Monday, September 27, 2021

Interview: Amir Arison Talks Theatre, Directing, ‘The Blacklist’, and More!

Amir Arison, best known for his role as Aram Mojtabai on the long-running NBC drama, The Blacklist, has had a brilliant career that isn’t stopping anytime soon. He has had guest roles on shows such as Girls, Homeland, Billions, Ramy, NCIS, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and more.

He is a natural talent, as well as an award-winning director and producer for two short films: Tati’s Fashion Show, and Fortress (for which he also starred). Amir is heavily involved in theatre, having starred in productions such as “Omnium Gatherum,” “Modern Orthodox,” and “Aftermath,” and he volunteers his time with Broadway for All, Broadway Workshop, Urban Arts Partnership, and Young Arts. Amir is an advocate for Mental Health, Animal Rescue, and Arts Education and was awarded the Mendez Award in 2018 from the Maryland Film Festival, which is given to those who use their platform to give back to the community.

Check out the interview below!

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(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

Nerds and Beyond: So before I get into anything The Blacklist, I wanted to quickly touch on some other aspects of your career. You starred as Hugh Dunnit of the BFI in a series of Butterfinger commercials. How much fun was it to do that project?

Arison: I can’t tell you how much fun I had. When I saw that script I was like: “Oh, this is brilliant.” I just love good comedy. Aram gets to do some comedy on The Blacklist, but that’s primarily a drama. These commercials are pure satire, such fun, silly comedy. People may not know that these 30 second commercials are pulled from a five-minute webisode that’s on the Butterfinger’s Youtube channel. The material is written so well, there were parts of it I did in one take – they just flowed. The writer/director, Tim Piper, has become a friend. I won’t say much, but I think there are more coming with some brilliant ideas.

Butterfinger

Nerds and Beyond: I hope so because I watched it myself, and it was hilarious. I just love the play on words with the names of the characters and things like that. I really enjoyed it, personally.

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Arison: Right! Hugh Dunnit and Ali Byes. When I was a kid I loved watching The Naked Gun and Ace Ventura. And then a little later, I loved Get Smart and The Pink Panther (from back in the day). When you cross those with Law and Order: SVU, or the most hard-nosed crime cases, it’s brilliant. Tim nailed it… I love those shows, so to be able to kind of play into that, which is not something I get to do all the time, I just really enjoyed it. I just felt like a kid again, really playful.

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. And it’s fun to play those roles too because you could just kind of have the freedom to just do your thing, have fun, and be imaginative in a sense. So you’ve been involved in several stage productions, and some theater actors would argue the environments and components in which you act are different. What has being a theatre actor taught you, and what lessons do you bring with you when filming TV or movies?

Arison: A lot of students have asked me that question… in terms of approach, and in terms of the goal, I think it’s the same: you want to tell the truth. Of course, technically, they’re a little bit different. And the experience of doing them is different. My background is in theatre; drama club and plays since I was in the third grade. And then in New York, when I graduated from college, I continued doing Off-Broadway plays before slowly trickling into TV. It was when I made that transition that I found that TV, in some ways, was where I felt most at home. I mean, theatre is also home, and because I was trained in theatre before I started doing TV, I prepare in a similar way. One of the most important things that you don’t have a lot of in television is rehearsal. Before a scene in television, all the characters that are in the scene, and the director, and the script supervisor get together and read the words. [imitating the director/script supervisor] “Does anyone have any questions about the words or the scene?”, and then the director kind of sketches out where the blocking is, where we all go, and we talk about that for a second. And then we run that, and everyone’s like, “Alright, cool,” and then they invite the crew back in to lay marks, to finish lighting,  getting ready, etc… And then you come back and, if you’re lucky, you run it one more time before they roll the cameras. You may not even get a full rehearsal. So sometimes, I go to my dressing room (when it’s a really complicated scene where I may have a lot to say, or there’s a whole range of things that happen, blocking wise, or emotionally) and I’ll just run it a few times, knowing that I may not get all the time that I’d like on set. So that’s one thing I took from theatre is… [with] theatre, you can rehearse a play for four, to six, to eight weeks. Here, you get to rehearse the scene maybe once, so I have to create my own rehearsal time.

