Before he became a series regular on NBC’s The Blacklist, before he played recurring roles on Girls and Homeland, Amir Arison flexed his acting muscles onstage in everything from the La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Blood and Gifts by now-Tony winner J.T. Rogers (Oslo) to MCC's A Very Common Procedure, directed by Michael Greif.
Now, Arison relishes playing the FBI counter-terrorism unit’s computer specialist, Aram. “His computer savvy and problem solving skills aside, which was his original primary function on the show, it’s his humanity and heart that I’m most proud to play,” says Arison. “The humor and intelligence are definitely fun aspects of Aram, but the best part are the qualities he doesn’t even see in himself. He is beyond loyal, and way braver than he even realizes.”
Here, Arison takes us through the defining moments in his theatrical career, the invaluable advice from directors James Lapine and Greif, and the biggest difference between working TV versus stage.
What was your first professional job?
Amir Arison: I got a Sonic Burger commercial when I was 16 in south Florida (where I grew up ). They had this spit bucket so every time we took a bite of the burger we could spit it out as we do multiple takes. I had never conceived of such a concept; I was like, “Whoa, showbiz is nutty.” I also started getting residuals from that job, which allowed my dad, who had mostly been skeptical of an acting career, to get on board a little.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
Two come to mind: The Grey Zone by Tim Blake Nelson in this tiny production in Chicago, maybe a 40-seat theatre. I wanted to see a gritty actor’s play while in Chicago, and this production had great reviews. I took my friend and there were two other people in the audience...and it was a cast of nine. The cast literally more than doubled the audience. I felt so bad for dragging my friend there, but then the show got going and I was blown away. The entire company completely went for it—and this is not an easy play. The performers’ dedication was something I’ll never forget.
Second, I saw Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop days after David Bowie had passed, while the world was still in mourning. The entire piece was extraordinary in and of itself, but even more by the new knowledge that this was his farewell, working on it right up to the day he passed and you could see and feel that in the work. His urgency to create to the end gave new meaning to the concept of what it means to be an artist. I guess the motif here from both shows is that I am moved by remarkable dedication. I gravitate towards that in people and sports, as well.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphosis over 15 years ago. The parable of King Midas, his wish that everything he touched turned to gold. He became beyond rich but it ended up being a curse, when his beloved little daughter first saw him again (without understanding his new power), she ran and jumped into his arms before he could finish protesting and she instantly froze and slid down his body into a pool of water. The execution of this moment from all aspects was the most magical theatrical thing I had ever seen. And it's something that would only work in the theatre.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
A real standout was doing the play Aftermath by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen at NYTW in 2010. It was a docudrama taken verbatim from Iraqi refugees living in Jordan. I portrayed this playboy dermatologist who wanted an easy life and loved all things American (except the war). Besides being a great part, the experience of playing a real person who lived through unimaginable circumstances, while doing everything to avoid reliving them, it required a certain responsibility. The work required honor. Every time I went to the theatre, all my problems from the day disappeared—immediate perspective. Also, there wasn’t a rotten egg in the bunch, everyone in the show bonded tightly, and even though we were sharing these war stories nightly, we also had a ton of laughs backstage. The totality of this experience was truly special.
Who is a collaborator from theatre who has made you better?
There are a number of directors and actors that come to mind, but one specific collaborator who I had the pleasure of working with twice in long runs was stage manager Jane Grey. I first did my Off-Broadway debut with her, Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, and we did 99 performances. There is no acting class that teaches you how to do 99 shows. Maintaining a performance is vastly different than simply creating one.
Jane just understood the show in and out and understood the writer’s point of view, the director’s point of view, and my point of view. She also had her own point of view, and knew how to delicately guide me back if I veered off course. I just learned so much from her doing that show for three months. We then got to work together again a few years later on Modern Orthodox by Daniel Goldfarb and she put me in as the understudy for two huge roles. Jason Biggs broke his ankle and I went on one week after getting hired and she simply said, “You’re ready.” A few weeks later I then did the other track, and then a month later I took over a role. I don’t think I would have been as successful without her. She had my complete trust. Quality stage managers can be the unsung heroes of successful shows, and certainly of long, successful runs.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
Craft services. But in all seriousness, besides the endless food, with TV I don’t get a chance to overthink for too long. We shoot it, maybe get a couple takes, and that’s it. You don’t get to do it again the next day. In theatre, during a run or even during a long rehearsal process, my brain can start eating itself: endlessly mining the role to perhaps a counterproductive point, constantly analyzing why this moment worked one night and not the other. In that way, I have a certain mental freedom in TV. lso the pace and pressure of TV production demands me to kick into gear, there is literally no time to overthink. And you get one three-minute blocking rehearsal, if that. You have to be beyond ready. You can get new pages and scenes you might have to deliver the next morning at 6AM. That type of pressure cooker forces me to go, and I find I can sometimes thrive in that situation. TV is a lot about your initial instincts.
You’ve worked with directors like James Lapine and Michael Greif. What’s something you learned from each of those directors that you’ve taken with you to next jobs?
Michael Greif [once told me], “Amir, its not about what they’re doing, it’s about what can you do.” Basically, never get hung up on what anyone else might be doing at anytime. Find a way to bring your character’s response/tactic etc. no matter what. I remember how clear and direct he said it. It’s simple, but it stayed with me, and that concept has grown for me in TV. No matter what's happening, say yes, it can be quite fun, with endless discoveries.
James Lapine once gave me a note “less pigeon-toed.” I had no idea what he was saying. I raised my hand, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” and he goes, “Amir, do not have your toes inverted inward so much.” This was for one long scene when my awkward character was sitting down. I didn’t quite see the point, but I took the note and the entire scene suddenly opened up for me. I had no idea that minor physicality was blocking so much more. It was the most bizarre/brilliant note.
Having done theatre on the West Coast and in New York, what’s the biggest difference in those theatre scenes?
There is a thirst for theatre on the West Coast that you might not expect. People are hungry to get onstage to work on craft. New York is a true theatre town, any two theatre artists can have have over a 100 people in common and well over 100 stories to share about this show or that person, etc. In L.A., it’s much less, but no less passionate.
The Blacklist airs Wednesdays on NBC. Tune in March 7 for a new episode spotlighting Arison.