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Since the very first episode, Dembe has been there for Red on The Blacklist, and now — after nearly two months of waiting — we find out why he’s turned on him. To do that, we went directly to the source: Former Marine and fireman Hisham Tawfiq. The actor explains how Red’s right-hand man went from a one-time guest star role to a series regular, what pushed him into “going rogue,” and what he hopes we’ll see of Dembe going forward.
“Dembe made a little error,” says Tawfiq. (That’s the mother of all understatements.) Crossing Red Reddington may be the biggest — and last — mistake a person could make. The April 20 episode, titled “Dembe Zuma” (Number 10), begins about a month after the winter finale: Red and all of the FBI have been searching for the titular character, but “Dembe has been raised by Red,” says Tawfig, and so he’s prepared to counter his every move.
“In previous episodes, we’ve seen Dembe struggle with a lot of the choices that Red started to make and the straw that broke the camel’s back was [Red] killing Mr. Kaplan,” says Tawfiq. (Like Red, Dembe believes Susan Blommaert’s Mr. Kaplan is dead, though viewers know otherwise.) “He’s always been the moral conscience of Red, and it’s petering.” Dembe now finds himself torn between loyalty to Red and his own personal code of conduct, a conflict that Tawfiq says “leads him to make some decisions that put their relationship in jeopardy.”
It would be a shame if this were the end of their partnership. Originally conceived as a one-off character, Tawfiq’s magnetic presence and his chemistry with James Spader as Red has made him indispensable to the show, and the actor went from a single planned appearance to a series regular last year. From the beginning, Tawfiq found a connection with the character that nobody expected.
“Originally, when I auditioned, it was improv. They told me he was a freedom fighter from South Sudan. So I created a back story for my character,” says Tawfiq. Over the course of the series, some of that back story has found its way into the show. — including a moment the actor credits with really cementing his status with fans of the show.
“One of the huge turning points was in season 1: the prayer that Red and Dembe had outside the box in episode 9 with Anslo Garrick.” He says Spader deserves credit for the way he committed to the idea. “The Arabic prayer that we did was the same prayer I did at the audition as the improv,” says Tawfiq. “I grew up Arabic, speaking Arabic, and I was a practicing Muslim. I felt that that prayer was really appropriate in that moment. James really learned it. And when we had that moment, sparks just flew. I think that was a turning point — I know for the fans and I think maybe for the creators — a lot more could be explored with Dembe.”
In the April 20 episode, we’ll get to see Dembe’s granddaughter for the first time, and Tawfiq hopes the writers will delve into more of his character’s personal life as the series goes on. “I’d love to explore the relationship with my daughter’s mother. What was that like? How did that come about? I’d like to explore the relationship with my daughter,” who, we found out in season 3, doesn’t like her father’s connection to Red. “I would really, really love to explore how she and I interact.”
It was hard for Tawfiq to have any expectations about things to come when the show began. Despite being in almost every episode, he says, “In the first two seasons, I was always told three days before the episode if I was [shooting] next month — so I was always on pins and needles.” Now that Dembe’s place has grown more secure, the actor delights in the having his expectations of the character overturned. “When I told Liz that Red had shot Mr. Kaplan, that really surprised me that the writers had Dembe doing something that might be [seen as] a betrayal. Even for me personally, it felt like I was doing something wrong!” And now that Dembe is “kind of going rogue,” all bets are off.
The two-hour return of The Blacklist airs Thursday, April 20 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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