Raza Jaffrey is trading in spy craft for medicine. After star turns on series including Homeland and Elementary, the British-born actor’s latest role finds him front and center in a Los Angeles ER on Code Black, a new CBS medical drama based on the documentary of the same name. Jaffrey plays Dr. Neal Hudson, an emergency-room veteran in one of the nation’s busiest hospitals who also has a somewhat complicated relationship with his colleagues.
Here, Jaffrey explains what made the series irresistible, how it’s changed his view of hospitals and why laughter, at least on the Code Black set, can be the very best medicine.
The hospital procedural is something TV fans know and love. What makes this one different?
Our show is inspired by Ryan McGarry’s documentary called Code Black, which won a lot of awards. That particular documentary is about Los Angeles County Hospital and the emergency room down there. I urge anyone to watch that documentary; it’s a really fantastic piece of filmmaking and it was what inspired the show. And I watched that documentary when Michael [Seitzman, the show runner] was first talking about the series and what it would be and coming up with the idea. I think having that as a kind of a grounding or a basis or launch pad really for what our show is, it’s fantastic because it means the show is much more naturalistic, it’s much more real storytelling.
In addition to that, what drew you to the show?
It happened because of Michael, who created the series. I met him earlier in the year and he knew my work from a show I did in the UK called Spooks, or MI-5 as it was called when it was screened here. It was a spy drama [from the] BBC, and Michael was involved with bringing that show to the U.S., so I went along and leapt on this. They changed the role around for me because Michael and I wanted to work together, so he helped mold the role.
That’s nice, to walk into a role that someone’s tweaked just for you.
Yeah, well, you know. I love Michael’s writing and I think he works this way with all of his characters, as all the best dramas do really. He is very open to seeing what is in front of him and writing accordingly, and that’s something you get to do on a long running show. If you’re lucky enough to do 13 or 22 episodes in a season, then actually there is space to develop a character in that way, and that’s what we have begun to do already in the six episodes we’ve already shot this year.
So, how does the show take its inspiration from the documentary?
Code Black isn’t scared of being gritty in that way, which is not something we necessarily expect anymore from network television. The show is much more edgy, it looks darker. I think it’s more exciting and inclusive because of it. We can do these great long scenes that really draw the audience in, and hopefully it’s something that they won’t have seen.
Has it made you reconsider the way life must be for real doctors?
I have so much respect for those guys. I mean, I had it before, but even more now. Particularly those emergency room physicians who work at county hospitals, because they’re not paid what they would be in private practice elsewhere. They’re there really because they want to be there and they want to help the community in that way. It is extraordinary watching these men and women work.
The patients aren’t the only ones with complicated lives on this series. How does the first season treat your character?
Yeah, the thing I love about Code Black is that we are getting to live with these characters as we go. Their stories aren’t told an awful lot in backstory, you know? So when the audience arrives [for the] first episode, there’s not a load of stuff that’s gone before that they’re going to miss. The journey of these characters lives happens in front of them. We just shot a fantastic episode where my parents end up in the emergency room and I end up having to do CPR and other stuff on my mother as well, which brings up all sorts of questions. We’re not scared of putting these characters through the mill in front of the audience, which is great. They’ve given Neal some really wonderful, really heroic and yet really dark stuff, which I’m really proud to be able to bring to the screen.
Are there any upbeat moments?
We are having so much fun! The other thing about this show actually, is that it’s a company of people who really get along. I think if you’re locked in a studio for 14 hours a day and dealing with that kind of situation, you need to have a sense of humor about it, and thankfully we as a cast really do. Often you find that the set where the darkest stuff is happening is where the most fun is being had as soon as they shout, “cut.” I think you need that.