Raza Jaffrey’s Season with Marilyn

Published February 3, 2012

ABOVE: RAZA JAFFREY (LEFT) WITH KATHARINE MCPHEE IN SMASH. PHOTO COURTESY OF NBC UNIVERSAL

After suffering through years of fourth-place finishes, NBC primetime has set its sights on the invigorating Smash to save the network from ratings purgatory. Produced by Hairspray writers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (with no less than Steven Spielberg), Smash follows the many egos, dance steps, and tantrums it takes to create a musical based on the story of Marilyn Monroe. While the show features familiar names like Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, the cast is also full of newcomers to American dramatic TV. Alongside former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee and Broadway powerhouse Megan Hilty is Raza Jaffrey, of the late, beloved UK television show MI-5. While the rest of the cast is constantly buzzing about at full speed, Jaffrey remains cool under pressure as McPhee’s boyfriend and City Hall spokesman. We caught up with Jaffrey to ask about his move to the US and how TV imitates life.

GILLIAN MOHNEY: Smash has been buzzed about for so long. What was it like for you when you were first working on it?

RAZA JAFFREY: When we were doing the pilot, no one quite knew what it really was. It’s been an exploration for everyone involved. In addition from everything else, it’s incredibly ambitious. Everyone thinks with Smash, because it looks glossy and big, they think they’re spending a fortune and they think it’s taking weeks to shoot. But it’s not, it’s being done in eight days… Those two girls, Megan and Kat, are just unbelievable. Most of us in the cast have done musicals before and know what it is to do stuff quickly. But this is unbelievably fast for those girls—to learn whole numbers—it’s bad enough for most of us to learn script dialogue.

MOHNEY: After working on the project for so long, what was it like when you first saw it on screen? 

JAFFREY: You know, there’s been some comparisons with Glee and stuff. Without shows like Glee, I don’t think this would have been as accepted as an idea. But when you watch it, I don’t think you mind that the numbers happen where they happen… I quite like the final sequence of the pilot where the two girls are having sing-off essential. You get swept up in it. It makes the show bigger than the sum of its parts, in a way.  It makes it epic.

MOHNEY:  The show is a great love letter to New York.

JAFFREY: There was talk for a while of potentially being an LA show, but I’m glad it’s not because it’s an ode to New York in many ways, really. It sets the tone a bit, which is nice.

MOHNEY: It seems wrong to do a show about Broadway in Los Angeles.

JAFFREY: It’s funny, someone was telling me that apparently [the] theaters in downtown Los Angeles are absolutely extraordinary. It’s the highest concentration of unused theaters anywhere in the world. Actually, they could have just bought a couple of theaters for 50 cents.

MOHNEY: This show reveals so much about what it’s like to deal with brutal callbacks and rehearsals. Is it odd to see something on screen that you’ve had to deal with as an actor?   

JAFFREY: I’m sure all of us in it draw on that all the time, because we’ve all been in those rooms. We know what it’s like. When I did musicals in London a number of years ago, I was in a workshop scenario for a year or more with Bombay Dreams. [It was like] am I doing it, am I not doing it? Those kinds of things really, really happen.

MOHNEY: You’ve got an amazing ensemble cast, but how much are you able to work with everyone when you’re supposed to be at City Hall all day?

JAFFREY: Most of my stuff is with Kat. It’s a treat. It’s such a relief, really. When you turn up for work, especially with looking down the barrel of a show, you’re hoping the person you’re acting opposite of is going to be on your kind of crazy wavelength. [Kat] really is. She’s just wonderful. She’s got such a natural charm. Again, both of those girls, apart from being invested in it, they’re just happy to be doing and getting on with it. When you’re opposite that and see how hard those two girls work… It’s not difficult to do your job.

MOHNEY: After being on stage for a few years and then doing TV, what’s it like doing a TV show that’s a bit of both?

JAFFREY: I really miss being on stage an awful lot. I’m understanding why for the first time, really. Every fiber of you is used in a way. One of the nice things about Smash is it just feels like you’re being properly used again.

MOHNEY: They’ve got posters all over the place for this show—do you ever get recognized next to a giant poster of yourself?

JAFFREY: What’s funny is that I’ve done TV shows in the UK, and some of them just started airing out here and I was getting [recognized for MI-5.] It always happens in the most unlikely places. I doubt people have cottoned onto Smash yet, but I’ll let you know.

MOHNEY: Probably will be a slightly different audience, though.

JAFFREY: Maybe people will start singing at us on the subway or something. Or do an audition piece for me.

MOHNEY: There was talk that if the show is successful, the actual Marilyn show within the show could be put on Broadway.

JAFFREY: I think if that happens, it will be something that happens years and years down the line. In the meantime, we’re just hoping that people watch. If they do, then that would be something to think about. Certainly there’s material.

MOHNEY: How has it been making a transition to US television and living in the US in general? 

JAFFREY: Work aside, I think would have ended up in the US, because I like being here a lot, I really do.  

MOHNEY: Has there been anything surprising?

JAFFREY: I’m amazed at how misunderstood I am! But you can just see how certain things just creep into your language… I would naturally say “line” [rather than “queue”], and I go back home for Christmas, and I say something about a line and it’s like, “Who do you think you are? Using that?” It gets in your system, so maybe it’s good I’m playing an English guy at the moment.

MOHNEY: Anything you enjoy about shooting in New York specifically? 

JAFFREY: How wonderful New Yorkers are about letting us film in the streets here. In the UK, it’s a lot more closed set. Here there isn’t really the space to do that. We’re filming in and amongst the public on the streets of Manhattan. I love that to New Yorkers it’s the most normal thing in the world and no one gives a damn. It’s the British tourists who are leaning in and looking.

SMASH PREMIERES MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6 AT 10 PM ON NBC.