Silent Stardom? For "Blacklist" actor, that was a start


Most of us have trouble handling one job. Then there's Hisham Tawfiq, the actor, firefighter and ex-Marine -- a guy who's good at dialog and at silences. He's in "The Blacklist," which has a strong season-opener Thursday (Oct. 1); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Life keeps giving
Hisham Tawfiq new duties.

He's fought fires,
fought soldiers, guarded prisoners. He's been on stage, offering big
bursts of dialog; he's been on TV, saying absolutely nothing.

That's where most
people first saw him – on “The Blacklist” as Dembe Zuma, Red's
silent bodyguard. “There were no lines,” he recalled. “It was
just being a presence.”

These days,
“Blacklist” has lines and emotions for everyone. As the third
season begins, Liz (framed for murders) and Red are on the run ...
and Dembe has a separate crisis.

But even in the
early days, Tawfiq said, he enjoyed the acting exercise of “working
with the silences.” And from the beginning, he said, James Spader
(who stars as Red) seemed interested.

“A lot of A-list
actors don't really have a conversation with you, but he always did,”
Tawfiq said. “We had a really interesting conversation, just about
my background.”

It's definitely a
unique one: Even now, as a regular on a hit show, Tawfiq is a New
York firefighter. Before that, he was a soldier in Desert Storm and a
guard at Sing Sing.

Tawfiq, 39, grew up
in Harlem during its tough years. “In the '70s and '80s, hard times
had taken over,” he said. “It was almost like a zombie town.”

His dad – a Muslim
minister who had worked with Malcolm X – kept a close eye on the
five brothers. At 6-foot and 205 pounds, Tawfiq focused on football
and theater, at least for a while.

“When I was in
high school, my father passed away ... and I lost a little of my
focus,” he said. “I knew I had to get away from there.”

That led to the
Marines, the prison job and firefighting. By combining some of those,
he'll be eligibe for retirement in 2016; in the meantime, he juggles
jobs. “That's the beautiful thing about (being a firefighter); I
have the flexibility to work different shifts.”

Patching together
his vacations and his days off, he's had an alternate life. He
studied with the Negro Ensemble Theatre, steeped in history; “Denzel
Washington came to our graduation.” He acted with the Arkansas
Repertory Theatre and subsequently married the daughter of one of the
“Little Rock Nine” who brought integration to Central High

He did big roles
onstage – including the lead in “A Raisin in the Sun” -- and
tiny ones on film. Then he was cast in the second “Blacklist”
episode; “it was only supposed to be for one episode.”

Instead, he's been
in virtually every episode ... eventually getting lines and a back
story. He juggled his schedule to keep busy. “When I do have a day
or two off, I feel like I should be doing something.”

Maybe he could just
be a silent presence somewhere. He has experience at that, you know.

“The Blacklist,”
9 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, with season-opener Oct. 1


The sloth-ful life is TV worthy

It makes sense, I guess, for a guy who watches a lot of television to write a story about sloths. Now these creatures -- heroes to sofa people everywhere -- have their primetime moment on two Wednesdays, Sept. 23 and 30. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The worlds rarely
speaks kindly of sloths. It considers them slow, sleepy and ... well,

This is the only
animal to bear the name of one of the seven deadly sins. (No, “a
pride of lions” doesn't count.) And Sam Trull – featured in a new
PBS film – says that's a bad rap.

“They are
absolutely not lazy,” she said. “They're efficient. They need to
conserve energy. They have the lowest muscle mass of any mammal and
their diet doesn't bring in a lot of calories.”

In short, they could
be a symbol for many low-muscle-mass humans, needing a good excuse.

Trull is featured in
a two-part “Nature's Miracle Orphans” film, focusing on a surge
in the survival of young animals. “The success rate often comes
down to the tireless work of individual caregivers at animal rescue
centers around the world,” said Fred Kaufman, producer of the
“Nature” series.

Those range afar.
“We have some great characters in Australia,” said Mark Wheeler,
producer of the film. “We have a lady who looks after orphaned
fruit bats.”

But the primary
focus is on Trull in Costa Rica, where she's become attached to
sloths – literally.

There is almost
nothing she hasn't done while a sloth was clinging to her, she says,
and that habit has solid benefits for the sloths. They are:

-- “Getting warmth
... directly toward their stomachs, which is a very important spot
for a sloth.”

-- Becoming secure.
“They need to feel safe and comfortable, in order to learn ... and

-- Building muscles.
“They come out of the womb being able to cling onto their moms.”

This role as a
substitute mom started more than half her life ago. Trull, 34, got
her first animal-care job at 16, majored in zoology at Duke and added
a Master's Degree in primate conservation.

“I'm a little bit
of a traitor, because now I totally work with sloths, who are not
primates,” she said. “But ... the first time I met a sloth, I
fell in love. They're amazing.”

