Actors / Interviews / Pop Culture / Television / Theater

Raza Jaffrey – Smashes Through to US Television Stardom

SMASH — Season:1 — Pictured: Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram — Photo by: Patrick Randak/NBC

Raza Jaffrey

Smashes Through to US Television Stardom

by Jay S. Jacobs

British actor Raza Jaffrey has spent much time on the stage, mostly in London’s West End, so it may be a certain amount of synchronicity that his American breakthrough role is on a TV series that revolves around the theater. 

Jaffrey is well-known in his native UK due to his role on the popular series Spooks (MI-5) and has been in such films as Eastern Promises, Harry Brown and Sex & the City 2. Now based in the States, he has a big role in Smash – one of the buzz series of the spring.

Jaffrey plays Dev Sundaram, the fast-track politician boyfriend of Iowa ingénue Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) – one of the finalists for the lead role of Marilyn Monroe in a buzzed about new Broadway musical. 

The series, which also stars Megan Hilty, Deborah Messing, Jack Davenport, Christian Borle, Will Chase and Anjelica Huston, was just renewed for a second season a matter of days before we had this exclusive chat with Jaffrey about the show and his career.

You have worked extensively on stage, particularly early on, in London. How accurate is Smash about the theatrical world?

I think Smash is a drama above all else, so it’s going to take characters and heighten them and take storylines to places which you wouldn’t necessarily see day to day. But the essence of the show is rooted in the reality of theater – whether it’s a West End or a Broadway show. The pedigree of people like Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman], our wonderful, wonderful lyricist/composers, and Neil Meron, Craig Zadan, people like that who are involved day to day in Broadway have made sure that it seems real. 

Smash is so smart and has lots of inside info about musicals and the backstage dramas of Broadway. Were you at all worried about how it would play in the heartland or other places where musical theater is not quite so well known?

It was always going to be a great story first. There was some trepidation early on, I think, how much wide appeal would the show have? But what the show has been good at doing is letting people know that these kinds of stories are universal. I know it’s become a bit of a cliché now, but people talk about whether you have to be interested in politics to watch The West Wing, or doctors to watch ER. It was said before that, but it’s kind of true. The show is an excuse for great drama, really, above all else. Hopefully, it stands and falls on that and people watch it because of that.

Well, you just mentioned politics, and Dev is in that world. Now obviously you know a lot about theater, but how much did you know about politics before taking on this role? Did you have to research?

(laughs) Well, I’m learning. I’m learning. I just went to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago for a bit of soaking up of the culture down there. But that is really down to the writers, to make sure those stories work on the page. The amount of research you have to do outside of it is less. It’s nice to be playing a character who is outside of that Broadway world. I think Dev becomes a bit more of an everyman in a way. Again, like we were talking about before, making the story accessible, it’s great playing a character who doesn’t understand the Broadway world. He thinks that he really wants his girlfriend to be involved in this world but doesn’t necessarily realize the implications of what that will mean to have her as a performer. 

SMASH — Pilot — Pictured: (l-r) Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram, Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright — Photo by: Will Hart/NBC

As a person, in what ways do you relate to Dev and in what ways is he different than you?

Dev seems to be ambitious, which is his most attractive quality. He’s also a man of integrity, although that’s one of those things to put to test next year if he stays on. Those are Dev’s attributes. What makes him interesting as a character, someone who stands up for what he believes in. And he’s fiercely protective of Karen. What’s nice as well about that relationship is that they are from different worlds – not only Broadway and the world of politics, but also culturally. Dev is from England and Karen’s from the States. It’s fun to have that mix amongst things, too.

You really mostly work with Katharine, who was known more as a singer than as an actress. What is she like to work with?

She’s wonderful, she really is. When I took the job, I was hoping that I’d have a leading lady who was on my wavelength. When you have most of your scenes with someone, you hope they are going to be coming from the same place as you are. She is a wonderful performer and she’s rightfully surprised people with her talent in this show. The audience has fallen in love with her.

Obviously, your character is not really so involved with the musical sections, but you definitely have a musical background. Do you think you’ll be able to get them to let you sing sometime in the show’s run?