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think a lot of fans, when they watch the show, as well, just even plays too, I think they appreciate that vulnerability, and that realistic aspect of it because I think it connects with them more.

Arison: The most exciting thing that I think happens in acting is when something happens that you don’t plan. Because the goal is to be present. But I also teach that in order to be present, you have to do all your preparation. It’s almost like you want to build the choice: You want to build the beams and the structure of the house, so you know what’s going on, you know where all the rooms are. But then when you get in there, you might go to a different room, or it might feel a little different. And when you end up in a different place than you thought you were but you’re still in that same house… it can be very exciting. And the cool thing with film is that it captures these nuances. Of course, listening is key…and when the actor you’re opposite does something different and you unconsciously respond to it, it can be really alive. I find that to be absolutely thrilling, but it’s not messy or sloppy, it’s still inside the confines of very specific choices within the writing and your preparation – the house you built. That’s when I think things jump off the page and hopefully through the screen in ways I could never have predicted.

Nerds and Beyond: So speaking of your students, I know you’re a huge advocate for Arts Access and Education, and you work really closely with young, impressionable actors. So what do you feel is the most fundamental lesson to instill in them?

Arison: One thing that I tell all actors, whether their focus is in stage, television, musicals, or any medium… is that there’s no substitute for preparation. Preparation, preparation, preparation. I figured this out when I was auditioning for something in my early 20’s: I was nervous… and I said to my friend, “I don’t know if they’re gonna like me, if I’m making the right choice.” And my friend said, “The only thing you can control is how much you prepare. You can’t control if they’re going to cast you… if they want someone taller, shorter, a different age, anything… or if they already have an offer out to a big movie star, you can’t control if they cut you off, if they interrupt you… the only thing you control is your preparation”. Once I heard that I felt a lot freer. So basically, the only thing that keeps me up at night is not if I don’t get the part… the only thing keeping me up is if I feel I didn’t do my best…and one of the ways you know you’ve done your best is if you’ve prepared as much as you can. That preparation will carry you through nerves and through the little “mistakes”. Although, I believe those mistakes in the moment can be gifts. When I auditioned for Blacklist, the reader kind of went off the script and jumped the line and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll go back.” And I just said, “Oh, it’s no problem. I’m waiting for this to download,” and just improvised as Aram. And she looked and laughed, and I kept going, “Ready when you are”. It was so fun. So, that mistake was a gift. And I was able to stay loose because I was prepared. That was something spontaneous that happened; the preparation allowed me to remain open to the moment. 

Nerds and Beyond: (laughs)

Arison: Preparation is the only thing in our control. It’s very freeing. If you don’t get the part it can be tough, it can be heartbreak, but that’s okay, because you know you’ve done your best. Anyway, I hope that answers it. 

Nerds and Beyond: It does. No, it was perfect… I feel like that’s a good life lesson too. Not just for acting, but just preparing for things in life. But sometimes you have little happy accidents and they make for–

Arison: YES, totally! This reminds me, there are a few things I make sure to get across to the students. Beyond preparation, I always say remain positive. The only person that can get in my way is me. It’s a tough business, it’s a tough world out there; there’s a lot of negativity, there can be egos, there can be difficult things, unforeseen challenges wherever you go. If you let them get to you, then you can throw yourself off…you have to find a way to remain positive…and if it feels almost insurmountable, you can sometimes let it fuel you…almost inject new motivation.  Energy is kinetic: bad energy or one’s own fearful/anxious energy can be transformed. 

Nerds and Beyond: So not only have you acted, but you’ve also directed and produced as well. So one of the projects I wanted to talk about was Fortress Which you did in 2016, I believe?

Arison: Yeah. Thank you.

Nerds and Beyond: How did that project or how did that opportunity present itself to you? Was it something you had worked on for a long time or how did that come about?

