been the focus of the world’s attention ever since 9/11 basically, the region literally went to a revolution almost overnight of a nature that no one had been predicting. It’s kind of extraordinary when the world does that even under the most closest scrutiny, it’s still throws up total surprises.
TVWise: How did you find the experience of shooting the series in Morocco?
Adam Rayner: Actually, only the pilot was shot in Morocco and the rest of the series was shot in Tel Aviv. Morocco is stunning and you can’t help but feel part of that world because the texture around you is so rich. Whether you are in a palace or on the streets, even though you aren’t in the Middle East, the sense of being in the thick of the Arab world is right there. In terms of texture, you can’t beat Morocco. Jaffa, which is on the south of Israel, is essentially an Arab town. You can dive straight into that feeling to a degree, not quite at the same level obviously, but to a degree right there in Tel Aviv and in the surroundings town. Many of those towns are predominately Arab populated and that was a real surprise. The extent to which the Jewish Israelis and the Arab Israelis live side by side, but kind of in separate pockets is extraordinary.
TVWise: Did you or the show’s creators feel any responsibility or pressure in how you represented that culture and its region?
Adam Rayner: Yeah, I think the producers felt a huge pressure to get it right. They had to be aware that there was controversy in the premise, but also handle that sensitively. It was probably the most important concern they had and we had those same concerns as well. It’s something that the producers and writers have to take the lion’s share of the responsibility, since they are coming up with what happens and what people say. Apart from telling an interesting story, that people will be interested in watching, that was probably their prime concern.
TVWise: Do you think this show will spark more dialogue about the Middle East especially with the current situation in that region?
Adam Rayner: Yes. I hope it always feels relevant but the problem is that things move so fast. When we started shooting this, no one had heard of ISIS. You had to be quite tuned into Middle Eastern events to have heard of it; now everyone has heard of it. The show chooses specially not to get to involved in Islamic fundamentalist extremism because there is a great deal more to the Arab world than Islamic extremism. I think one of the concerns with the show was for it not to be just about terrorists but very much the reverse. The show will have to keep pace and obviously one of the things that is capturing the headlines at the moment is Islamic State (ISIS). I would imagine in the second season we would have to address that in some way because there is no point in doing a show like this if it doesn’t reflect what is happening on the ground in real time in the Middle East.
TVWise: Tyrant boasts a phenomenal cast, what was it like working with that group of talented actors?
Adam Rayner: Good actors make you better, so it was fantastic to work with these people because they would always push and challenge you to bring out the best in you. You are being compelled to make that effort every day. It was lovely working with Jennifer [Finnigan] because she and I come from a similar tradition of American television and we had an immediate understanding. You then have Ashraf [Barhom] who comes from a different tradition. The tension between the two is fantastic; when we are playing these brothers in conflict who are mysterious to each other, even with the familiarity. It’s wonderful to have that coming from different places, coming from different backgrounds both geographically, socially and in terms of acting. I think it definitely helps the show rather than hinders it.
TVWise: Do you think the kind of power that Barry’s family has corrupts even the most moral individual?
Adam Rayner: That’s the key question and it’s the heart of what the show is about. Does power corrupt? In order to make things happen that improve people’s live and change the world, you have to have power, but does having that power in some way corrupt. It’s the age old paradox of being in a position of influence. It’s difficult for me to answer because I’ve never had that kind of power. The problem is you want to do good and you think you know how to do that. If only people would listen to you, you could improve their lives. You are pushed into the position where you want people just to be quiet and listen to you because you are trying to help them. The problem is that people have different opinions about what is best for them. I think even from the most benevolent starting point, absolute power is going to corrupt you in the sense that you will stop listening to people. Unfortunately, placing people’s destiny in an individual’s hand in that way history tells us that it leads to dictatorship and autocracy. People ultimately feel they are losing the most important thing which is their personal freedom.
TVWise: Going back to one of your former projects, there are rumors of a Hunted spin-off on Cinemax. Would you be interested in coming back if that did happen?
Adam Rayner: I would certainly love to work with Frank [Spotnitz] again and I remember him mentioning that. He and I had lunch shortly before I did the Tyrant pilot and he gave me some wonderful advice. He’s a real mentor and I would jump at the chance to work with him again.
Adam Rayner plays Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed in Tyrant, which premieres on FOX UK on Friday September 12th at 9pm.