The Blacklist interview: Hisham Tawfiq talks Dembe’s ultimatum, dangerous situation ahead

DembeFriday night starting at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, be prepared for yet another thrilling The Blacklist event. We’ve got two episodes airing back to back, and in these installments we’re going to have a chance to see major events from both the present and the past. You’ll get everything from the aftermath of Dembe’s ultimatum to Liz to also another chapter in the life of Katarina Rostova. There’s a lot to be excited about — and also to be afraid of, given that Dembe and Liz have kept quite a secret from Reddington these past several episodes.

So leading into this installment, who better to discuss all things with than Hisham Tawfiq? He’s been here for Dembe’s entire journey and evolution into this fascinating man on a knife’s edge, recognizing his danger and trying to determine the right way to handle it. In our interview below we discuss with Hisham the course of this season, where Friday’s episodes pick up, and just how fearful Dembe is regarding what Reddington will do if he knows the truth.

Latest Blacklist video: If you missed it, you can also check out our video preview for Friday’s episode at the bottom of this article. Be sure to subscribe to CarterMatt on YouTube for our weekly Blacklist video reviews and previews and view our official show playlist so you don’t miss any other updates.

CarterMatt – In these past few episodes, you’ve been playing a very different sort of Dembe, someone who’s had this secret that he’s keeping from Reddington. Has this altered anything about the way that you’ve perceived or played him?

Hisham Tawfiq – Yeah. I think part of the genesis was the episode where Reddington asked Dembe ‘did you find out who turned me in?’ and I say ‘no.’ When I read the script and I saw that, I was personally upset. Dembe’s always been honest with Red, and this is kind of the first time we’ve seen him not be honest. I struggled with that and I was going to call the creators and be like ‘what’s up with that?’, but then also as I thought about it some more, in everything we like to have a little bit of conflict. Also, it colors Dembe in a way we haven’t seen before. He’s struggling with some morals and who his allegiance is to. Liz has put him in a position where she wants him to keep her secret.

I struggled with it and I think Dembe, as we’ve seen, has struggled with it also; but, it’s made it a little more exciting. It’s colored Dembe more completely than we’ve ever seen before.

If Dembe had known that virtually anyone else was responsible for betraying Reddington, I feel like he would’ve went and told him that information. Do you think his willingness to keep Liz’s secret more or less speaks to how he feels about her, this relationship that has been built up?

I think it’s a given that because he has an allegiance to Red, that he has an allegiance to Liz also. One of the jokes I said to Megan [Boone] while we were on set shooting a couple of episodes and the one this Friday was that this is the most we’ve seen Dembe and Liz interact dialogue-wise. It was pretty cool and pretty exciting, and I think that set the tone and showed what type of relationship they have.

What’s unfolding could speak volumes about their relationship, but I think it could also be the issue. Dembe is struggling between Red and Liz, and being put in the middle is kind of unfair to him. That’s why he said at the end of the last episode ‘if you don’t spill the beans, I’m going to. This can’t keep going any further.’

Within that scene, where Dembe basically gives Liz an ultimatum, do you think that he really sees that as his only way forward?

I think so, especially since Red is going down this checklist of people who he thinks have betrayed him. He’s not giving him a high-five; he’s taking them out. We know Dembe has always struggled with the violence Red commits; he’s always thought that there are other options. It could really just be a matter of time until he finds out that it was Liz who betrayed him, which could really just lead back to me.

This is the moment where we really don’t want to wait until that happens. It’s in our best interest for us to tell him before he finds out on his own.

It may just be me, but it feels like there’s something different in some of the scenes with you and James the past few weeks, whether it be a larger pause or a sense of greater unease. Maybe it’s just the way that they are being filmed, but it feels that there’s an added nervousness there. Is that something that you’re playing?

There is much more interaction and dialogue, but usually there’s this non-speaking communication thing that we have going on. A lot of things have been spoken and verbalized.

The one thing that has set up a different dynamic is that in the past, we’ve really just seen Dembe execute [Reddington’s plan] … Dembe is kind of pushing back now. He’s been given enough time to search his soul and tell Liz to tell the truth and operate in a different way. At some point, I would think it comes to a head.

The creators are doing a great job of setting up a different dynamic, and the cinematographers are doing a great job of catching that. There really is a different vibe now with Dembe, as opposed to how he’s interacted with Reddington in the past. He’s pushing back a bit.

Is there any fear on his part that Reddington could actually kill him? He just threw Smokey out of the plane!

Absolutely. I think when you’re dealing with Red there’s always an unknown. Dembe is a witness in that and I don’t think he’s like ‘oh, nothing’s going to happen to me. I can just skip along.’ I think he knew, once he did not tell Reddington the truth about who turned him in, that this was setting up something where it could become very dangerous, especially with what happened with Mr. Kaplan and now Smokey. I’m getting in line with the other people who have crossed Red — they may not have all had that kind of relationship, though I think Mr. Kaplan did; ultimately, with Red betrayal is one of his pet peeves, especially with the business that he’s in.

So yes, there’s a fear and a worry that Dembe has. Could this lead to the end of him? I think he’s at peace with that, but he’s still in fear in it.

So where are things picking up for Dembe then moving into these two episodes?

Well (laughs), we know where it ended last week with the ultimatum. It’s going to start off with addressing that. Depending on how that unfolds, it definitely sets up the end of that episode and the next episode, which is going into territory that we’ve never been in before.

Dembe’s never been in a position where he’s been suspected of a betrayal. So whether Liz tells him or Dembe tells him, I think it’s going to set up a dynamic that we haven’t seen.

I know James knows a lot of the larger secrets of the show in advance. Are you ever told advance info, or do you find out the moment you get the scripts?

Oh, I know zero (laughs). I find out the moment I get the script. I wish I had the luxury of that — but, well when you look back at it, it’s exciting not to know. But, in the moment, it’s hard to find anybody who wouldn’t want to know exactly what’s going on, which may help me play some of the moments I’ve been given. But, I’m completely in the dark and I find out episode to episode.

There’s a duality here in that so much of this show is an enigma and here you are, playing one of the show’s biggest ones. We know so little about Dembe’s backstory. Have you conjured up ideas in your head as to what some more of it could be?

Yeah, absolutely! I’ve had those discussions with [executive producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath] many times within the last 2-3 years. Part of those discussions were about Dembe coming across as a full human being — having conflicts. That’s why I was so excited about last week’s episode and this one coming up. They put some of this stuff we discussed onto paper, with Dembe going and getting some sort of spiritual guidance. That was something that we have been talking about for two years, so to see that come out was something exciting.

But, there are many other things we’ve discussed — where are Dembe’s daughter and granddaughter? How did that relationship come to be? How do they feel about each other now? There’s a lot more things that can be uncovered. I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of that with these last few episodes.

For more recommended The Blacklist reading…

This week, we re-watched the classic episode “Cape May” to get a larger sense of where things are entering Friday night with Katarina. Check that out here, and remember to let us know what you think is coming for Dembe in the comments. (Photo: NBC.)

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