In Costa Rica, she's
worked for privately funded groups – KSTR (Kids Saving the
Rainforest) and now the Sloth Institute. At a typical time she's
raising eight young sloths – many of them orphaned by car accidents
and being prepared toreturn to the wild.

Yes, she has a
back-up sloth-sitter ... which she needed so she could return to the
U.S. and talk to Television Critics Association writers. But mostly,
her days are sloth-centric.

“My entire live is
dedicated to the sloths now,” Trull said, “which can get a little
overwhelming at times, because you want to have fun or actually hang
out with humans.”

Then again, there
are plenty of sloths hanging around (literally), ready for attention.

-- “Nature,” 8
p.m. Wednesdays, PBS (check local listings)

-- Season opens
Sept. 23 and 30 with the two-part “Nature's Miracle Orphans”


Now they're screaming with their childhood hero

OK, I'm not a fan of the "Scream Queens" opener. (You can see that in my TV column for Sept. 22 or in my new-season round-up below.) Still, the concept is excellent and the cast is a delight. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Like many people,
Keke Palmer has savored seeing Jamie Lee Curtis survive fierce

“I grew up
watching every last one of the 'Halloween' movies,” Palmer said.
“My sister and I are obsessed with that; we love her .... I never
could have imagined I would be doing a TV show with her.”

Now she's in TV's
new horror/comedy blend, “Scream Queens.” Curtis, 56, plays the
disapproving dean; Palmer, 22, and other young stars are sorority
sisters and potential victims.

“It's like those
TV shows – which I haven't watched -- (where) you kick people off,”
Curtis said.

In this case, any
actress could pick up a script and learn that her character is being
eliminated in some messy way. “We got a script recently and the
last act was missing,” Emma Roberts said. “And ... all of us were
like, 'What does it mean?!?'”

Most likely to
survive is Curtis, a piece of horror history. From 1978 to '82, she
made six scare films, including three “Halloween” ones. That was
a decade before Palmer was born, but the films persist.

Ryan Murphy –
producer of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” -- says he
started “Scream Queens” with Curtis in mind. “(I) said in the
meeting, 'If you don't do it, we're not going to do the show.”

She said yes and he
lined up the young sorority sisters, many of them already well-known:
Lea Michele has an Emmy nomination for “Glee”; Palmer has ranged
from cable kid shows to artful independents. Abigail Breslin has an
Oscar nomination; Roberts doesn't, but her dad (Eric) does ... and
her aunt (Julia) has four of them, including a win.

Then there's Skyler
Samuels, with a distinction: She's in a show that mocks sororities
... and is also in a real sorority.

Samuels, 21, was
busy in her late teens, co-starring in ABC's “The Gates” and
starring in cable's “The Nine Lives of Chloe King.” Afterward,
she had time to start college (Stanford, studying intellectual
property) and join Kappa Alpha Theta. “I was probably the last
person I thought would do that.”

She grants that news
reports have shown sororities gone bad. “The last couple of years
have been very tough for Greek life.”

But she also sees
the potential. “It's about a sisterhood; it's about empowerment.”

Her real sorority
sisters are “very laidback” and enthusiastic, Samuels said. “They
have beem very supportive about me doing a show about murderous
sorority girls.”

Yes, murderous and
ditsy and zealous and rather fashionable. They bring perverse twists
to the horror-film world that Jamie Lee Curtis launched a generation

-- “Scream
Queens,” Fox. Opener is 8-10 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 22); on Sept. 29,
the show takes its regular spot, from 9-10 p.m. Tuesdays.

-- Opener repeats
from 8-10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24; second episode repeats at 9 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 2.


From Texas to Sif, Jaimie Alexander was ready for naked stardom

Some TV seasons start with a shrug; this one, fortunately, starts big. By coincidence, the first official day of the season (Monday, Sept. 21) has both the best new comedy ("Life in Pieces," 8:31 p.m. on CBS) and best new drama ("Blindspot," 10:01 p.m. on NBC) on broadcast networks. Here's the "Blindspot" story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As a kid, Jaimie
Alexander was ready for some Texas-tough adventures.

She grew up with
four brothers, their initials now tattooed on her arm. Tall
(5-foot-9) and fit, she started a girls' wrestling team at her high
school and lost only twice in two years.

This prepared her
for something big ... but what?

Well, for being the
powerhouse Lady Sif in “Thor” movies in and the “Agents of
SHIELD” TV series. And now for being Jane Doe in “Blindspot,”
one of the new TV season's top shows.

Both women are
fierce fighters, but Alexander sees a difference: Sif's “moves are
very fancy, graceful, big and glittery in a way. (Jane does)
hand-to-hand combat – brutal, efficient, quick and realistic.”

Jane has skills, but
doesn't know why. She also doesn't know her real name, where she's
from or how she ended up in a bag on Times Square, naked and covered
with tattoos that are clues to something.

