What was the draw of Baghdad Central?
When I got the audition I didn’t want to do it – I had not long lost my father so I was really down, but my agent had been tracking it for a couple of years and said:”It feels like it’s written for you.” I didn’t want to play another accented Arab on Western television, but my wife read with me and encouraged me. When I did the self-tape audition and spoke the words, I had a feeling this project and character were special. The writing is so rich and deep and character-driven, and a quarter of it feels like a foreign-language film. There’s a beauty in that and it elevated everyone’s performances.
How did Khafaji become a policeman?
He was in the Secret Service under Saddam’s regime, and got demoted at some point when the coalition forces were coming in. Beforehand, he was following orders and working to survive, caught in a difficult situation as many were at that time. Now, things are coming back to haunt him.
How would you describe him?
He’s probably the most complex character I’ve played. When we first meet him, he’s at the lowest point of his life. He’s willing to call it quits but overcomes it and triumphs because of love of his family, where that is put up against love of country. He has so many qualities that reflected the way my parents raised me with courage, integrity, loyalty, intelligence and trust – he was an easy character to connect to.
How does he get on with Temple and Parodi?
His initial reaction to Temple is: this guy wants me to work for him to make him look good. Then the idea of helping out his sick daughter Mrouj (July Namir) is introduced, so there’s an opportunity for him to get care for his daughter in the Green Zone. Mrouj’s kidneys are failing, but because of his low state of mind, she has more or less become his carer. And then he can also use his access to gather information about Sawsan (Leem Lubany), his other daughter who has disappeared and with whom there is a certain tension. So - he sells out and becomes a collaborator. With Captai Parodi (Corey Stoll), it’s the same thing at first, but as they get to know each other Khafaji respects his intelligence and apparent sense of morality. The more I see it in him, the more it brings it out in me.
Does this feel like a particularly personal project?
Absolutely. I’m a family man, with two kids roughly the same age as Khafaji’s daughters in the show. I feel I’ve been a bad father at times because I travel quite a bit and I’ve missed certain milestones in my kids’ lives; Khafaji was too damaged to be there for his daughters after the death of his wife and his son in a short space of time. He became very distant because the pain was unbearable, and he simply wasn’t strong enough other than to barely hang on. The feelings of battling the pain when your own family look up to you for strength, that is very personal to me.
My family has struggled in war and poverty, we have lived from paycheque to paycheque, been evicted unjustly and experienced Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. I was born in Sacramento, lived in Kuwait from the ages of five to 19, went back to the US for college but returned to Kuwait for my brother’s engagement party – then Saddam invaded. Because they’d closed the border to Saudi Arabia, we – me, my parents and my 93-year-old grandmother – had to get to Jordan. It took us three days but we made it. It was when my adulthood started, a loss of innocence.
How will Baghdad Central resonate with modern audiences?
I’ve always said good material engages emotionally and intellectually. This is one of those projects. It’s great writing that makes you think without getting you ahead of the story – you’re always straining a little to catch up. And although the central characters are this Iraqi family, it doesn’t feel foreign. There’s a sense of home and the loss of home, of family, of country, that I think everyone will be able to relate to no matter where you are.
So could Khafaji be the next big TV detective?
I think so. The skeleton of the show is this Arab-Muslim family – it’s a show about the tensions that exist between love and loss, where our basic human conditions, aspirations and darkest fears are tested when in conflict, because all is at stake. It’s also a show about loyalty, morality, and ultimately real courage. Then, add the complexity of the region, the rampant crime element and a guy at the lowest point of his life who chooses to rise above just surviving, take matters into his own hands and thereby regain a new sense of self and become stronger. I love having a show with a central character who is a man of deep flaws but also deep integrity. People everywhere want to see the better version of themselves – It’s an ancient formula but it never gets tiring.