Like a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it, actors worry that when they get their big break nobody will notice. That shouldn’t be a problem for Adam Rayner, the English star of FX’s new controversial dramatic series Tyrant, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m.
Created by writer-director Gideon Raff, who’s behind the acclaimed, award-winning Israeli series Prisoners of War, as well as Homeland, the acclaimed, award-winning Showtime series that it inspired, Tyrant has a big-name showrunner and a focus on Middle Eastern culture and politics that is already turning heads because of its relevance, potential for epic familial and national drama, and fears that it may paint Arabs in a negative light.
Rayner, 36, who’s best known in the U.S. for his supporting role in the BBC One/Cinemax spy series Hunted, plays Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed, the half-English son of a dictator who rules over the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abbudin, crushing (and creating) opposition with violence. After 20 years living in self-imposed exile in peaceful California, where Barry works as a pediatrician and has a wife and two kids who know little of his family, he reluctantly returns to his troubled homeland for a wedding, only to be swept up in the personal and political unrest, toward a position of power he did not desire but was perhaps destined to hold.
To better understand the series, Complex spoke to Rayner about the portrayal of Arabs, his playing Middle Eastern as a white Englishman, bias in storytelling, and how he thinks power has personally corrupted him.
What attracted you to the show and the role of Barry al-Fayeed?
Everything. The script was fantastic, the profile of the show, the people involved, and the fact that it was the lead role. And more than anything, the premise of the show. To get characters like this and see this long journey take place where they’re pulled in many different directions with different complexes is why we’re all doing this. It was one of those [roles] that doesn’t come along very often in one’s career, and when it does, you’re not normally in the running for it, so this is a special one. I was astonished and thrilled to even be in the running; it wasn’t a matter of what attracted me to it, it was extraordinary that I was even involved.
The country of Abbudin and the al-Fayeed family are fictional but based on several real-life countries and ruling families in the region. Were there particular individuals who you looked to in researching and developing your character?
Not particularly. The obvious person is [Bashar Hafez] al-Asaad in Syria because he used to be a doctor, an ophthalmologist, so I have read about Syria and I’ve particularly read about his father [Hafez al-Assad], but in terms of characteristics there’s no one who I’ve directly gone out to to base the part on.
In researching Middle Eastern culture, what surprised you most?
How incredibly complex it is. Just when you think you’re getting a grasp on how it all works you’ll read something that’s completely contradictory. And there will be different forces that are pulling against each other—the Shias and the Sunnis, the secular elements and the more religious elements. I was surprised because I knew it was complicated, but it was like a Russian Doll. The more you look into it the more complexities open up, and you begin to realize how difficult it is to solve problems in terms of bringing people together in this region, which is made up of such deeply divided sects and elements.
How does Abbudin being fictional help Tyrant?
The show would be difficult to shoot if it were supposed to be a real country, because then you have to make it look recognizable, and that’s relatively difficult to do. One of the reasons why we’re shooting it in Israel is because of the ease of production here with the industry and the infrastructure. And also, the political controversy that would go along with actually depicting real people, a real place. There have been stories about the house of Hussein, that’s been done. The other advantage is that you can draw elements from all of these countries if you have a fictional country, and you can pick and choose dramatically interesting issues that are in individual countries and allow them into one place. You can present stories more clearly and more interestingly even though they wouldn’t actually exist in one specific country.
If you choose to focus on some of the unpleasant characters and the bad things that happen and say they’re anti-Arab, then you can’t go down that road in any show, otherwise you’re being prejudiced about every character in every show who happens to not be sympathetic.
Do you feel there is a burden on the show because of how it might affect people’s opinions of the region?
You can’t make a show like this without trying to do it in an intelligent and grown-up way, and rightly so. It would be offensive to use it as a backdrop for dramatic storytelling without any sense of responsibility to the reality of the issues involved. Everyone working on Tyrant wants to present the world and the issues in it in an intelligent, open, fair, non-reductive kind of way. For the actors, we have to try and make these stories as truthful and compelling as possible. We can’t bring those judgments to the table at work on a daily basis. Everyone’s talking about that and we’re conscious that the producers making it are interested to do the region and the issues justice.
How do you think that is affected by creator Gideon Raff being Israeli?
I know Gideon pretty well; he loves his country, but he is also extremely level-minded and understanding of the issues in the region. I would hope that you won’t see Israeli bias or anti-Arab sentiment in this show. In writing the script, Gideon is extremely conscious not to present any clichés or anything that could be deemed biased against the Arab world. He’s probably overly conscious of that as an Israeli writer.
So you haven’t seen any of that bias?
No, no. People will make their own judgments about whether the show is anti-Arab, or whatever. I think it’s the reverse, because it’s actually, in a way, addressing the arrogance of contemporary, liberal, Western politics where we think we can come in and solve all the problems in the Middle East, and it’s clearly not that easy. But of course I understand that there are gonna be traumatic situations, there are gonna be good characters and bad characters, and most of them are Arab, but if you choose to focus on some of the unpleasant characters and the bad things that happen and say they’re anti-Arab, then you can’t go down that road in any show, otherwise you’re being prejudiced about every character in every show who happens to not be sympathetic.
Do you have any Middle Eastern heritage yourself?
I do not, that I know of.
Were you concerned about playing another racial, ethnic group?
Well, in the show, Barry has got an English mother, so that mitigates it to some degree. My feeling generally is that if you have to massively change your appearance to play a different race or ethnic group then that’s probably not gonna fly anymore, but we’re not changing my appearance in any way. If it works without you having to put on tons of makeup and change your eye color and stuff like that, then it’s OK.
There’s much more reaction to come when the general public gets to watch the show, but what feedback have you received so far about the series?
Objectively, I can report back to you that people seem to be enjoying it, and seem to be interested in where the story goes. And on a wider level, there are the beginnings of some controversy. There are articles online that are suggesting that it may be another clichéd depiction of some crazy Arab characters behaving badly, so the controversy has started, and I’m sure will continue. [Those articles were] totally speculation. Very few people have seen the show internationally. Those people who’ve seen the pilot—and that includes a group of [people] from the Middle East—have responded pretty well. I hope we don’t disappoint. You just never know what people are gonna respond to, that’s the crazy and infuriating thing, but all I can say is that lots of very experienced, clever, well-paid people are doing their best to get it right, so let’s hope they do.
How has the corrupting nature of power touched you in your own life?
[Laughs.] That’s a good question to ask me now, because this is probably the first time I’ve ever had any. You do have to watch yourself. Being the lead in this show, obviously I’m in a position where I could be unpleasant to people if I wanted to without them being able to do anything about it, and you have to stop yourself if you feel that happening, but let’s not exaggerate it, I don’t have much power in my life so it hasn’t corrupted me much. [Laughs.]
How do you feel you would respond to having the sort of power that Barry does, coming from a ruling family?
[Laughs.] We’d all like to think we’d be terribly reasonable and if only they’d give us the power we could show how easy it is to be very powerful and still remain impartial, and fair, and just, and blah blah blah. But who knows, I would like to think that I’d be a fantastic president and I’d be extremely level-headed, and I’d be very fair and I wouldn’t persecute people, and I’d listen to the people that disagreed with me, and all the rest of it, but who knows. When you are in a position to just ignore the people that don’t like what you’re doing, or lock them up if they start pissing you off, who knows how you’ll react. I’d suspect that lots of people have started with high aspirations and good intentions, and have slowly been drawn down a dark road, so it’s impossible to answer that question. I would not want to be in that position, I think it would be a terrifying life.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)