Behzad Dabu of How To Get Away With Murder fame talks acting trials, triumphs & Viola Davis
•Behzad Dabu discusses Chicago theatre scene and how it served as the foundation for his career
•Actor tells how he was discovered by HTGAWM exec, who happened to be in audience for play Disgraced
•Why supporting your friends is crucial to surviving and thriving in the industry
•Overcoming the fear and ‘advice’ on “staying quiet” regarding issues of diversity and race
“As artists, we sometimes obsess over our craft to the point where we question if we even have the talent to break through. In the midst of this, we can’t forget that in order to tell the story of a diverse people, we must first practice humanity ourselves.” -Behzad Dabu
In a world of ‘fake news’ that smears the lines of reality and social networks that turn its users anti-social, it seems like building bridges of information has unintentionally paved the way to the disintegration of ethics, values, and everyday good.
This is why the simplest of things like real friendship and “good people” can be hard to find. The sentiment is amplified tenfold when you’re in Hollywood. That’s why when certain individuals come across your path, you hold onto them like a lifeline.
A lot of professionals in the entertainment industry like to say, “it’s all about who you know” when it comes to opportunity.
Here’s the secret though: You’ll only crack the code to such opportunity by investing in someone and learning their story…their personal backstory to achieving success and what fuels them when the days are long and the end seems nowhere in sight. I say investing because most people become too caught up in achieving their own success and only turn to others when they’re in need.
That’s not how life works, at least, if you’re living it the right way.
Self-doubt combined with industry rejection can kill your career unless you have the guidance of true friendship. That kind of brotherly friendship is what I think of when the name Behzad Dabu comes to mind.
Behzad has become a familiar face to How To Get Away With Murder fans, but he’s been on my radar for years. You see, Behzad is that friend, brother and lifeline that snaps me back to the reality – the realization that all things are possible when your everyday actions are grounded in the goodness of who you are.
Behzad, a Chicago theatre star by way of Syracuse, plays Simon Drake on the hit ABC show How To Get Away With Murder. Some might use that same title to describe the moment when you actually nab that big role that validates all the blood, sweat and buckets of tears you’ve put in to land a coveted audition…let alone a breakout role.
Actually, getting away with the type of ‘murder’ that has elevated Behzad’s career is not as difficult as one might think…
For Behzad, the talent is evident, but it’s his work ethic, kindness, punctuality, and the support of his friends that has taken him from the Chicago stages to Hollywood sets like that of How To Get Away With Murder.
I first met Behzad in 2006 at Columbia College Chicago where we both attended. He was a young theatre student, and I was a young film student. We were just two kids from the East Coast and part of a close-knit group of twelve friends from every background and ethnicity you can think of.
I recently had a chat with my “old-school” friend about his rise from theatre student to How To Get Away With Murder fame. Plus, Behzad talks about his life growing up in Syracuse, and how he views the importance of the representation of diversity in the industry. If it weren’t for that same diversity umbrella that we had found refuge under in Chicago some years ago, who knows how our careers and lives would have wound up.
Behzad also tells how he turned the role of Simon Drake from a one-day gig into ten episodes and the life-lessons learned while working alongside Oscar winning actress Viola Davis on How to Get Away With Murder.
Davis’ acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in Fences and the thunderous applause that followed brought it all home when I heard Behzad emphasize the importance of treating people good, and living a life of humility. This is why success has chosen him, and now he’s going to tell you how theatre, friendships and understanding the world can write your own ticket to a fulfilling career.
Q&A with Behzad Dabu of How To Get Away With Murder
RB: Can you tell us about the moment, (if there was one) when you decided, “I’m going to be an actor, and this is what I want to pursue?”
BD: It’s actually really funny, because my whole life I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I played basketball noon to 8pm everyday; I was good and I played varsity. Then, there was a day when I was playing, and a bunch of the guys I used to play started smoking me. They were bigger, taller, faster than me. That’s when I thought, “This isn’t going to happen for me; I better start focusing on something else.” I was always into acting as well growing up, and it wouldn’t matter how big or tall I was with acting.
RB: You come from a small town, with a big heart. What about Syracuse, New York prepared you for the ups and downs that come with pursuing a life in the arts, which ultimately led to your recent acting role on How To Get Away With Murder?
BD: Syracuse has the worst winters in America…maybe in the world. That weather really shapes your life, because if you want to do anything between October and May, you have to bundle up and put your layers on. Just going outside to take out the trash means putting on layers of clothes, and that’s kind of how an audition is. You need layers, because when you go into an audition they’re going to judge you. Syracuse is an underdog city and I have a little bit of an underdog mentality. That cold wind builds character.