ARAMZ

Arison: It was originally a one-act play by Anna Ziegler, a wonderful playwright who is now working in television and film as well. And I was offered the acting role: it was a couple on a date, a one-act play that was maybe 10 pages long, and it was going to be performed in a small theatre…But I had a scheduling conflict. So ultimately, the schedule didn’t work out, and I couldn’t do it. However, I also couldn’t get the story and the characters out of my head and I kept visualizing it… I kept seeing the beginning and the ending, the frame of the shot, the intention, the turn…So I called the playwright and I said, “Anna, I’m so bummed that I couldn’t do it, but I can’t get your one-act out of my mind. I think I want to make a short film”. And I was looking to make my first short film, I’d been wanting to get into on-camera directing and this just made sense, and she’s like, “Oh, okay, what does that mean?”… So I gave her some ideas and some notes to adapt it for the screen. She came back, we went back and forth, and once we felt like we had the script… we made it. I pulled together production from some crew members and friends on The Blacklist and from things I had worked on previously. I didn’t necessarily intend to act in it. But I was so passionate, and I knew exactly what I wanted out of the role…and so the first film I directed, I also produced and acted in, which was a tall order for my first film… but again, the thing that carried me through was preparation. I remember I was like, “Okay, now I’m preparing as a producer,” and then I put that hat down, “Now I’ve got to focus in as a director.” And then I realized, I’d been working so hard on those two things and the shoot was coming up, I hadn’t really fully memorized the piece, and done all my acting prep work. So I remember I was on a plane to LA and I just shut everything else down in my mind and just looked at it as though it was a script I was offered. It all worked out, all three parts of my brain would fire separately when needed and the producer in me knew what the director needed and so forth… I felt so alive when we were shooting it, and then I loved working with my editor. It just became such a joy to story-tell in that way, and so that’s how it came to be. That’s my first short film.

Nerds and Beyond: And you won awards too for that, by the way.

Arison: Oh yeah, thank you. (both laugh)

Nerds and Beyond: I was going to say, I mean–

Arison: It did. It did alright in the festival circuit. It’s funny… I really wanted to get the screenplay, and Sarah Wharton who played opposite me, who was extraordinary, and Anna, who wrote it… I really wanted to get them awards. Sarah got nominated once, the short got nominated a few times, but my character kept getting actor accolades. I really went in service of experiencing my first short film as a director and loving my collaborators. It was a pleasant surprise that I got recognized as an actor, a reminder of how special a role it was that spoke to me the very first time I read it.  

Nerds and Beyond: Yeah, absolutely. Another project I wanted to talk about with you is Tati. She seems like a very sweet little girl. So you directed her short film Tati’s Fashion Show, you worked closely with Angelight Films, and its founder Stephanie Angel. So what was that experience like working with Stephanie to bring Tati’s dream to fruition? And will this be addressed in the documentary?

Angelight Films

Arison: Yes. I met Stephanie Angel actually on the set of The Blacklist. She was a script supervisor on season three, and we became pals. She introduced me to her nonprofit called Angelight Films, which works with kids that have, or have had, a brain or spinal cord tumor, to make a short film about anything they want… and she asked me if I would direct one. I thought it was right in line with my belief in Arts Access and Education and my personal desire to direct more. I also realized: I’ve been working with young artists that may not have access to opportunities in arts programming  –  but it hadn’t occurred to me that sick kids don’t get that, either. I hadn’t thought about that. And I said, “Oh my god, of course! Tati is in the hospital, she doesn’t have a chance to go to rehearsal or acting class, or work on a film.” So I got to work with her while she was in and out of the hospital during chemo, to develop her short film… and then once she was well enough and her blood counts were high enough, we got to shoot her film. She wanted to do a fashion show. I called a lot of my designer friends, and people I’ve worked with… her favorite actor is Raven-Symoné, and I did a pilot with Raven-Symoné ages ago, so I had Raven call her to talk about acting…I then got a friend to bring her to New York Fashion Week with her mom so she could see what fashion runway is like in person. The journey was extraordinary, culminating with her full fashion show that we shot… everything was in service of her imagination. And we had designers come in like, “Oh, wouldn’t you like the bow to be bigger?”. She was like, “I like this size” – It was something that she was in control of, and it really got the family to rally! The day we filmed her fashion show was probably the best day of my life. Sort of a culmination of philosophies I have about both creating and service — all together. I had three cameras going for the fashion show, and I had four roving cameras documenting the whole thing –  everybody had an assignment. So I was directing seven cameras and a crew, and these four girls (Tati, her sister, and two of her friends – none of whom had never acted before)… it was just beyond special. And most importantly, I wanted them to enjoy it and feel satisfied with the experience. Going back to the documentary… when I started working with Tati I said, “I think I want to document this experience of an eight year old’s creativity, while also tracking her health and family life.” And seeing if there’s a correlation between creativity and her making this fashion show, and how that affects her health and her family life. And I feel like I just stumbled into a miracle. Her family was so open… she has a single mom, a single mom to four girls, they’re in a tough neighborhood, they have a lot of obstacles, and they’re just so extraordinary. Her mom has always said, “You’ve just got to go with the flow, make the best of situations…” And I’ve been working on this doc for three years. It’s changing my life.  We’re mostly done with filming at this point. 