(laughs) Well, I can tell you, and I’m not sure it’s announced yet, but there is a great big number coming up where Dev does sing and dance. Everyone mentioned they wanted Dev singing in the show. I wondered how they’d get it in – whether there was going to be a guitar and me hopelessly auditioning for Karen, as a politician, and work on a number. But actually, it’s episode twelve – Uma Thurman is in it – and it turns out to be the biggest production number that we’ve done to date. It’s fantastic to be singing and dancing. It’s an original number from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It’s called “1001 Nights.” It was great to be involved with.

SMASH — “Callbacks” Episode 102 — Pictured: (l-r) Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram — Photo by: Patrick Harbron/NBC

In the last week’s episode, they were sort of hinting about possible problems between Karen and Dev – between him pressuring her a bit to dress sexy for the big banquet and her flirting a bit with the guy who may become Dev’s competition. Do you see some bumps in the road for Karen and Dev?

Well, it wouldn’t be a prime-time drama without some bumps in the road. (laughs) They’ve made sure that the road is rather like some of the roads in New York, actually. We’ve got some great stuff coming up. I wish I could fill you in a bit more, but it’s really not what you’d expect in the coming weeks. By episode twelve and thirteen, things have really turned around for Karen and Dev. You’ll have to see it. It’s not the obvious. People who are thinking one thing is going to happen, maybe it’s not. I got a shock when I first read it. People are going to enjoy watching it, I hope.

Your character is obviously much more involved in the political side of New York. In recent weeks, there seems to be some drama brewing on that side. Without giving away any real big secrets, what kind of developments are coming for your character and how that relates to your relationship?

Yeah. One of the cogent parts to the show is that it really points to where life mirrors art. (laughs) In an obvious way, I guess. In that Dev and Karen are together and adore each other, but they do have pressures as young career people in New York and both wanting certain things. Where one might think it’s only Karen’s life that is pulling on the relationship, the writers have been clever to make sure that it is pulled in both directions. Those things you’ll be seeing in the upcoming weeks. There’s as many machinations in the world of politics as there are in the world of stage. [We’ll see] how that affects things.

There is a lot of location filming in New York. How do you think being able to show so much of the city adds to the feel of the show?

It’s fantastic. When we were first starting on the show, we weren’t sure where it was going to be filmed. A lot of shows use other cities to double as New York. Also, most of us from the cast were from Los Angeles, as well. There was talk about it being in another city. I’m so glad it ended up in New York. It’s a real love song to New York City, as well. The locations that we get are just fantastic. What I love about filming in New York is how everyday it is, actually. So many people of New York [are used to it], the fact that we can film on Times Square, or we can film down in the West Village or anywhere else, people just wander by and wander through the set – it’s not a big deal that we are filming on the street. It’s nice. 

SMASH — Season:1 — Pictured: (l-r) Jack Davenport as Derek Wills, Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn, Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram, Debra Messing as Julia Houston, Christian Borle as Tom Levitt, Anjelica Huston as Eileen Rand, Brian d’Arcy James as Frank Houston, Jaime Cepero as Ellis — Photo by: Mark Seliger/NBC

What would your fantasy storyline be for Dev?

For one thing, the world of song, which Dev has kind of entered into, I never thought that would happen when I started the show. I’m glad that Dev has entered that world, particularly in an intelligent way. There are other things, which have happened by the end of the season. Again, I wish I could say more. They make me glad because they certainly give me a lot to play. (laughs) I can say that.

Why do you think musical TV series like Smash and Glee are suddenly so popular?

It’s hard to say, really. I think Glee was certainly a major factor in making a show like Smash even get to television, really. It’s really thanks to Glee that our show has a voice, really, in many ways. But it’s hard to know what it is. I’m not sure what it is that has captured people’s imaginations in terms of song again. Maybe it’s that thing, the time is right again. It’s been a number of years since we’ve had shown with a strong musical influence. It’s another generation coming through and finding ways to make it relevant, in a way that things had fallen out of fashion a few years back. I think to Smash and Glee’s credit, making the emotional heart of the story the most important thing and it goes great in music being so interwoven with those storylines and emotional journeys. It makes good television. But, if I knew the real recipe, I’d be on many more shows.

Does being on Smash give you the urge to get back to some stage work?

