Raza Jaffrey played a political wheeler-dealer on TV’s Smash, but the Anglo-Asian star came to the series as a stage vet of the London productions of Mamma Mia! and Bombay Dreams, as well as classic plays in his native U.K. Jaffrey is now back on the West End stage as ultra-slick lawyer Billy Flynn in the long-running revival of Chicago. Broadway.com caught up with Jaffrey just before news broke that his Smash character, Dev, would not be returning for the show’s second season. The actor subsequently tweeted, “Delighted to have been part of it and glad Dev's off before he got himself into too much more trouble!”
How does it feel to be back living and working in London?
I’m loving it, though I’m missing the States quite a lot. Los Angeles is my home: I set up shop over there about two years ago and don’t have a place in England anymore. I fell in love with the States a few years back and decided I want to make it home, though at the same time I feel enormously privileged to be working on stage in London again. And I’m living in the center of things in Covent Garden, so I get to stroll by my old haunts.
Had you had a lot of prior exposure to Chicago?
I first saw it on Broadway in 1996 when I was at university. I had a friend studying at NYU so I went over for a visit. Chicago had not long opened, so I bought a ticket and sat right at the very back of the top tier. I absolutely fell in love with the music, hearing that band onstage and seeing a piece of American theater done in that way: so pared-back and without lots of huge, outlandish sets.
Did you ever revisit it on the West End?
I saw the show in England about five or six years ago when I had a friend playing Fred Casely and “the Hoff” [actor David Hasselhoff] was playing Billy Flynn. When I got the job, I came again to see the production because I wanted to remind myself of what it was. I was blown away by how fresh it looked; it had not long moved into its new home at the Garrick Theatre, and David Bedella was playing Billy. People said to me, “Won’t that inform your performance?” to see someone else play the role, but I’ve never been like that as an actor. To me, it’s about just being yourself, not copying someone else.
All sorts of actors have played Billy Flynn in different cities at different times, from Usher and Henry Goodman to Clarke Peters and Jerry Springer!
I think it’s because Billy is kind of the ringmaster, and the role as a result relies so much on the personality of the actor playing it that [the creative team] are open to you bringing whatever it is that you bring to the stage—which is why they’ve asked you to do the part to begin with. Also, the fact that Chicago as a piece of theater constantly engages with the audience means that personality is so important. Just by the nature of me standing on stage, I’m different to anyone else playing Billy Flynn. It’s not about finding extraordinary new gags or funny accents!
What would you say is distinctive about your Billy Flynn?
One of the things I’d always thought when I came across Chicago in the past was that there’s a love story at its heart. Obviously, there’s all the stuff about Billy being a Machiavellian character, but at the same time you have to ask yourself why he has decided to stick around and help Roxie and what Roxie might mean to him. So I think there’s a journey for Billy, too, in all of this.
I love the way Billy is talked about at great length before we first see him.
I know, it’s kind of like The Iceman Cometh [laughs]. But that’s the thing with Billy: So much is done for you by the time you come on stage. Everybody has been talking about you for so long and then you get a load of girls with feathers and a follow spot and you’re there dancing in a dinner jacket. You don’t need to do anything more than what is done for you.
How did you land the gig?
Barry [Weissler, the musical’s producer] had seen Smash, and I had met [director] Walter Bobbie at a screening we had of it in New York, so when Billy was offered to me, that was it. They were literally, like, “Can you start within a couple of weeks?” I had to fly to L.A., get my stuff together and come back and begin. It was a pretty whirlwind time.
It sounds as if it all happened too quickly for you to be stressed.
Oh, you still find time to feel stressed! I was standing in the wings on my first night and thinking, “You asked for this, didn’t you?” I’d gone to see a friend at the Salisbury Playhouse [southwest of London] in The Seven Year Itch and was thinking how much I would love to be back on stage. Well, be careful what you wish for!
You’re back in a stage musical after having acted in a TV series about putting together a stage musical. How accurate does Smash seem to you?
It comes from a place of truth, and there have been moments in the show where I go, “That is uncanny” because they recall situations I have been involved with. I’ve been in workshops where none of the investors wanted to be in the room through to the situation of the movie star being cast instead of the person you think is going to be and then that star disappearing again. At the same time, the show isn’t a documentary, it’s a drama. There’s got to be a heightened reality to it.
I have to ask: Are you related to the actress and gourmet chef Madhur Jaffrey, who was in the original Broadway cast of Bombay Dreams, the musical in which you starred in London?
I’m no relation at all, though a lot of people think I am, and I am often correcting press departments who assume some relation. My mother is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Liverpudlian lady!