AppleTV+ 'Black Bird': Ray Liotta's last TV show had Sepideh Moafi diving into women bullied in the FBI

·8 min read

In the late Ray Liotta’s last TV role before his death, Black Bird on AppleTV+ (premiering July 8), also starring Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser and Sepideh Moafi, is a gut-wrenchingly gripping serial killer, true crime psychological thriller.

Inspired by the autobiographical book “In With The Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption” by James Keene and Hillel Levin, Black Bird starts out in the year 1996. Jimmy Keene, played by Egerton, has been sentenced to 10 years in a minimum security prison for sale and trafficking of narcotics and possession of illegal firearms in Illinois.

Taron Egerton in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Taron Egerton in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.

Jimmy, the son of police officer Big Jim Keene, played by Liotta, is presented with a choice by FBI agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi), he can serve his time in prison or he can be transferred to a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane in Missouri to connect with and elicit a confession from inmate Larry Hall (Hauser). Larry is suspected of killing 14 young women, but officers have only linked him to two deaths, and they only have one body. If Jimmy can get the locations of the other bodies, he gets freedom. Jimmy, initially, isn’t interested in this deal at all, but when Big Jim has a stroke, Jimmy realizes his time with his father is limited.

For Moafi, what initially drew her to the project, and the character of Lauren, was the script.

“It was perfect from the time I read it,” the actor told Yahoo Canada. Dennis [Lehane] is unarguably, I think, one of the greatest crime novelists of our time, he's written some of the greatest films, I think, as well.”

“I knew that I wanted to be involved with a project that he sort of spearheaded, that he was in control of, because I trust him fully… The character of Lauren, she's fascinating. She's so dynamic and complex, and she's this intuitive, brilliant, fearless, FBI special agent who is essentially the connective tissue,...she binds all these elements and characters together in a male-dominated world and workforce.”

Sepideh Moafi and Greg Kinnear in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Sepideh Moafi and Greg Kinnear in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.

'Women are meant to feel inferior and weak and inept'

In a male-dominated story, a frighteningly horrendous tale of violence against women, Sepideh Moafi, the only woman in the lead cast, is largely our only glimpse into the revelations of this killer from a woman’s perspective.

“Initially, I was confident I wouldn't book this role because I thought they were for sure going to give this offer out to a million different big names, but I had a session with Dennis and right after he offered me the role,” Moafi revealed. “But after that he said, ‘look, Lauren is the female lead of the show, she's one of the only women in the story and it's important for me to get her right, and I want your help.’”

“Right then and there, I knew that this would be a deep, fruitful collaboration and he sort of democratized the artistic space, empowered me to speak up anytime I wanted, share my ideas. I felt a great deal of confidence in moving forward in my research and my work process, because I knew that I felt supported, and not just supported...throughout the process, but also, he wanted to amplify my ideas and incorporate anything I had to say or contribute.”

There is a line that is sometimes crossed in true crime content when the perpetrators are glorified, but that’s not the case in Black Bird, while the series also doesn’t dilute itself in terms of the way Larry Hall, in addition to Jimmy Keane and other officers, talk about and to women.

“It is a huge responsibility too, have an authentic representation of what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated world,” Moafi said. “Few women have been able to be part of the FBI for 51 years.”

The first two women admitted to the FBI in 1972 were Joanne Pierce (Misko) and Susan Roley (Malone), but still to this day, there is a gap in women and men being seen as equals.

“Through my research and interviews with former agents I discovered, that discrimination, it's brutal, and the bullying of women in the workforce,” Moafi said. “And not just in the FBI, I mean across the board, as we know, but especially in the FBI, women are meant to feel inferior and weak and inept.”

“There were many guiding principles in how I sort of shaped Lauren because she has to be tougher than any man she's around. She has to be as manipulative, in a way, and she's a chameleon, she changes depending on who she's talking to, who she's dealing with, what she needs from that person.”

An example of that is when Lauren is talking to Larry’s brother, she’s softer, or “tender,” as Moafi describes it. But with Jimmy she’s much harsher and direct, particularly initially in their relationship.

“I think showing the humanity, the vulnerability, but also the ruthless strength in Lauren was important for me, and how she not only holds herself, but sort of…goes beyond any of her male counterparts in so many ways,” Moafi explained.

Paul Walter Hauser in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Paul Walter Hauser in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.

'I was sobbing during our table read'

Black Bird doesn’t show any of these violent and violating killings, but it does include moments of intensely detailed descriptions of the circumstances of these deaths. Appropriately heavy to hear, but is also proved difficult for the actors.

“For me, and everybody has their own approach, it was important to prepare thoroughly before I got to set so I wasn't rocked, I knew how to sort of train myself emotionally in a way to think and feel more like Lauren, which is not to say she feels any less than I do,...but Lauren knows how to use this, and have it fuel her engine in pursuit of justice,” Sepideh Moafi explained.

“During our Zoom table read actually, during one of the scenes where Jimmy and Larry are talking about the graphic details,...I was sobbing during our table read, this is when we were just kind of reading it, and Paul [Walter Hauser] had to stop and say, ‘I need a second.’”

Moafi stressed that for her, it was important to feel prepared to enter this space each day, while also understanding how important this subject is for anyone who has experienced something similar, especially those personally impacted by the horrific Larry Hall case.

“I've had the privilege of never having suffered a tragedy like this in my life, but many people have and you want to get it right, you don't want to sanitize the story, but at the same time, you don't want to glorify any of this,” Moafi said. “I think Dennis did this beautifully.”

“He honoured these women who were affected, who were victims of these heinous acts, and he told this incredible riveting story. That's really just the psychological thriller of it, not so much the violent gratuitous acts that were committed.”

Ray Liotta in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Ray Liotta in “Black Bird,” premiering globally July 8, 2022 on Apple TV+.

'He taught me that there's really no battle for truth that isn't worth fighting'

Of course, there is an added emotional element to Black Bird, under the guise of this being the last of Ray Liotta’s television roles before his death in May.

While Sepideh Moafi didn't have any one-on-one scenes with Liotta, just large courtroom moments, his process on set left a lasting impact on her.

“I met him at Dennis's house before we started filming and he was quite shy and reserved, which is so antithetical to anything we've seen of his characters on screen,” Moafi said. “And then over time, over the shoots, we'd run into each other in the hair and makeup trailer, and he was incredibly warm and kind and funny, and just the kind of person you'd want to have a drink with.”

“It was really though, seeing him in his process at work that had the most impact on me. He was never afraid to say what he needed, when he needed it. He was obsessed with the details of the script and getting it right,...and he taught me that there's really no battle for truth that isn't worth fighting. He was so committed to bringing the truth to life.”

While never directly acting with Liotta, Moafi did have a pivotal scene with his daughter Karsen in Episode 5 of the series.

“Karsen has become a friend of mine and I adore her, I think she is defining her own legacy and I'm excited for viewers to be able to see her work,” Moafi said.

“She is absolutely, 100 per cent a natural and her work is just so powerful and easy and just as a person, she is lovely. I'm devastated for her and the family and it is a seismic loss, not only to the family and the world, but to his legacy as an artist.”

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