Just four years ago, Missouri-born actor Amir Arison was kicking off Season 2 of NBC’s The Blacklist as a series regular, when Gotham named him one of New York City’s most eligible and successful bachelors. Fast forward four years and Arison is still charming millions of viewers as Aram Mojtabai on the James Spader-led crime drama.
Gotham caught up with Arison to discuss the show’s latest season, an upcoming guest role on Billions, and his gig directing a documentary that is near and dear to his heart.
Season 5 of The Blacklist closed with your character proposing to his girlfriend. As we approach the premiere of season six of the show, can you tell us what fans can expect from your character’s story? Weddings haven’t exactly always gone off without a hitch on this show.
AMIR ARISON: As you know, she woke up, saw the ring, and accepted my proposal. The storyline is really focused on what’s going on with Red and Liz, because there is a lot going on. So that’s really our A storyline. But we see that we’re back at work at the task force, and now we’re engaged. So we start off with that and then we bleed into some stuff that’s going on with them, that I never expected, that I really doubt audiences will expect. I found something out a few weeks ago that is unbelievable. Viewers will have a curve ball. In terms of weddings and nuptials, they always turn out a little funny.
What are you most excited about for the new season?
AA: This might sound basic, but just the fact that we have a season six, and that I’m still playing this guy. To get to play a role for six years and evolve with it—I’m still getting to know him, but I also know him so well. I just feel like, certainly in today’s television market, to have a show run this long and still be exciting and still surprise me, I just… I always thought I would end up on a comedy, but I ended up on this action/thriller/drama, but I still get to do comedy and I get to do drama, and get to do love triangles, and get to work with James Spader, and Harry Lennix, and Megan, and Mozhan, and Diego, and Hisham. Literally all my childhood dreams came true.
After six seasons, what do you think is still so exciting about The Blacklist?
AA: I really don’t know how Jon Bokenkamp and his team does it. You don’t want to be on a show that just extends storylines just to extend them with fillers. It really feels like major seismic events continue happening, with continual reveals that I find plausible and unforeseen. Just as a fan of the show and viewer of the show, that’s what I like, and I get first dibs because I get the scripts.
I’d also say, the original formula of mixing a serialized mystery with a villain of the week—a blacklister of the week—I think was an original. I think Bokenkamp and Sony were one of the first ones to do it. And with that formula, you want to tune in, you want to know what’s going on and see what’s the relationship with Red and Liz, what are the conspiracies.
What has been your favorite moment from working on The Blacklist, either on or off camera?
AA: Off camera, it was middle/end of season one, when I got the call that they were going to make me a regular for season two. I remember I was sleeping, my manager called me, she left me a voicemail and she said, “All right, it’s the beginning of that process. This is what they said.” And I woke up, heard the message, cried, and went back to sleep. So that was off camera.
On camera, it’s really hard to choose. There are like 8,000 memorable moments, but I guess I’ll probably say… you know, my character doesn’t get to interact with James that much, just based on the way the show is. I’d probably say the scene at the end of 309, where Aram had to save Liz from the box. The last scene of the episode is me going to the grave site and James is giving that amazing speech, and Aram, not knowing what’s going on, and finally being thanked by Reddington. I remember it was dark and we had one take on my side. It was the middle of the night, in a cemetery, and we were being directed by Mary Lambert. Here I am in the middle of a series, in the final scene, and I just remember James was so good, and I was just listening. I think I had two lines in that scene. But, I don’t know, that was pretty magical and so much further than I could have ever expected to go with the series.
We will also be seeing you on the next season of Billions. What can you tell us about your role on that show?
AA: Well, it’s very hard, with The Blacklist schedule, to get to do any guest stars, so this was one of the first times they were able to work it out. And I just have to publicly thank Sony, The Blacklist, our producers at The Blacklist, specifically Laura Benson, and everybody at Billions for working this out. It was not easy for them to do. I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to reveal anything about Billions. I’ll just say I’m a fan of the show.
You have experience on television, in film and on stage. Which of the 3 do you like best?
AA: It’s hard to choose; they each have their own special qualities. Theater is live, as everyone knows. TV goes fast, and film, they get to take their time more. I love them all, but I’m really working primarily in television these last seven, eight years, and I think there’s a reason for that. I think I thrive on the pace, the speed, and I don’t have the luxury to overthink things, which I tend to do, and which I think is healthy for me. You also don’t have to think about what your next job is tomorrow, as you do when you do a play or a movie. So I know I have a job at least until April. That is a great luxury of an actor in a series. I get to have a life and I get to not overthink things. That’s probably why at the current moment in my life I’m enjoying doing television.
You also have some experience behind the camera, as a director. How is that different from being in front of the camera? Do you think it’s helped you as an actor to perfect your craft?
AA: It activates a completely different part of my brain. I feel like all parts of my brain are engaged when I’m directing. And it requires a care, because you are leading every single department. It really forces you to think in the macro and the micro, whereas when you’re acting, you’re the head of one department, and that’s your character. And even with that, you adhere to the writer, the director, your costars. Andrew McCarthy said this and I have to quote him: “When you’re acting, you’re a lot more anxious, and when you’re directing, you’re a lot more stressed.” I just find directing consumes me in a way that makes me feel alive. And acting challenges me in a dangerous way.
Tell us about the documentary you are working on, “Tati,” because there’s really a beautiful story behind it.
AA: This came to me in a unique way, and it’s what I’m doing on days when I’m not shooting The Blacklist. The short version of it is I got approached by a company called Angelight Films, led by Stephanie Angel, who I actually met on The Blacklist. She was a script supervisor in season two. She works with kids between the ages of five and 18, who have or have had a brain or spinal cord tumor. I’m a big proponent of the power of arts access and education and what it can do for someone, so when she asked me, I said “I’m on board.” Then she sent me a picture of the girl and I just absolutely fell in love with this kid. So I called her and said I want to document this whole process. This is the first kid that they worked with that’s still in treatment, so we came in mid-treatment, and we’re tracking her health. And she has this beautiful family that is not self-conscious in front of the camera. It’s like they’re almost better than actors, they have no awareness of the camera and they’re just themselves. This story just captured my heart. So we’re making a short film with her, and we’re documenting that process, along with her daily life with her family and her health.
The Blacklist and Billions are both shot in New York. What do you love most about the city? What are some of your favorite spots to go to unwind?
AA: I always study my lines for The Blacklist at a coffee shop. There’s something about the buzz of a coffee shop, even though there’s a little more noise. Something about that forces me to focus. I recently moved to Brooklyn and there’s just a plethora of adorable, one-of-a-kind coffee shops. In terms of working in New York—when you’re an actor here, I feel like, as opposed to Los Angeles, which I also love but in a different way, it’s a Hollywood-driven city and everyone works in the industry. But here when you work in television or theater, you’re part of the cultural landscape and it’s appreciated, as opposed to being taken for granted. You’re a necessary part of the city by working in the arts. That’s pretty special about New York.
The Blacklist returns on NBC with a two-night premiere at 10 p.m. EST on Thursday, January 3 and 9 p.m. EST on Friday, January 4. To learn more about the “Tati” project and support the cause, please visit gofundme.com.
Photography by: Photography courtesy of Caitlin Mitchell, Will Hart for NBC, and Virginia Sherwood for NBC