Murtz On The Scene: Exclusive Interview With Tyrant‘s Jennifer Finnigan

One of my favourite shows of the summer season is FX’s Tyrant.

The show tells the story of Bassam ‘Barry’ El-Fayeed (Adam Rayner), the son of an infamous Middle-Eastern tyrant who has been running from his past for the last two decades. Now a practicing physician in the USA, he has an American wife, son and daughter with no desire to revisit his familial origins. When he is compelled to come back for his nephew’s wedding, he is quickly drawn into a political crisis when his father passes away and his older brother assumes office.

The show is tantalizing as it manages to effortlessly combine political drama with familial intrigue and soap opera. The drama is thick and real. The characters are believable. The story is gripping. Almost serving as a nod to dramas of the 90’s, Tyrant doesn’t reject the idea of cliffhanger endings at the end of every episode… it embraces them.

As Barry struggles to find himself and answer who he really is, the audience shares his journey and the result is a show that is simply a must-see.

Tyrant‘s first season finale airs tomorrow night on FX and I caught up with my friend Jennifer Finnigan who plays Molly El-Fayeed (Barry’s wife) on the series to get a preview on what to expect. She discusses the experience of shooting the show in Tel Aviv amidst the Gaza crisis, while the show has developed such a worldwide following and gives us some scoop about tomorrow’s finale (and a potential season 2).

Murtz Jaffer: We are heading into Tyrant’s season finale on Tuesday. Can you give me a brief description of the show?

Jennifer Finnigan: It’s the story of a man who is the son of a tyrannical leader in a Middle Eastern country. In the pilot, this man passes away and the power is shifted to the man’s older brother. Though a series of circumstances, the man is brought back to the Middle East with his family. He has been living a very westernized American life with his family and his family is American. He is forced to stay in a sense and at first it is a sort of curiosity and then it becomes a desire. His ambitions change and he at this point thinks that he is fit to take over for his brother who seems unfit to rule the country. Much to the shock and dismay and terror of his family who know that by making himself the potential leader of this country, he is putting himself and his family in great danger.

MJ: Can you talk about Molly’s story arc over the course of the season. I felt like she went from a doting wife to voicing her opinion to Barry a little bit more as the season went on?

JF: Right. At the beginning of this, she was very much the doting wife. Very supportive. Agreed to give up her entire lifestyle. Her home. Her medical practice. Move the children there and have them start school in this Middle Eastern country. She is encouraging him and she is extremely supportive of his decision but the deeper he gets and the more permanent this situation becomes for her, the scarier it gets. She’s a strong woman and I really fought for that. One of the reasons why Molly has become this opinionated character, this strong female character, is that I didn’t want her to just constantly be the supportive doting wife. I wanted her to have a backbone. I wanted her to have strength and a say in the future of her family. That was really important to me and I really fought for that with the writers and with Howard. I thought it was extremely important to see a different side of her.

MJ: The show recently had to move to Turkey from Tel Aviv because of the violence in Gaza. Was that a tough adjustment to make?

JF: This show the most fraught and difficult show I have been a part of and that’s saying a lot because I have been part of a lot of shows. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the problems that we have run into… from the pilot! It was an extremely difficult adjustment right from the beginning knowing that we’d be shooting the entire thing in Israel. And while in Israel, the first handful of episodes, the focus of the show changed and it became extremely political and left the family by the wayside a little bit. Not only was I uprooted to Israel entirely and completely but I was barely working at the beginning. I never had enough time off to go home but I always had way too much time off in a country that I wasn’t familiar with. We were all able to bond thankfully. We became a real family. We made the best of it. I have to say that I absolutely adore Tel Aviv and its people. Once I got going creatively (in terms of Molly’s storyline) everything fell into place and it was a very beautiful experience. A very life-changing experience. Then when the war happened… it was frightening and traumatizing and scary. Even though it’s their normal, it’s certainly not ours. Being woken up by air raids, sirens… having them go off through the day and late at night. Hearing the missiles above us. I was in a highrise so my apartment would shake a little bit. Running to my bomb shelter. None of these are experiences that people want to go through. It certainly was not what I had expected and then we were told within hours to pack up our lives… this apartment and this life that I had made in Israel and go to the airport at 6 a.m. the next day because we were being evacuated. We only thought it was going to be for a few days until they struck up a peace agreement. Sadly that didn’t happen for weeks. By some miracle, we were able to start shooting within days of being in Turkey which was incredible. The way that production was able to make lemonade out of lemons. We still had a few scenes from 107 and we had half of 108 and we had the entire 109 left to shoot and they somehow managed it. It was very difficult. We were torn from our lives there. We were torn from our crew… a crew that that had worked so hard the entire season. This was the biggest production that has ever happened in Israel so everybody really threw their heart and soul into it. To be ripped from that… to be evacuated it was so unbelievably jarring and difficult. All of a sudden we were all like little refugees in this little hotel in Turkey. All of us have PTSD! We just couldn’t believe that’s how it ended.

MJ: Do you think that it added a degree of realism to the work?

JF: I definitely think so. I think it did the entire time. There were so many ups and downs for me personally while shooting this. It’s strange watching myself now. I don’t recognize that person and I guess that’s good in a way because it’s a character. Molly is such a character. I have never played that kind of character before. I have never played the mother of two teenagers and I think every up and down that I had there creatively, mentally, I think it helped the work so much. It’s really clear to me now when I watch it. There are so many scenes that I don’t even remember shooting and that I kind of equate with trauma.

MJ: I am such a big fan of Ashraf Barhom’s work on the show and I don’t think the producers could have picked a better actor for the role of Jamal. Why do you think he makes such a good villain?

