As the NBC musical-drama Smash comes to DVD over here in Britain this coming Monday 29th October – The Fan Carpet's Stefan Pape caught up with starring role Raza Jaffrey to discuss the show that has taken American by storm.
Set in New York and covering the build up to a Broadway production of Marilyn Monroe: The Music, we follow the lives of those in the play, to those behind it – and Jaffrey takes on the role of Dev, the politician boyfriend of Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) who is vying for the prestigious role of Monroe.
British born Jaffrey – who has appeared in a number of films and TV shows such as Sex and the City, as well as Harry Brown and Eastern Promises, discusses with us what it takes to break the States, his big musical number in the show and also what it's like to work alongside Steven Spielberg, an executive producer of the show.
So tell us about Smash...
It's about Marilyn Monroe the musical, and a group of people coming together to make this show on Broadway, and it tells the story of these characters so you're involved in their lives from the performers through to the producers and directors and you get a little glimpse into the world of Broadway, with original music from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who brought us Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, and the team behind it, I'm sure you know, but we've got the wonderful Steven Spielberg and Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who did Chicago and lots in between, so it's from a real Broadway pedigree and it's been so well received in the States and we just hope that it happens over here too.
As a British actor, big success in the States is important, but do you value success in Britain more as it's your home crowd, so to speak?
You always want your home country to get behind the show in that way, you always hope for that. Although LA has been my home for the past couple of years, I'm still back and forth to the UK an awful lot and my family and friends are there and also to have a show do well in Britain, you're just in such great company, we still produce some of the best television in the world so to be in that company and given a voice and liked by that audience, it's really important to me.
As for yourself, despite appearing in a host of films such as Harry Brown and Eastern Promises, for example, it seems you do keep coming back to television series – is there a medium you prefer? And what are the key differences for you?
For me in the last few years, to be honest, it's been about where the right roles have come up. I started by doing musicals, and then moved into theatre and then television and film and while I've been able to chop around in all of those mediums, I've been really happy to not have one medium I love more than the other, I just start to miss another one as soon as I get involved in another, I've been to some decent West End shows since being back in England and I miss being on stage as well, but at the same I love television and film as well, but as long as I keep getting work, I'll be happy.
As a British actor it's never easy to break America, but you seem to have managed it with relative ease – you've really come into your element in American productions. Was that something you've always wanted to do – and were you ever worried it might be too difficult a task?
Oh, thank you for saying that. I've spent a lot of time in the States from when I was a kid, and have some great family friends over there and when I went there originally, I think like a lot of British actors who go over there you have to treat it more than the work as to whether it's somewhere you'd be prepared to live for a period of your life, because you're investing your life in being in another country, and I'm happy to say that I have been made to feel so welcome in the States what with the work I've been able to do since going over there. American's are always so lovely to Brits whether you're in LA or New York and anywhere in between, and it's been a real pleasure to be there, I've been really lucky in that I've got to meet some extraordinary people and work on on some extraordinary projects.
You also seem to have become tarred with the ever fortunate brush of being cast in shows as the handsome, sexy Brit – that must help you sleep at night?
I don't mind that! It's funny because originally my character Dev was supposed to be an American boy, and the casting director who also cast Sex and the City of course knew me as a Brit and I went to LA and they decided to make Dev an Englishman, and I was really happy with that choice because it helps set that character apart from the world of Broadway and also it's nice playing a Brit because it makes it a little bit easier for American audiences to fall in love with the character – they do like a British accent over there!
How do you fancy yourself playing an American part? Is your accent up to scratch?
Yeah I might be playing an American soon – so it is something I do, and with the role coming along it's something I love to do.
Going back to Smash, there are a host of hugely talented faces on set – the likes of Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport and Debra Messing to name just three – what's it like working alongside so many talented actors?
It's always one of those thing, you never know when you turn up on set on the first day, you never know how a cast will gel with each other or how they'll get along, and I have to say this has been one of the most memorable jobs I have done, and the cast have really bonded from day one and we have a lot of fun together, seeing each other outside of the show. I think it helps in that most of us all live in LA so find ourselves in New York filming away from home so it's always good being in similar company, but also one of the best things of the cast of Smash is we have such a mixture of experience and newcomers, we have Hollywood royalty in Anjelica Huston, and then you've got the TV work of Debra Messing, alongside the less experienced Megan Hilty and Kat McPhee whose voices just soar in the show and I think they're performances are extraordinary and they turn up on set and do stuff with so little rehearsal and produce these fantastic, big musical sequences, pretty much out of nowhere.