RB: Was your family supportive of what you did?
BD: Yes. A lot of families aren’t supportive, especially “Brown” families. My parents emigrated here from India to make a better life for me and my brother, and they did that. I was the first person born in the United States from my family. I expected my parents wouldn’t support me and that I would have this “I hate my dad” story, but it was the complete opposite. My parents drove me to rehearsals, came to every single performance of a show, and helped me pick out theatre colleges. It means a lot to me, especially because my parents didn’t have a lot of money. You couldn’t be more supportive than my parents were.
RB: We met at Columbia College Chicago. It’s an art school, but still a four-year college. What was behind the decision to go a more traditional college rather than an acting studio or program?
BD: I wanted to go to a four-year college, but I DID NOT want to go to a state school. I didn’t want to go to school where things like sports, law, engineering, and medicine were at the forefront of the school. That’s our public school system; high schools are set up to not care about the arts. I spent my whole life wondering why we couldn’t afford costumes, but the basketball team got new uniforms every year. I wanted to go to a school that put the arts first and foremost, but at the same time, I did want that four-year degree so I could have something to fall back on. I believe that you need to take more than just acting classes to be a good actor. Being a good actor means understanding the world, and a four-year college gives you that.
RB: I remember loading your IPod with your lines so you could walk around and learn them. Is that a tactic you still use?
BD: Yes. Actors aren’t just memorizing lines for our roles; we are memorizing pages and pages of lines for every audition we get. Last week, I had six to seven auditions, each one was five to ten pages, and I memorized every one. If you walk in a audition without knowing your lines cold, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
RB: Where do you get your work ethic?
BD: This business is so hard, and there are so many people who want to do what you’re doing. The arrogance that you must have to not be as prepared as possible is crazy. My mentality is that if I don’t get a role, it’s not going to be because I didn’t work hard.
RB: So you leave school, and now you’re in the real world…what was your next move, what was your grind like?
BD: I supported my friends’ work. I had a group of friends that started a theater company called Jackalope, and it was a tiny little company at the time. Now, it’s still around and it’s a larger and more respected company. I did their first play and it didn’t go so well. Nobody came. The important thing though was that we did something. We kept our minds going and stayed creative. I kept doing auditions and I got in a larger show called The History Boys. That show became a really big hit. It won five out of five Jeff Awards [Chicago Theater Awards] and was one of the Wall Street Journal’s top ten shows of the year.
That put me and all of the actors on the map and one show led to another. Part of that success was because I did a good job, but I know most of it is because I was on time and supportive of my community. Those are the things that bring you back to a theatre.
RB: Where does Chicago rank as a city, when it comes to the theater industry? Do you recommend Chicago as a destination for other stage actors?
BD: I don’t think that there is a better theater city in the world. I’m backed up by that. There is a great article that The Guardian in London wrote called, “America’s liveliest theatre is in Chicago.” The way a Chicago legend, Tracy Letts, describes it is that Chicago is the cake, New York is the frosting, and LA is the sprinkles.
Chicago is the foundation; it’s where great plays get built, like August: Osage County and Disgraced, which both started in Chicago. Then, they go to New York and get Broadway productions and Pulitzer prizes. That’s the frosting. Then, they go to Los Angeles and get Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, and those are the sprinkles. That play, that “me” and my friends wouldn’t have happened in New York or LA. In LA, you don’t have access, and in New York you don’t have money. In Chicago access and money aren’t the currency, artistic integrity is.
RB: So tell us how you landed the role of Simon Drake on How To Get Away With Murder?
BD: I did this play in 2012 called Disgraced, which has been the most produced play in America over the last several years. It’s been done all over the country, and I did the original production in Chicago where it was created. It ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for a Tony for Best New Play. I did the first regional tour of the play that went from Chicago to San Francisco to Seattle, and finally to Los Angeles in 2015.
In LA, a lot of casting directors and agents came to see it because it was talked about so much. One night, the creator and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder, Peter Norwalk, came to the play. The next day I had a meeting with producers and that’s how my first episode happened.
I did that one episode and shot it for week. I still had plans of going back to Chicago, but they really liked my interaction with the actors. A lot of people who get those roles treat it like a one day thing, but I didn’t treat it like that; I wanted to make Simon a full-fledged character not just a one-liner guy that you were never going to see again. I wanted to craft a real human being out of what I was given, and they ended up bringing me back for ten episodes.
RB: Do you think coming from “The Stage” – and your journey of being from Chicago by way of Syracuse – gave you what you needed to maximize that opportunity?
