Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Blacklist season 9, episode 9, "Boukman Baptiste."
In its latest episode, titled "Boukam Baptiste," The Blacklist took another trip to the past by exploring how Raymond Reddington's (James Spader) former right-hand man Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq) became Agent Zuma. We find out that after Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) died, Red checked out, leaving Dembe to step up and keep things going. During that time, the son of the man attacking Red was accidentally killed, and that tragic mistake sent Dembe on the road to the FBI.
To make matters more complicated, Red blames Dembe for Liz's death. He believes his right-hand man let his guard down, which allowed Liz's killer to find her, while Dembe believes she was found with cellphone tracking data. The episode ends with the former allies starting to make amends after they discover that data actually suggests someone else led Liz's killer to her, adding a whole new mystery to The Blacklist.
Coming off of a compelling episode for his character, we spoke to star Hisham Tawfiq about filling in the blanks of Dembe's journey, officially being part of the task force, and his deep bond with Red.
Will Hart/NBC Hisham Tawfiq as Dembe Zuma
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction to finding out Dembe would become an FBI agent?
HISHAM TAWFIQ: Last season, there was an episode where Harold Cooper [Harry Lennix] and myself have a discussion about him thinking I would be a great fit if Dembe joined the task force. There was a hint of it back then, but I didn't know if they would follow through with it. Then, when I found out at the beginning of the season, I was excited because it was a whole new dynamic, and it lived up to my excitement.
Watching Dembe give a briefing is exciting! What is it like for you to be in scenes at The Post Office as part of the task force?
[Dembe] went from not saying anything to now downloading the team about the Blacklister or whoever it is we're going after because he has the information they need through Red's contacts or having a conversation with Red. It was challenging and a little nerve-racking at first. I remember the first time I stood in the War Room, and I had to say all those lines. It tripped me up a bit, but I got used to it. I had the foresight to make sure I got a coach this season, and she's been fantastic preparing me for this.
Throughout the series, Dembe and Reddington have such a deep bond that is tested like never before in season 9. What has it been like to take the dynamic you built with James Spader to this new place?
There's another layer on that because it's a bit weird personally and professionally. I don't see James as much as I used to, and when I do, our characters are bumping heads. It took me a while to get used to it after eight seasons of being next to him. Being separated and navigating these conversations, we now are no longer along the lines of encouraging him or being Red's moral compass.
From his devotion to Red, to how Daniel's death changed the trajectory of his life, and more, Dembe is someone who feels things deeply. What is it like for you to play a character like this?
It's not as hard as some would imagine because it started with the creation of this character. [Dembe] came on for one episode and didn't have any lines. I was allowed the freedom to create this character based on my personal experience. From my relationship with my mother and father, being in the fire department to being a Marine, I was able to craft this character. A lot of that work was done in seasons 1 and 2, and I have been able to layer on top of it.
Can you share your thoughts about the powerful conversations Dembe has with his daughter and Cooper about his choice to join the FBI as a Black man?
I had talked to [creator Jon Bokenkamp and executive producer John Eisendrath] about those types of conversations, and again, a lot of that went back to my personal experiences. Before I was a New York City firefighter, I was a New York State Correction Officer. Being a Black man and being a correction officer, especially when you live in the city, that was a job you never really told people you had. It was a strange dynamic where people in jail would look at me as a sellout and the enemy. And then on the outside, sometimes friends and family would do the same thing, so I was always caught in the middle because I was just trying to provide for my family and do this job. It was the same at the fire department, where I think 2 percent of the department was African American when I joined.
I always had these personal conversations with people around me about jobs I did, so when Dembe had this conversation with his daughter, it fell in line with a lot of these conversations I've had all my life. I was excited to see that discussed on [TV] because these are things that happen in many households that I know.
Dembe has a positive relationship with Harold and Aram, but his relationship with Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) is new in season 9. What has developing that dynamic been like this season?
Especially with Elizabeth's death, I think [Ressler] holds Red accountable for that, and Dembe's falls in line also. The writers did an excellent job having [them] navigate the waters of Dembe, accepting that Ressler doesn't trust him and hoping that his actions will speak louder than his words. It's a fascinating pairing because I never really got to work with Diego, so that was the first time we got to work together, and we joked about being Lethal Weapon type of guys. It's a push-and-pull relationship.
It's not in this episode, but I really love how it all comes together down the line where you'll see not only Dembe's relationship with Ressler come full circle ,but everybody in the task force.
Do you think working together to find answers to the lingering questions about Liz's death can help mend Red and Dembe's strained relationship?
Absolutely. With this episode, we'll show you that it is highly likely, because [Dembe and Red] understand now that they were both at fault. Also, now there's a bigger mountain to climb, and they have to do it together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Blacklist airs Thursdays at 8pm ET on NBC.
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