And Kat plays your other half in the show – she's famous in the States for being on American Idol – she really seems to have adapted to the acting side of her career, what's it like to work with her, and just how bright a future do you see for her?
Kat is already a mega star in the States and because of Smash she is now known as much for acting as her singing, I just hope this is the voice for her in the UK and will bring her to English audiences because she is phenomenally talented and although everyone knew she could sing, to do what she is doing performance wise, week-in, week-out, it's something not many in the industry could do, it's a real credit to her, she's wonderful. It's so nice when you turn up on set and someone is on your performance wave-length, particularly when it's someone you've got to do the majority of your scenes with, you've got to know you've got good chemistry with someone and I really enjoy working with Kat, we have a great laugh on set. It's a pleasure to be around her.
Of course Smash is a musical itself and it's about putting on a musical – but does Dev join in with the action and burst into song at all?
Yeah well, I was from a musical theatre background before being cast in the show, and then it was Shaiman and Wittman who had my character in line for a musical number, and I wondered at first how they would get Dev to do that as he's a politician in the show – but it was done so cleverly and it turned out to be the biggest production number we did in the show in the first season. It was great fun to do, we all had a laugh and the final moments of the number the entire cast were involved with it as well, it's a great way of getting Dev to do a song and dance in Smash.
You've mentioned your history in theatre, is that what first attracted you to this role?
I think if i'm honest, the real reason I took on the role was the pedigree of the people involved. Because you never know with a show how it will be received, the most fantastic writing in the world can go by the wayside, in the UK we're far more used to a show being on air and running for one or two series at least, that's what you expect, but in the States you make a pilot and often it's never made into a series so no-one ever sees it, and often if they do decide to make it into a series, it starts running and then just disappear after three or four episodes, so there really is no guarantees. But when you have people like Spielberg and any number of people involved in the pulling together of this production, when you have people like that involved, you know it's going to be given the best possible chance and you know that the character they're making are going to be well enough invested in. So full credit to the writing on that very first pilot episode, because you instantly invest in these 9 main characters and you know something about all of their lives, caring about all of these people after just one episode, just 40 minutes of television. Quite a feat I think.
American TV series certainly seem to be quite a commitment for an actor, as they tend to have 24 episodes a series or so, and run for a number of years – are you prepared for that? That Smash could be something you're doing for a while?
You never know with these things because you know, we all hope for great, great things for Smash, we really do, but you just never know. My hope is that the show continues to be as successful as it has been and yeah I'll be perfectly happy with that.
Obviously the premise is about young talent trying to find fame and success on Broadway – as an actor, is that a theme you can resonate with from the earlier stages of your own career?
Oh absolutely. One of the biggest things that Steven wanted to install in the production from very early on was that the show should have integrity, particularly in those first few episodes when you see the girls struggling to get a part, and then being treated the way they are in rehearsals and auditions, and a lot of that stuff is based on real life, I mean there's no doubt it's heightened drama, but it's based on real life and all of us have those stories of being involved in the workshop production of a new big show. I did it on Bombay Dreams and had it in Mamma Mia as well, I know what it's like to be around those big musicals, and hopefully the production team on both of those shows were a bit kinder to their cast than the production team of Marilyn Monroe The Musical are being on Smash!
When you first started off here in Britain, with roles in Eastenders and Casualty, did you ever envisage you'd one day be the star of a huge, Steven Spielberg produced American drama series?
I always hoped that as an actor I'd work on American shows, because there's something that Smash kind of did when I first watched the pilot that reminded me of those 80's and 90's big American shows, the Saturday evening dramas that we all knew as kids growing up and it's like a love letter to the city and so about that world, and I always wanted to be involved in those shows. Everything from the Starksy and Hutch to any number of shows from that time that were about that, so to be involved in what has become a quite iconic show on American television is a dream come true, and one of the greatest things to come true is getting to meet and work a little with Steven Spielberg, because he is an extraordinary figure in cinema and has been an extraordinary figure in shaping all of our imaginations as kids onwards, so to be around his mind is an extraordinary thing.
Smash is released on DVD on 29 October by Universal Pictures (UK)