Rahul Kohli Breaks Down Bringing a Brown, Bearded Muslim Hero to Life on Midnight Mass

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Midnight Mass,” streaming now on Netflix.

British actor Rahul Kohli has a knack for picking out-of-the-box genre roles and then stealing scenes in all of them. He starred as the lovable Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti on The CW’s “iZombie” for five seasons before moving onto projects including HBO Max’s “Harley Quinn” and Mike Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor” for Netflix. Now Kohli has teamed up with that creator-director again, on “Midnight Mass,” also for Netflix. In it, Kohli plays Sheriff Hassan, a single father in charge of the law and order in a small, isolated community where the inhabitants are getting taken in by the charm and seeming miracles of a priest.

You called “Midnight Mass” the best project you’ve ever been involved in. Was that because of the subject matter and the character or the experience making it?

I meant it more in terms of content. I don’t believe it’s my best performance, but this is the first time I felt I was a part of something bigger than me. It was just being a part of this incredible story and being a part of this ensemble. This story in particular has been Mike’s holy grail — it’s taken him a very long time to get to this — and it was very special to be involved.

The experience itself wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, and that was not due to the cast or crew; it was due to the times. We were shooting in the height of the pandemic and that is, for many reasons, no way to work. Those conditions were extremely restrictive. Because we were one of the first shows to do it, our guidelines, that we agreed upon with the Canadian government and SAG, were probably overzealous. But this was at a time when we weren’t sure if you could get COVID from your Amazon parcel or your eyeball. We all isolated and, in part because of the character, I bubbled hard. If I wasn’t on set or at the gym, I didn’t leave my apartment, and that’s usually time you bond with cast members. I didn’t do that, even when we were testing. It worked for my character to feel not really accepted.

How did Mike come to you with this new role and what was the deciding factor in taking it, even though you’d have to work under these conditions that were so complicated?

Mike directed the pilot of “Bly Manor,” which was my first time working with Intrepid [Pictures] and Mike and co. Mike sized me up and we had a mini interaction where he just asked me something vague and I was like, “Huh, that’s weird. That didn’t feel like it had anything to do with what we’re doing right now.” And then, over the course of the next month or six weeks, I’d get random emails from Mike, and they would be like, “On a scale of one to 10, what’s your American accent?”; “How old do you think you can play?” Eventually I think I said something like, “Yo, let’s stop flirting; let’s have a meeting.” So, we took a meeting in his office, and he said, “OK I want to tell you this story.” He walked me through basically every beat [of “Midnight Mass”] in about 15 minutes and I was just hooked. He said he’d like to offer me the role of the sheriff, and I said yes on the spot, and I remember Mike was like, “No, you have to go to your team.” And I was like, “I don’t give a shit, this is my role, don’t you dare offer it to anyone else!”

I asked Mike how old [I would be playing] and he said early 40s, so I asked if I should put on weight. And he was like, “Sure.” He had a box of pizza on the coffee table and I picked up a few slices and was like, “I’ll start now.” So, I started up putting on weight during “Bly Manor” and ended up putting on 30 pounds of fat. I was doing everything I could for Hassan: I had a LAPD ride-along, I arranged some weapons training, I was having dialect coaching, my best friend who also was a consultant on our show was doing Islamic prayer with me. We get to the table read in Vancouver, and COVID lockdown starts. We were supposed to shoot on Monday, but on Friday we got a call to say, “Go home.” We were told we’d be back in two weeks, but it turned into four or five months. So, I was trying to hold onto 30 pounds of fat thinking every two weeks we’d go back, but it was killing my health. I ended up texting Mike a picture of Joel from “The Last of Us” because I was playing that at the time and said, “I think that’s the sheriff, what do you think?” He said, “I fucking love that, let’s go for that.”

Playing an officer of the law can be a divisive thing at this moment. Did this add extra pressure to the role?

A week or two after my ride-along, George Floyd was murdered, and it was very difficult to want to put that uniform on, so I wrestled with it for a while. But the truth of it is, no one’s denying that there are good apples and bad apples, and Hassan is clearly a good apple, trying to do the right thing. He tried to call out his own and tried to police his own and got himself stripped of his job title and demoted [before he moved to this town]. So, I just tried to convey a sense of dignity. His love and compassion for someone that no one else on the island shows, for example, is more about the content of his character. It wasn’t police propaganda; it was more about a good man who has strong beliefs. The biggest sell of this character, for me, was Mike’s ability to take America’s most iconic TV and action hero — the American sheriff — and then America’s greatest threat — the brown, bearded man — and smash those two together. It was less about the sheriff side and more about the goodness to him that was more important to us; he just happened to be in a position of authority.

