Leap of faith
Irish television personality Baz Ashmawy reflects on writing and starring in his first scripted series, Faithless, in which he plays an out-of-sorts father who must look after his three daughters alone after a tragic accident.
For audiences in Ireland and around the world, Baz Ashmawy is a TV and radio presenter most recognisable from programmes such as quizshow The Fanatics and the International Emmy winner 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy, in which he introduced his mother to some of the biggest adventures on Earth.
But the Libya-born, Irish-Egyptian star actually began his career as a theatre actor. When further acting opportunities failed to materialise and he was offered the chance to present adventure-travel series How Low Can You Go, Ashmawy then moved into presenting.
Going back to his roots, he is now set for his first lead acting role, in a series he also created and wrote. Faithless, a six-part dramedy for Ireland’s Virgin Media TV, tells the story of a father of three daughters struggling to raise them alone after a tragic incident.
Blending an exploration of grief with observational, often physical comedy, the project dates back to 2016/17, when Ashmawy first began thinking about creating his own scripted shows, partly so he could act in them as well.
“If I’m 100% honest, I really wanted to act again and no one was going to give me an acting job,” he tells DQ. “Or if they did, I’d get three lines. I wanted something to get my teeth into.
“When I was acting, a lot of the times it was playing ‘Don Pedro’ in some play. It was always some ethnic part. But I live in Ireland and I was going for these classic Irish roles and just getting nothing. So I was like, ‘I’m going to write me a part that only me can play,’ and now I’ve got a half-Egyptian, middle-aged, greying character.
“Then the writing happened, and it surprised me how much I loved that. It was amazing to see those people come to life when you give those words to talented actors and they do their thing with it. That was probably the biggest rush of the whole thing.”
Described by Ashmawy as “a mixed-race, Irish Two and a Half Men on grief,” Faithless centres on Sam, a writer who has lost his mojo after struggling to repeat the success of his one big hit. After hitting middle age and bumbling through life, he is suddenly forced to face up to his responsibilities when he has to raise his children alone – with some support from his irresponsible younger brother who moves in to ‘help’ and never leaves.
“He has to be present and be a dad and a mum and everything, and it’s funny,” Ashmawy says of his character. “I come from a single-parent family, and for women this happens every single day. But put a guy into that situation and it’s like, ‘Holy shit,’ which is so funny. But traditionally, it’s just a family going through grief. That’s what it’s about, him trying to pull his family together.”
A scene that best sums up the fine line between drama and comedy in the series is when Sam must tell his children that their mother has died in the opening episode.
“It is a horrific thing,” Ashmawy says. “He’s trying to psyche himself up to tell them this awful news, and then when he goes in to say, ‘Mum’s dead,’ he looks in his youngest daughter’s eyes and he just bottles it. He doesn’t want her to feel that pain, so he delays it by saying, ‘Oh, actually mum’s in hospital and she’s really sick.’ Then the other girl’s like, ‘My friend’s mum said mum was dead.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, actually she is dead.’
“It’s just him making bad choice after bad choice. At the time, it’s not funny, but it is fucking funny. To me that is funny. When an audience is emotionally open, when you feel laughter and you’re laughing at something, it’s a great time to hit them with something poignant, and that’s what dramedy is.”
Inspired by his own background, Ashmawy also wanted to create a series that represented “new Ireland” in a way he hadn’t seen on TV before.
“I have a Serbian wife, I have a Greek Orthodox Serbian mother-in-law, I have a Roman Catholic mother, I have a Muslim sister. My kids are confused as fuck,” he jokes. “We are the new Ireland. That is what it looks like, and I don’t see it. I’m not trying to make a big deal of it, I’m just saying we are that. This is Ireland, this is everywhere.
“If you were to sit around a family dinner table of these different cultures mingling, it’s hilarious. It’s beautiful because it’s just raw and it’s just really honest and it’s all caring as well. I wanted to show that, and I wanted it to still feel really Irish. If you’re mixed race, you’ve lived through this. You know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s very familiar.”
Early on during development, an idea was floated to turn Sam into a woman. But with Ashmawy writing the series to star in it, “I was like, ‘Unless I turn into Mrs fucking Doubtfire, that’s not happening, is it?’” he says. It was only when he partnered with producer Media Musketeers Studios that the project then began to gain traction and the show navigated the Covid pandemic to win a green light. Media Musketeers produces with Entourage Ventures and Grand Pictures, while Abacus Media Rights is the international distributor.
The show’s pilot changed 50 times, Ashmawy estimates. “Then all of a sudden, I was like, ‘I like this. This is great. This is something I’m really proud of.’ It was a lot of graft and work, but I learned a lot during that process. You just have to leave your ego at the door when you’re a writer and take the steer from people. I had such good people around me to help me through that first time.
“I would throw it out as far as I could and people would tell me to reel it in if it was too strong. There were a lot of people keeping me on track. It’s just about every character feeling real and the world feeling real.”
Ashmawy partnered with Mandy McKeon and Stefanie Preissner to write the scripts, while Declan Recks came on board to direct. But it was only after completing the scripts that he discovered he has written himself “the straight man part” and given the best lines to the characters around Sam.
“There were certain characters I wanted to be funny or to say something,” he says. “But when I got to the end of it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I wrote myself a depressed straight man part.’ He’s slightly narky, depressed, angry – that’s who Sam is. But that’s his journey. I wanted Sam to reach that point where you just like, ‘Oh, his heart’s in the right place and he’s trying his best to be a good dad.’”
When it came to filming the series, Ashmawy confesses he had some first-day butterflies, despite his extensive experience in front of the camera. There were also some elements of imposter syndrome, as he questioned whether he would be good enough to perform alongside the supporting cast, which includes Amir El Masry (SAS Rogue Heroes), Raad Rawi (Holby City) and Art Campion (Derry Girls).
“I was fairly pumped about it, but I suppose there’s always nerves whenever you put yourself out there with anything,” he notes. “I work with my sister Mahy; she helps me with the scripts, and having her around was a great balance for me. Then it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”
Expected to air on Virgin Media in Ireland early next year, Faithless is set to become the latest Irish series to hit the international stage, following in the footsteps of dramas such as Bad Sisters, Kin, The Gone, Hidden Assets and Clean Sweep.
“Creatively, there are some amazing people here,” Ashmawy says. “You can see it in theatres, you can see it in literature, you can see it everywhere. Some of those artists and creators are getting to show off their work and it seems to have a universal feel to it. The likes of [Bad Sisters star] Sharon Horgan opened the door for a reawakening of Irish drama and dramedy.”
Now reflecting on making his own series, the star says he has faced a big learning curve writing and starring in Faithless compared with his previous television work.
“It’s not different in a bad way, it’s just a different process. You have to switch a different part of your brain on, be in the moment, not be tied to a script and be able to play with the other actors,” he says. “It’s just a matter of centring yourself in a different way from presenting. But I loved every single minute of it.
“It was exactly what I wanted it to be, to get to tell the story I wanted to tell. As much of an emotional rollercoaster as it was, I just can’t wait to get stuck in and do the next thing.”