JF: Ashraf is incredible. He’s a raw talent. There’s something about the fact that he is untrained and raw. He’s instinctive. I think it’s all of those qualities. Most of all, there’s a quality that he never plays but it is so viscerally inside of him that he can’t help but have it come out of him and that’s his vulnerability. He will never play vulnerable. Ever. That’s not an acting choice that he will ever make and yet it is somewhere in his soul that it comes out of his pores so that he is the most villainous. He has made such terrible choices! He’s a murderer! And a rapist! And yet somehow audiences love this character and respond to this character and I agree with you. There is no one else who could have played him like that.

MJ: Family and politics are what Tyrant seems to center around. What is it about the intertwining of the two that makes things so compelling to watch?

JF: I think it’s a world that people are very interested in. It’s extremely timely with everything going on. Talk about art imitating life. The fact that we were in the midst of shooting a political show set for Middle East and this situation in Gaza became so dire. This situation with ISIS happened. And this was sort of the world that we were introducing to American audiences. Really up until this point, all we have gotten about the Middle East is what we see on CNN or FOX News. I think it’s groundbreaking in the sense that we are introducing American audiences… and not just American audiences. This show has been picked up worldwide. I think we are the #1 show in China. The sister of the President of Philippines was tweeting about it being her favourite show. We have really reached a worldwide audience. There is an interest in this show that is far beyond American audiences. It is clearly satisfying some sort of curiosity. I think in that sense it is groundbreaking television. I also think the fact that we are not just seeing the political side, we are delving into the way it affects these families… the American family. The Middle Eastern family. How they interact with each other. How they come to understand each other. How their methods of leadership are very different. And then there’s just the good old fashioned soap opera of it all which I personally love. I think that’s the part of the show that keeps people coming back. The love triangles! The good old fashioned soap opera dirt of it all!

MJ: Barry is now poised to assume control of Abudeen after his coup. Can you talk about the impact this will have on his personally and professionally in a potential second season?

JF: I don’t know where the second season is going, but I will say that the way the finale ends, it will leave it open for so many possibilities, which is very exciting. Coming from Molly’s perspective, the idea of Barry assuming leadership of a country… she has known this man for 20 years. He is a pediatrician. He’s a father of two. She thinks she has seen every side of him. All of a sudden, there’s this cold and calculating side of him. This lying side of him. She really can’t believe her eyes. She can’t believe she’s seeing this. There’s only one explanation. It is in his blood. We have seen this in real life too. We have seen leaders assume the throne and all of a sudden something kicks in and they become just like their predecessor. They become just like their father. That is exactly what is happening to him. I think there is much danger in Barry’s future. I believe that he is capable of leading but I don’t believe that he understands the consequences of his actions at this point. And not understanding the consequences of his actions will put him in grave danger. And will put his wife and children in grave danger as well.

MJ: One of my favourite parts of the show is how layered the characters are. Molly wants to suppress how she really feels so that she is the supportive wife. Jamal wants to be a leader who is loved but can’t help but do bad things. Barry was the personification of goodness when he returned home but has gradually become darker as the show has gone on. Is it the characters that make the show as compelling as it is?

JF: Absolutely. I think the show is nothing without its characters. It’s an interesting political setting. It’s very thought-provoking on its own. But I do think that what the audience attaches itself to, what the audience relates to, are the characters and the relationships between the characters. No show could have a fanbase the way we do (and we have an extremely extremely loyal fan base that’s growing with word of mouth) and that’s because of the characters. It’s the way that you just described them (which was beautiful by the way as you captured all of their facets). If people want a strictly political drama, they can turn on CNN. If they want a show with layers, with relationships, with pain, and love and all this human emotion, that we want to relate to and that we want to see on screen then that’s based on characters. I am proud of the characters we created and we really did create them. This show didn’t quite know what it wanted to be at first. It found itself over the course of the season. I think it found itself beautifully. I have been incredibly proud of the last few episodes. The same way the show found itself is the same way we, as actors playing characters were able to find ourselves.

MJ: As its root level, Jennifer, is this show really about turning Barry back into Bassam?

JF: I think the show at its root is Barry figuring out if he is more Barry or more Bassam. It’s who he wants to be. Him figuring out his destiny. The repercussions of whatever his decision is and how it affects all of us. It’s a ripple effect.

MJ: What can fans expect from Tuesday’s season finale? I have to tell you that I am dying to tune in. I have no idea how it is going to end and that’s great considering how predictable TV has become.

JF: It’s funny because I changed my hairstyle. I wanted to make it a little bit more incognito because I was being aggressively approached by fans asking to know the end of the show. It was almost like I needed to wear a t-shirt that said ‘don’t ask me, because I can’t tell you!’ All I can say is that a dangerous situation becomes even more dangerous and life-threatening. Everyone is impacted in a terrifying way.

MJ: Do you think that Molly will takeover Abudeen?

JF: Yeah, Molly’s the tyrant! You figured it out!

MJ: Did I? Did I put the pieces together?!

JF: You did. You put it all together!

MJ: What’s next for you?

JF: What’s next for me? Well, I just got back two weeks ago. Still getting over my jetlag. I haven’t read a script. I haven’t picked one up. I need to remember what my life is back in Los Angeles. I have been living in the Middle East for almost half a year. I need a second to breathe and to rest. And to enjoy life right now. I want be back with my family and my friends for awhile. Then I will take a look at something else.

MJ: Thank you so much!

JF: Thank you!

Tyrant’s season finale airs tomorrow on FX

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