So yes, Tati’s Fashion Show, the entire process of it, is one of the centerpieces of the documentary, and yes, hopefully you will be able to see their journey. The fashion show has also won a few awards… it’s really exciting. And part of the vision of the doc is that once it’s done, she goes to film festivals and we film her… with other filmmakers and adults, getting her film badge and going up and talking about it. Thank you for asking.

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. And I… honestly, it’s really inspiring to just to see a little girl’s dream come true. I think it’s just a wonderful thing that you and Stephanie were doing, and everybody that was involved in the project, and Angelight Films as well. So according to the Tati Documentary site, did you and Stephanie create your own production company, Willmohr Street? Is that correct?

Arison: Yeah. So Stephanie had Angelight films, which is her nonprofit to make short films, but we had to create a new entity to make the documentary. So we created Willmohr Street Productions, inspired by Tati and her mom Shevorn. The goal is to create extraordinarily positive content. And so that’s where that came from.

Nerds and Beyond: And that sounds amazing. I’m looking forward to anything coming off of that production company. I think that’ll be wonderful…

Arison: I mean it’s our first film, we have a ways to go… Stephanie and I have other jobs and lives… we’re working hard whenever we have the time with some amazing people who have volunteered to help us. And we have a lot of ideas for future content, but we want to see Tati: The Documentary through to its fruition before we begin other projects.

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. So speaking of positivity, I think you and I have talked about this a little bit, but you have your own YouTube channel… you have a series called Positive Peeps, where you talk to those that you’re inspired by, or that have given back in some way. So why do you feel it’s important to use your platform to bring awareness to these topics and what inspires you to maintain your positivity?

Arison: Thank you for asking. One of the things I didn’t expect from The Blacklist  was the platform it has allowed me. So I honed in on things that personally matter to me: Arts Access and Education, Animal Rescue, and Mental Health Awareness. Three things that absolutely affected and changed my life for the better. And in working on Tati: The Documentary, some people were like, “We love what you’re doing, how do we do what you’re doing?” And I kept getting feedback that I wasn’t expecting about service and its impact. Then the Covid pandemic hit, and it was a frightening time and news cycle, I just wanted to put out as much positive content as I could. So, I decided to create a sort of conversation series. After not knowing the name for a while, it was originally just a conversation series about giving, creating, and thus – healing. It is now called ‘Positive Peeps’ after curating a few of my guests –  people that I’ve just sort of collected in my life who I have found to be extraordinarily positive. One guy I met sitting next to at a basketball game, and my most recent guest I met through The Blacklist, her name is Alexandria Wailes. She was my ASL teacher for when Aram had to do four pages of sign language. 

Nerds and Beyond: Yes!

Arison: She is an artist, a teacher, a director and actor, a dancer and a choreographer, and she also happens to be deaf.

Nerds and Beyond: Wow.

