Daredevil Season 3: How Jay Ali Brought Agent Ray Nadeem to Life
The man behind FBI Agent Ray Nadeem opens up about playing a character without a comic book origin, and working with Vincent D’Onofrio.
CAUTION: Daredevil season 3 spoilers ahead.
A week has passed since Daredevil Season 3 debuted on Netflix. A lot has already happened in that time, including the streaming giant’s decision to cancel two of its fellow Marvel-produced shows, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Considering all the critical acclaim and praise from fans that Daredevil‘s latest installment has been receiving, however, its future at Netflix probably rests on sturdier grounds.
The same cannot be said for FBI Agent Rahul “Ray” Nadeem (Jay Ali), whose season-long arc not only helped showrunner Erik Oleson and his writer’s room connect all the necessary dots to each other. The wholly original character also provided Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and friends with the evidence they needed to finally take down Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), but in order to do so, he had to die by the insanely accurate hands of Benjamin Poindexter/Bullseye (Wilson Bethel).
Ali, an English actor known for his work in The Fosters, spoke to Den of Geek about scoring the “role of a lifetime” and the many, many positive reactions to his portrayal of Ray Nadeem.
Den of Geek: The reaction from viewers to the Ray Nadeem character has been massive. How does that make you feel?
Jay Ali: It’s amazing! You always feel like you’re doing something good and special when you’re shooting it. With what Erik Oleson and all the writers had done with the character, you’re like, “This isn’t just a sideline FBI guy. This somebody who’s got something to say and something to do.” As someone whose character isn’t in the comic books, you’re always a little bit worried about how people are going to respond to it, but it’s been unbelievable.
further reading: Complete Guide to Daredevil Season 3 Marvel Easter Eggs
The love and support that people have been sending to me on social media, and how they all responded to this character, has been so relieving. What we wanted to achieve with Ray Nadeem and his storyline worked. Everyone got it. Of course, the credit really has to go to Erik and his writing staff, because they did an amazing arc for Ray. It was the role of a lifetime. It really was. I don’t know many other characters who get to get this much of an amazing arc in one season.
And with how streaming works, there will be people who don’t watch this season until months or years from now, so you still might be getting praise online for the foreseeable future.
I know! That’s what’s mad about it. I’m still getting messages from people who are watching it now, saying, “I’m on episode five and I’m loving it!” So yeah, people will be finding this show in a few months’ time, a few years’ time or longer, and will probably keep messaging me and everyone else then. And that’s the beauty of Netflix. It’s there forever. No one can get rid of me.
I get a lot of messages from all around the world, which is so lovely, about how nice it is to see a person of color in a role that doesn’t incessantly talk about his ethnicity, his culture or his religion. It’s there, of course, but it’s not the only reason the character exists. That’s a really positive thing that folks have been talking about, how refreshing it is, and it’s great. I’m getting messages from people who are hopeful that more roles like this are out there, or will be out there, in other shows.
So much of the credit has to go to Erik, because he fought for this character. He fought for Ray to have this ethnicity, and to be represented in such a fashion in the show. It’s a really special thing that he did.
When you first came on board, what was the first thing Erik told you about this character? How did he pitch Ray Nadeem to you?
The first thing Erik said to me was, “Ray Nadeem is the heart of the show. He’s the human element at the heart of this season.” Basically, he told me Ray was an honest, good guy who wanted to show how corrupt people use fear to intimidate people. People like Ray Nadeem. And it was so interesting to hear that, to see him putting so much weight on a character who wasn’t from the original comics.
At the same time, I thought, “Sure, he works for the FBI but he’s probably going to be this side character.” But every time I got a script, I was like, “Oh wow, he’s still going! Ray Nadeem is still in there fighting the good fight.” And it’s his arc that makes him so interesting. He’s a man down on his luck and has been overlooked for a promotion, and he’s just trying to fight for his family. He’s just trying to look after them, and even when he makes his deal with Wilson Fisk, he’s not doing it to make some money on the side.
He’s doing it because he genuinely believes that it’s good for society, since Fisk is giving them access to all of these criminal organizations. There’s a line where Ray says, “New York is safer tonight because of Wilson Fisk,” and I think he really believes that. Unfortunately, he’s manipulated and taken for a ride, and he gets himself so deep into this web that he can’t get out.
Ray also interacts with just about every other major character this season. It’s an especially interesting move, considering the fact that Ray is totally you, Erik, and the writers’ creation. You didn’t have the comics to reference like everyone else has, right?
Yeah, I didn’t have that. Erik and the writers pretty much did everything for me. They put everything down on paper and all I had to do was say their words. They did such an amazing job creating Ray, though I don’t mean this to say that it was easy in an arrogant way. It’s just that, they had done such a fantastic job creating this character that I had little else to do. It was just brilliant, and the role of a lifetime for me. And since it was a wholly original character for this season, I didn’t really need to be that well-versed in what had happened in the previous seasons, or even in the comic books. It was a fresh canvas.
You also got to spend time with just about everyone in this cast. Especially Vincent D’Onofrio, who raved about you on social media.
You always want to do a good job, and you always think you’re doing a good job, but there’s always that voice in the back of your mind that’s going, “I don’t know how this is going to go down.” It’s art, at the end of the day. It’s subjective. What I think is good might not be the same as what you think is good. None of us are wrong, per se. It’s just this subjective thing. So it’s nice to do something and realize that the general consensus is, “You did a good job!”
further reading: Daredevil Season 3 Villain Revealed – Wilson Bethel on Becoming Bullseye
That’s really special, but then to get praise from the legend that is Vincent D’Onofrio is unbelievable. I couldn’t have done what I did without him. When I first got the role, I move to New York and started shooting within a week. It was all pretty overwhelming, and my first scenes were with Vincent D’Onofrio. It’s like, “What the hell is going on?”
That must have been one hell of a trip.
It didn’t really register with me, what had happened, until we had finished shooting. I was a little bit overwhelmed on the first day, but I remember Vincent held my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m here for you. We’re in this together. Take your time.” In those couple of minutes, I learned more about acting than I had in the previous 10 years. And he was brilliant, so supportive and made me realize I already knew what I was doing. He literally said to me one day, “Trust what you’re doing.”
further reading: Daredevil Season 3 Ending Explained
As an actor, you’re always questioning what you’re doing. So he told me, “Trust it. You’ve got this role. This is your role. You’re the best for this job. You can do this.” Later on in the season, if he thought I was rushing something, he’d turn to me and say, “Take your time.” I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without what he taught me, but the same goes for working with Wilson Bethel, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Charlie Cox and Joanne Whalley. I learned so much from all of them.
As wonderful as that is, it’s also kind of sad, for as great as Ray’s arc is throughout the season, it comes to a rather unfortunate end.
But I think it was the right thing to do. If we were going to tell this particular story, we had to tell it in this tragic way. Midway through shooting the season, there was talk of not killing off Ray Nadeem, but we decided it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing for the story. It completed the arc. Would I have loved to do another season of Daredevil? Of course! But we had to do what was best for this show, and the show should be bigger than the individual characters. What was best for the show was Ray Nadeem had to die.
Daredevil season 3 is now available to stream on Netflix.
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