The Blacklist’s Hisham Tawfiq may just be making a name for himself in Hollywood, but in his home neighborhood of Harlem, New York, he’s better known as the FDNY station chief of the local station for the past 20 years. Now, just as he’s been promoted to series regular on The Blacklist, he’s prepping to retire from his firefighting career come fall. He talks to EW about a career of battling blazes, and what’s coming up next.
“I still love it and enjoy driving a firetruck, especially up in Harlem and seeing people I know, getting little kids to jump on it,” Tawfiq says about his impending retirement. “That’s why its so hard to retire, because I still enjoy working and especially serving the community of Harlem where I grew up. It’s a very hard thing to let go.”
Tawfiq didn’t always grow up imagining he’d be a fireman. In fact, he says there are about 10,000 firefighters in New York, and only two percent of them are African-American.
“It was very interesting, trying to figure out why that number is so low,” he says. “My whole career has been about diversity and inclusion and trying to get more people of color in the FDNY and especially in my home village of Harlem. I’ve always wanted to guide them to the job, because it’s been such a great job for me.”
But how did he get into the field in the first place?
“The only reason I joined was because I came home from being in the Marines and saw a postcard about joining the FDNY sitting on the table,” he says. “So I filled it out, and that started my journey,” he says.
The New York native, who was a professional jazz and West African dancer after high school (where he was also a star running back on the football team) says his training with the marines made joining the FDNY easy.
“I don’t want to say the training wasn’t challenging, but I had no problem with it,” he says. “I was a boy scout too, so I knew all this stuff — I actually became a squad leader in charge of my own platoon because it just fit naturally.”
And once he put on the actual firefighting gear?
“It was almost like hitting the lotto,” he says. “I felt like superman getting into all the gear and going into fires and getting dirty and being smoky. It was extremely exciting for me, and gave me that rush that I think I live for.”
And then 9/11 happened.
“After 9/11 things changed. A lot of the excitement changed. I lost a lot of buddies and the danger of what I was doing started to sink in. A lot of the Superman mentality left after that,” he says.
Meanwhile, he was continuously acting on the side, using vacations to do plays in Arkansas and small roles on shows like Law & Order.
“One of the beauties of being an FDNY firefighter is the flexibility of the schedule so anytime I was off work, I was taking acting classes, going on auditions, I took special vacations twice and went to Little Rock, Arkansas, and did a play for 6–8 weeks. So I saved my vacation days because I knew there would be a project I’d want to do later on.”
One project turned out to be The Blacklist. “When Blacklist came … the way it’s worked has been kind of magical as far as being off when I needed to be off and being able to squeeze the hours in. It’s been exhausting. I didn’t want to go into the third season doing that, but knew there was no other way to do it. It was my passion so I made it work.”
So what’s next for Tawfiq? He says he wants to get into documentary filmmaking, and explore why there are so few African-American firefighters.
“I started working on a documentary film that I’m putting together about my whole experience as a black firefighter,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to get into the writing, directing, executive producing, so I’m just putting a company together and am getting into the beginnings of that.”
The rising star just might be unstoppable, but on his long list of things to do, returning to his roots as a West African dancer is the one thing absent from that checklist.
Says Tawfiq, “I’ve been asked to, but I tell people I like to go out on top.”
The Blacklist returns Sept. 24.