Arison: She is so amazing and positive. And I was like, she can’t hear the way we hear, and yet she’s a choreographer. I thought, “This is extraordinary,” and so I asked if she would be a guest, she said yes. Actually there is also another Blacklist connection: the one after Alex is going to be Angie Johnson, she’s the head of the hair department on The Blacklist…She works crazy hours on The Blacklist, and on the weekend she’s volunteering to work with adults with autism; over her summers, she went to Costa Rica, she went to Uganda, she helps out in her hometown in Newell, Iowa…this woman just gives her time to service when she’s not working. And I realized that with Tati, what was helping me so much was that I was doing a creative thing, I was working on a short film and a documentary, but it was also in service to help this young girl and in turn, it felt like it was helping this family, but really, I also discovered it was helping me. So I was like, “Wow, if you create, or if you give, you can really heal.” So I realized that people get into ruts in life… clinical or otherwise, but there are these things anyone can do really, just specific tangible things you can do; you can give, and it doesn’t have to be out of your pocketbook. If you don’t have the funds to give, you can give your time. Go volunteer somewhere… and the benefits are limitless. And the other thing you can do, if you’re just in your home, during pandemic…wherever it is you are, you can write a poem, start planting a garden, take up an instrument, start a book club – just create. And both of these things I realized are things that you do to get outside of yourself, outside of your own head, outside of your own existence, and you connect to a larger purpose, which can be enormously healing. So as I’ve come across people who sort of live by those tenets… either intentionally or unintentionally, they are either creating something or giving something, often both… I started to see a pattern that they have all been through some extraordinary obstacle, and yet they’re some of the most positive peeps I know. The webseries is growing and there are things in the works, and hopefully more people get to see it because I’m proud of it. It’s inherently rewarding. 

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. Okay, so I’m going to switch gears a little bit. Let’s get into some Blacklist (at the time of this interview, episode 8×21 had not yet aired). So, so far this season, we’ve seen the team and Aram go through many ups and downs as they try to just salvage the situation between Liz and Red, as well as coming to terms with Liz’s now darker path. Do you think Aram will ever come to forgive Liz for all that she’s done? And do you think she can be redeemed?

Will Hart/NBC

Arison: Well, for those who saw episode 8×20…when Liz is in the box, and Aram comes to her and he says that he thought there were two Liz’s: He thought there was “good Liz” his friend, and “bad Liz” who’s done these dark things… And Aram says he realizes that she’s really been dark all along, ‘good Liz’ was an illusion. So as you can see, Aram has hit rock bottom with his friend. And it’s really hard for him to fathom because I think Aram’s strength is also his weakness: his heart on his sleeve. So that’s where he’s at in some ways, but also at the end of the episode when the box got lifted away…

(both laugh)

Nerds and Beyond: Yes.

Arison: He’s worried about her, and Panabaker says, “They’re gonna scrub her and this task force,” and ultimately when push comes to shove…Aram loves her like a sibling, like a best friend. And it’s in Aram’s nature to forgive; I don’t think he can hold a grudge, and I think he probably thinks even the worst of us are redeemable. He believes in the best of humanity. So even when he’s absolutely heartbroken or devastated, I do always think he has a light at the end of that tunnel. Now, I don’t want to give anything away about what’s coming in the finale, but there is one line in episode 8×20 that’s one of my favorite lines from the series when Aram says: “I’m a firm believer that perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Oh my God, when I read that line, I was like, (gasps) that’s how I feel… I was like, wow. I just loved it…and then of course, Aram says, “but I have a really bad feeling about this”… So for Aram who believes that perpetual optimism is a force multiplier, to then say “I have a really bad feeling,”…that’s not good, but it’s still really defining of his character. I don’t know, there were a couple episodes where I said, “Well, maybe Reddington will circle back and help us with this case.” And Ressler said, “I’ll be sure to tell Cooper like…”

Nerds and Beyond: Oh, debrief! “I’ll make sure to put your optimism in the debrief to Cooper.”

Arison: Yeah!…and I look at Park, I’m like, “Right?” And then another time Cooper is like, “Do you really believe that?” I go, “No, but just trying to stay optimistic here.” So not unlike me, Aram hangs on to whatever optimism he can, even when it seems there’s none to be found. It may sometimes be a weakness as an FBI agent, his heart, but I ultimately believe it’s a total strength in the long run.

Nerds and Beyond: I agree. I think Aram’s optimism, I think it, like you’re saying, it brings this light to the show. In such an intense show, I think having those moments of happiness or of optimism, really, really inspires the fans to just be like Aram. If he can be positive in some of the worst situations, so can I.