Your character is Muslim. What were the responsibilities you felt in being a representative of that faith in a show more heavily steeped in Christian themes, especially when it is one you do not identify as your own?

This has been a very difficult job for me, representing law enforcement at a time when it’s extremely controversial and there are questions of police reform, and at the same time I’m representing Islam and what it means to be a brown, bearded man — and then I’m representing Americans in general. [Laughs.] My best friend in the whole world, Mohamed Bouissa, I met in elementary school. I was an atheist at a very young age, and we formed a bond — a Muslim and a guy who drinks and smokes — that has just been about friendship and joy. He’s the person that I thought about all the time when studying for Hassan, to the point where we were having long conversations about Islam. When Mike found that out, Mohamed was brought on to consult. I wanted to know, from Mohamed, “Bruv, when you were 15 or 16 or 17, what did you want to see from a Muslim hero in a show?” That was my M.O. I just wanted to give young brown kids, and particularly Muslim kids, something to watch that they’d feel proud watching. And that’s one of the other reasons I ended up losing the weight: if I’m going to represent us, let’s look good! Let’s be brown Harrison Ford then and scowl and look off in the distance and do all of the hero shots. That’s how I wanted to represent this character.

With everything happening at the time — the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd — I ended up researching a lot about the Nation of Islam in New Jersey. Being a British-born kid, that’s not part of our education. But being so taken by Malcolm X and his plight, in the script [the character] was just Sheriff Hassan and I wasn’t clear if that was his first or second name, so I asked Mike if we could make him Sheriff Hassan Shabazz as an homage to Malcolm X.

The show doesn’t explore a ton of individual moments where your character is responding to the changes on the island that characters around him are calling miracles. Did you have to imagine he was doing anything specific to fill in the on-screen gaps or even suspect something supernatural like vampires?

Much like how I feel everyone handled religion is how he handled it. There is a certain level of faith and belief in the face of other people’s miracles, other people’s journeys. There’s contradictory texts, there are contradictory teachings, there are things that are said that we know are false because of science and you have to, to a certain degree, ignore. The bible says the Earth is 5,000 years old, but carbon dating throws a spanner in the works. So, if you can live your day-to-day life with faith in what you believe, I don’t think it matters. If Jesus himself came to Crockett Island, I think Hassan would have said, “This is false.” It didn’t matter; she started walking and so? I think you can choose not to look at things, and I think he tried to not really pay too much attention to it.

After viewing your character as the hero but knowing his son still didn’t listen to him and that he couldn’t save the town or even himself, how do you feel about his ending?

Ali does, obviously, drink the blood — [Hassan] does lose him to the influence of the island — but Ali, at the right time, does the right thing. He sets the rec center on fire and then carries his father, and Ali never fed on anyone. And they end up doing this Muslim prayer on the beach together, and that is a win for him. For Hassan, all he wanted was to do right by his wife’s wishes and do his best at raising his son and make his son be a good person. Yes, he went to the dark side, so to speak, but when it mattered, the content of his character showed. And all that mattered to him was that they were there together at the end. That’s his hero moment: he got [his son] back.

You also recently tweeted about not getting royalties for “iZombie.” In the evolving landscape of fewer syndication deals but much more streaming, that is one thing that has changed greatly. Why do you feel it’s important to educate your fellow performers and the public about the business of Hollywood?

I wasn’t really informing. I think the reason I brought it up was because I try to have a level of openness and honesty with my followers [so] when I tell you to check out “iZombie” on Netflix — when I tell you to rewatch some of this old catalogue work — there is no monetary incentive for me to do so. So, when I talk about a project like “iZombie” and I say how proud I am and am welcoming new fans, I’m saying it because it’s the honest truth about how I feel. I didn’t realize, which is my own mistake, that people are very protective of you. It’s very sweet, but then all of a sudden it’s like they wanted to burn CW at the stake, but everyone calm down, I’m OK with it; I’m in a position now where I’m protected and taken care of. When I did “iZombie,” and I’m not with those people anymore, we didn’t have lawyers, we had never negotiated a contract like that before, we were all fish out of water. But it was less about informing everyone and more about just being transparent about my relationship to that work and also trying to put a positive spin on it, which is, if you’re out there right now and you’re struggling, things can get better.

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