Being on television generally does. Or being an actor generally does, I should say. I started out onstage and I’ve done a number of musicals and straight plays through the years. I adore working onstage. I sincerely hope I’ll be back there and doing some of that, too.

SMASH — Season:1 — Pictured: (l-r) Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram, Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn, Jack Davenport as Derek Wills, Debra Messing as Julia Houston, Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Anjelica Huston as Eileen Rand, Brian d’Arcy James as Frank Houston, Jaime Cepero as Ellis, Christian Borle as Tom Levitt — Photo by: Mark Seliger/NBC

You have moved to the States just in the last couple of years for The Cape and now Smash after working mostly in England and Europe. When did you feel it was time to make the big move and how is working different on this side of the pond?

First, I’ve been thinking of this for a number of years. When I was doing MI-5 in the UK, I was getting more and more meetings over here. I’ve been coming to the States since I was a kid and always loved the country. Then when a shooting arose to come here and spend some proper time here, I grabbed it with both hands, really.I’m glad I did. I feel an enormous privilege to be living in Los Angeles and New York, two great cities like that. Also, I just find the optimism and welcome here in the States second to none. You only have to look around and see how many British actors are working in the States at the moment to see how well-embraced and well-loved English actors are. It’s nice to be a part of that, be seen in those terms, really. 

Well speaking of The Cape, last year that was a big buzz series like Smash is this year. Were you a little disappointed it didn’t get more of a chance than it did?

Yeah. It’s always so sad when a show doesn’t get a longer run, because of the number of people involved in it and the years of heartache that have gone into making a production. The audience at home see the actors on screen and maybe hear about the writers, but that’s all they really know, really. There are a lot of people that have gone into making that show come into fruition and happen. Especially nowadays, one thing that pains me most about the industry is how when shows so quickly disappear, rightly or wrongly it leads the audience to believe that shows are disposable in some way. They’re not, because they are people’s livelihoods. A lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into making them. So, it’s always sad when a show goes, but that’s life, I guess. It was ever thus. It was fantastic fun to work on it. David Lyons was terrific and became a friend as a result of it, so that made it worthwhile. Also, it was so great to be playing a character so far from what I’ve been doing recently. I’d just done the Sex and the City movie, so to go in and play a French poisoner, which was a long way off from the character I’d just played. So that was great. And do some action stuff. I started my career on television doing quite big action stuff. I hadn’t done that in recent years. I’m still very active, so to be doing that kind of thing again on The Cape was great. 

SMASH — “The Cost of Art” Episode 104 — Pictured: (l-r) Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram, Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright — (Photo by: Patrick Harbron/NBC)

Back in England, Spooks (aka MI-5) was a really respected series. What was that like to be a part of?

Spooks was a fantastic experience. We had the best writers on that show and some incredible directors who came in and turned things on their heads week in, week out. Also, there is something to be said for getting to play an action hero who kind of saves the world week after week in an intelligent political drama. That’s a real treat as an actor. It was a real privilege to work on Spooks.

I was reading online that you originally wanted to be a pilot. How did you get into acting? Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you followed another path?

(laughs) I still do look up at the sky occasionally, imagining I’m out there piloting an aircraft. I was going to join the Air Force. It was all I wanted to do as a kid and as a teenager. I went to university thinking that was what I would do. While I was there, I started taking more and more drama. People started clapping a bit. (laughs) I’d always been quite musical, but I never thought of it as a career, really. It wasn’t until after I left. I went off to drama school, after university. My parents were very encouraging. “Look, if you want to do it, go and do it, but go to a proper drama school and get trained. Then give it a go and see what happens.” I went off to the Old Vic and spent a couple of years there and got lucky really. I came out and it was nice to work with some really interesting directors early on which really kind of shaped things for me. But I fly planes now and I still often wonder what it would have been like to in front of an aircraft flying.

Thanks for talking with us Raza, I hope Smash has a long run.

Well, you know they have announced we’ve got the second season now. 

No, I hadn’t heard.

More details will follow Tuesday, but we’re definitely coming back for a second season, which is brilliant.

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: March 25, 2012.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2012 Patrick Randak. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2012 Will Hart. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2012 Patrick Harbron. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2012 Mark Seliger. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2012 Mark Seliger. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2012 Patrick Harbron. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved. 

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