BD: Absolutely. In Chicago we’re taught that it’s not about you; it’s about the work. A lot of times with these one-day roles, you can make a big judgment on them. You go, “Oh, he’s the bad guy,” so you say your lines like a bad guy. Or, you go, “Oh, he’s the funny and cute friend,” so then you say your lines like that. The reality is that we’re all three-dimensional people. When I looked at Simon, I said, “Yeah he’s the bad guy, but why is he a bad guy,” let’s make him a three-dimensional person. That’s that “Chicago” in me. I created the back-story in my own head and that led to ten more episodes.
Sometimes you do that and nothing happens, but who cares, it makes the work better. Yes, Simon Drake was supposed to be an asshole, but why is he an asshole? Maybe it’s because the Keating 5 are the only ones getting all the attention in class, and everybody is working just as hard. That’s how I chose to portray the role.
RB: You got to work with Oscar winner Viola Davis. What have you been able to learn from your How To Get Away With Murder co-star?
BD: I’m vocal about inclusion, diversity, and race in the industry. A lot of people – throughout my career, including some good friends – have told me that I need to quiet down if I want to create a career. Viola was never quiet about those things. Just watch one of her numerous acceptance speeches from this year and she does it gracefully without calling anybody out.
That was a really good lesson for me off camera. It let me know that you can be true to yourself, care about what is right and still be the greatest actor/actress walking around. You can be vocal with grace, and that’s how you have to do it, because even if people don’t agree with you, they will respect you. On set, Viola is committed and intense; she really knows her stuff. She’s just damn good and a true pro.
RB: Now that you’re in LA and getting bigger roles, what are your thoughts on diversity in the industry? Is a lack of representation a problem from your vantage point?
BD: It’s a massive problem and nobody anywhere is doing it right. People are trying, and I can name certain theaters across the country that are trying. I think Shondaland and ABC are doing a great job with diversity and representation, along with shows like This is Us (NBC), but as a whole, I think it’s still a big problem.
Last year, a white man was cast in a Michael Jackson bio-picture. We’re not talking about 1955; we’re talking about 2015. Right now, Iron Fist is out with 15% on Rotten Tomatoes. Do you think that maybe that is because, once again, you have a white man playing an Asian-inspired character? Matt Damon in The Great Wall is another example, and he’s not playing am Asian character. But once again, we have all the minorities in the background, and the main focal point is a white male who is playing a savior. This is the type of representation we need to change. This is why Moonlight and Hidden Figures are so important. A young black girl can say, “Oh wow, I’m allowed to have all the lines in the movie and be in charge of a space program.” It’s about changing the focal point in stories from being a straight, white male to it can be anybody, as long as they’re a good actor/actress. That’s what I mean by doing it right; the cast should look like the world it’s set in.
RB: How To Get Away With Murder is yet another tremendous achievement. What’s next for Behzad Dabu?
BD: I’m always going to be a Chicago theater actor, but before I do that, I need to be able to make sure I can sustain a career as an actor for the rest of my life and eventually support a family. Right now that means I need to broaden my networks in LA and New York, so I can have more opportunities for the next 60 years. Right now, I have to create a name for myself in the television and film world in Los Angeles.
RB: What’s one thing you would say to an aspiring actor/actress trying to have a career in this industry?
BD: You can’t take career rejections personally, because it’s just not about you. I auditioned 29 times in February and booked none of them. You just can’t take rejection personally. Another thing I want to say is that you can’t expect to succeed if you don’t support. You have to support your friends and colleagues. The last thing I want to say is that if you think your talent is enough, you are sadly mistaken. Being on time and being warm and respectful is more important than being a good actor. There are a lot more good actors than there are good people.
As artists, we sometimes obsess over our craft to the point where we question if we even have the talent to break through. In the midst of this, we can’t forget that in order to tell the story of a diverse people, we must first practice humanity ourselves.
Behzad Dabu gave amazing insight into his own personal journey as a stage and screen actor of color that faced many obstacles, but never lost sight of his goals and ended up working on one of Hollywood’s highest rated series. His information makes it clear that being self-confident and determined is equally important as being talented.
That applies to other professions in the entertainment industry as well. Which means that even if you want to be a writer, producer, director, electrician, cameraperson, or actor, one of the keys to success is that you can’t give up on your dreams and you must keep working toward your goals, no matter what! You’ll get there eventually, but you can’t reach your destination if you stop moving forward.
Working hard, emboldened with passion, and being a good person is why Behzad Dabu is on his way to a great career, and that’s something every aspiring actor or actress (or any artist for that matter) can learn from.