Arison: Every now and then Aram can’t be positive…when Samar was taken away from him, when she had the traumatic brain injury, and as Liz is going down this path during Season 8. You know things are really bad when Aram loses his optimism, but it seems to always come back. Somehow.

Nerds and Beyond: In thinking back over the course of this season, does a particular moment stand out to you of Aram’s that you’re proud of? Or anything that stands out to you?

Arison: Well, I must say, one of the hardest things I’ve been tasked with in my career was being given four and a half pages of American Sign Language. And I’ll just admit, I don’t know ASL or any sign language.  I’ve always been fascinated with it; at one time in college, I wanted to study it but they didn’t offer the class. I had about four weeks to prep for the scene… and it wasn’t like a few lines, it wasn’t like a single page, AND it was for both characters. I’m…

Nerds and Beyond: Yeah.

Arison: …Signing for Red and his long paragraphs and the charming, scary, direct way that Raymond Reddington can handle scenes… as well as speaking for the wonderful actor Bob Hiltermann that The Blacklist had cast, who also happens to be deaf… I thought that was great, by the way, that they were able to hire an awesome actor who’s deaf for a deaf role. Authenticity makes a difference. So, I was doing everyone’s dialogue, including my own: I was speaking for Bob, speaking for me, and signing for Red. And I also had to be believable as an interpreter, who has to be absolutely fluent and efficient in sign language. The scene required multiple levels of undercover acting.

Nerds and Beyond: Right.

Arison: Aram is an FBI agent… An FBI agent that is embedded into The Wellstone Agency, plus he has no idea why Red is there in the beginning of the scene, and Red is saying in the scene that Bob has a mole and that the mole is an interpreter. And Aram doesn’t know what’s going on, but he has to keep signing, hoping. And then I’m literally speaking about a mole that I am, and yet have to maintain the cover even while a gun is pulled on me…so there’s multiple levels of the scene that are truly unique and challenging enough, and then you add ASL throughout the whole thing, it was definitely the most preparation I’ve done for anything in my career.  

Nerds and Beyond: It was incredible.

Arison: Thank you! That’s where I met Alexandria, who I mentioned as one of my most recent guests for “Positive Peeps.” And when we would work over Zoom,  we would work in silence. Sometimes when there was a communication gap, we would type in the chat. I found it to be daunting and extraordinary, relaxing almost, and I woke up signing and reviewing, and I went to sleep signing and reviewing every day. It’s the hardest I’ve prepared for a television scene and I was so inspired by it, that I began to study sign language after-  I took a beginner six week ASL course. I’ve dipped my toe into the American Sign Language and Deaf community and I am enjoying it so much…so that would probably be the most personal thing that has affected me in the course of this season. I mean, I could talk a lot about Aram, and you know…Aram and Agnes and Liz…

Nerds and Beyond: I know, aw.

Arison: So much to talk about, there’s a lot this season. But in terms of me personally, it was really Alexandria and that scene, and I can’t believe the writers entrusted me with that. I just wanted every second to feel truthful.

Nerds and Beyond: I’m thinking now, how you were saying you had to do not only Red’s dialogue, Bob’s dialogue, your own dialogue… but you have to remember the scripts and the signs too that go along with it. So I mean…

Arison: And for Aram to be scared, but not show he’s scared and confused, because he has to maintain his undercover role.

Nerds and Beyond: Right. There are so many layers.

Arison:  Oh, my goodness, it was like…how in the world am I gonna do this… But I became friends with Bob and Alex, and Bob had an interpreter on set as well. They were all so supportive and collaborative. It was just a really, really special experience.

Thank you to Amir for chatting with us! Make sure to catch Amir Arison as Aram Mojtabai when The Blacklist returns for season 9 on October 21, 2021!

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Kailey
Kailey has been a writer for Nerds and Beyond since 2018. She received her bachelors degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders in May of 2020. Some of her favorite TV shows are The Blacklist, Supernatural, and Prodigal Son, to name a few. She also loves all things Disney! You can check her out on social media @kaileygross.

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