And yes, that scene
was filmed realistically. “There is not a single visual effect ....
We really closed down Times Square,” said producer Martin Gero.

The result is
impressive. “That was one of the most epic things I've ever shot,”
said Alexander, 31. “Just to look around and see such an iconic
space completely vacant was almost apocalyptic.”

It was also chilly,
she said, an unfortunate thing when you're naked. “The shaking was
real .... There were moments I didn't want to come out of the bag; it
was like a little cocoon.”

That was the start
of a role filled with challenges. It included:

-- Getting all those
fake tattoos. When full-body views are needed, she said, that can
take seven-plus hours. “We listen to Beatles on Pandora. We have
good coffee, good conversation and the hours fly by.”

-- Flashing all
those fighting skills. “It's kind of scary at work,” joked
co-star Sullivan Stapleton ... who did plenty of scary fighting in
five fierce seasons of cable's “Strike Back.”

-- And whatever
other skills we suddenly learn Jane has. At various points,
“Blindspot” people say, she might be asked to speak flawless
Bulgarian or Malagasy. “I'm game for it all,” Alexander said.

That's the attitude
that she developed growing up in Gravevine, a suburb of 50,000, near
the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. She liked theater, but isn't a singer,
so switched to sports. She started the wrestling team, she said, “to
create an opportunity to learn self-defense for the young women in my
grade and the grade below mine .... I've always been sort of an
activist in pro-equality.”

Now she's gone far
beyond that. She did two seasons on “Kyle XY,” as the female
equivalent of the artificially created lead character. She did cable
roles – including multiple episodes of “Nurse Jackie” (as
Jackie's wild sister-in-law), “The Brink” (Lt. Gail Sweet) and
“Covert Affairs.”

And she was ready to
be Sif and Doe, mastering swordplay, martial arts and Malagasy.

-- “Blindspot,”
10:01 p.m. Mondays, NBC, debuting Sept. 21

-- Opener then
reruns on cable, on NBC's sister networks. That includes latenight
Friday (E) and Saturday (USA), at midnight. Also, 10 a.m. Saturday on
Bravo, 9:30 a.m. Sunday on Syfy.


Vet school: Kittys and camels and cows and more


Yes, the big-budget shows are arriving soon, with the networks' fall season officially starting Monday (Sept. 21). While we're waiting, however, there are pleasant-enough cable choices. That includes "Vet School," which debuts Saturday (Sept. 19), against light competition. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There may be times
when a veterinary student envies the medical-school crowd.

When you're studying
humans, after all, you only have to learn one species. And the vets?

“Their patients
have everything from feathers to fur to scales,” said Lisa Tanzer,
producer of the new “Vet School” cable series. “They ... are
learning multiple body systems, in the same four years that a medical
student goes to school.”

Consider Dan Cimino.
With little Charlie (an eight-week-old kitten) burrowed in his lap,
he was talking about Bradley, who is much bigger. “He was just the
friendliest camel you've ever met. He, like, kind of nibbles on your
face a little bit.”

There's a huge
contrast between a kitten and a camel .... and a visual contrast
between tiny Charlie and Cimino, a former linebacker who was
All-State in high school and a starter at Ithaca College (both in
upstate New York). There's also a contrast in the Cornell students
featured in “Vet School.”

Hannah Brodlie grew
up in Brooklyn, a camel-free area. “We have dogs and cats,” she
said. “One time, we had Edgar the pig; he walked on a leash. And
that's it.”

By comparison,
Cristina Bustamante grew up in Colombia and is surprised by her
Cornell colleagues.

“Some of my
classmates are from New York and had never touched a cow,” she
said. “Where I come from, there are cows on the side of the road
.... What they find exotic, my neighbors have as pets.”

The students' world
would soon expand. Brodlie found herself dealing with farm animals
(“not really in my realm of expertise”) and visiting an alpaca
place, where the owner also has that pet camel.

“When I saw
Bradley, I had to give him a de-wormer shot,” said Aziza Glass, who
grew up near Houston. “So that was awesome.”

Eventually, some
will narrow it down. Cimino originally wanted to focus on surgery,
but now is going for neurology; Glass, by comparison, has now
graduated and is Dr. Glass, a general practitioner. “I really liked
that relationship that you get from being a GP.”

After all, the GP's
are the ones who fuel some of NatGeo's more popular shows.

“I should watch
more, because when I talk to clients, they will say, 'Oh, did you see
that “Dr. Pol” episopde?'” Cimino said. “I'm like, 'Yeah,
yeah, I saw that.'” Like, I don't” have time for TV.”

And when Bustamante
does have time, she's not watching that. “I don't want to come home
and watch more vet tings. I want to watch a crime scene or

-- “Vet School,”
10 p.m. Saturdays, NatGeo Wild, starting Sept. 19