Mozhan Marnò: Diaries, Screenplays, And Blacklists Mozhan Marnò shares the research behind shaping her character, FBI and Mossad operative Samar Navabi, on 'The Blacklist.' Inspired by her voiceover work, we play a game about celebrity audiobooks.
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Mozhan Marnò: Diaries, Screenplays, And Blacklists

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Mozhan Marnò: Diaries, Screenplays, And Blacklists

Mozhan Marnò: Diaries, Screenplays, And Blacklists

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with Puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thank you, Jonathan. It is time to introduce our special guest. She plays Samar Navabi on "The Blacklist" on NBC. Please welcome Mozhan Marno.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Hi...

MOZHAN MARNO: Hi.

EISENBERG: ...Thanks so much for coming on ASK ME ANOTHER. It's such a pleasure.

MARNO: I'm so excited.

EISENBERG: And this was a big day. You were shooting today.

MARNO: We were. We were shooting our 100th episode.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: So - and was there celebration?

MARNO: There was. There was a big cake that nobody ate.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: They just - it was like - it had a big picture of James Spader's face on it. And we, like, stuck a knife in it, and nobody put it in their mouths.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah. No. That's a big deal. This is a - I mean, this is a long-running television show.

MARNO: Yeah, it is. It's exciting.

EISENBERG: And you play Samar Navabi, a Mossad operative on this wildly popular show. But you were a fan of the show before you were on it.

MARNO: Yeah, so...

EISENBERG: You watched it.

MARNO: I came on in the second season. And all throughout the first season, I was auditioning for random guest stars on the show. And so I usually watch a show that I'm auditioning for. And so I started watching it for that reason, and then I got hooked on it. And then at some point towards the end of the season, they, like, slit the throat of the ethnic chick. And I was, like, oh, they're going to get - they're going to be hiring more ethnics.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: I can slip in there. And so I called my manager, and I was, like, they killed the Indian girl on "Blacklist." And she's like, uh-huh. And I was like, so, you know, watch out for it. And then like two months later, I had an audition. And it worked out.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So when your character Samar was introduced, she was very mysterious...

MARNO: ...And still is still.

EISENBERG: And still is - but we're finding little by little more and more about her. Did you do research on this character? Or are you just sliding in and, like, figuring it out?

MARNO: I did research about what Mossad training would be.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

MARNO: And also what FBI training would be. And they have, like, experts and specialists to help you out with that on the show and sort of hanging around our set and telling us, like, no, that - don't hold the gun like that. That looks dumb.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: So then I talked a lot with showrunners about what they envisioned for her. And then we kind of came up with a joint idea for her background.

EISENBERG: OK. So you were part of that process.

MARNO: Yeah. I think - well, originally they had they had thought - I mean, it was the logical conclusion that a Mossad agent would be from Israel. And then they cast me. And my parents are Iranian. And I'm Iranian-American, so they thought, like, oh, that's cool. We'll just use your actual background. So then there was a bit of a kerfuffle because they wanted me to be Iranian, but also a Mossad agent. So we kind of figured that out.

EISENBERG: And do you have any input on your character arc going forward?

MARNO: Not so much - no.

EISENBERG: How would you like your character to develop through the show?

MARNO: I think it's always interesting when you get to play a lot of different shades of a person. So we've seen her for many seasons be very tough and very hard to read. And I think it would be fun to get to explore more of her vulnerabilities and also maybe, like - you know, maybe she gets wild.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Maybe - I like that.

MARNO: I mean, I'm sure she drinks.

EISENBERG: Why not? So in addition to acting, you write screenplays.

MARNO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: And one of your screenplays was turned into an actual piece of theater called "When The Lights Went Out," which was about your experience in 2003 in New York City when there was this blackout...

MARNO: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Which I remember.

MARNO: Oh, yeah?

EISENBERG: So what was it about your experience that you were, like, this needs to be a piece of work?

MARNO: Well, it was a remarkable night in New York. And it was in 2003. And it was in August. And it was one of the hottest days of the summer. And then there was suddenly this entire blackout throughout the Northeast. And it turned into a block party. And I remember walking the streets with a friend of mine the whole night. And there were homeless men sleeping next to businessmen in the park. And everybody only had the money that they had in their pockets because ATM cards didn't work and credit cards didn't work.

EISENBERG: Right.

MARNO: So that sort of leveled the playing field economically in a really interesting way. And so that was the beginning.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

MARNO: And then I was like, what if there's a romance? And what if there's a couple who hates each other, and they're stuck with each other all night? And then some immigrants - and then, you know, that was what happened.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Very cool - and also you're working on a screenplay that is called "Yalda." Can you tell us about what that is?

MARNO: Yeah. So I've written a screenplay that I'm going to direct. And it's about an Iranian family splintered after the revolution, told in three perspectives - one from the perspective of the daughter who's Iranian-American based on I-have-no-idea-who. And then we - and that's present-day Los Angeles. And then the second part is sort of the whole story told from the mother's perspective in the '70s - starting from the '70s in Tehran. And then the third act is the entire story of the family but from the father's perspective. And he emigrated to Sweden.

EISENBERG: And this is autobiographical.

MARNO: I mean, it's, like, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some other people's stories. It's...

EISENBERG: Woven in.

MARNO: ...Fiction, yeah.

EISENBERG: Another thing that I really like is that you participate in something called the 52nd Street Project.

MARNO: Oh, yeah.

EISENBERG: So this is a program that casts actors in plays written and directed by 10-year-olds.

MARNO: Yeah, they're between 10 and 13. And they teach kids how to write and act and - you know? And so this particular thing that I'm doing right now actually is they take the kids away on a retreat. They write a play - a 10-minute play. And then they cast professional actors to be in them. And then they have a professional director. And we bring the 10-year-old's play to life. And it's extraordinary. It's so funny.

EISENBERG: So you are getting into the brain of a 10-year-old.

MARNO: It's extraordinary.

EISENBERG: OK.

MARNO: The girls' plays are so much more sophisticated than the boys' plays.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: The girls' play as are all about, you know, how do we socially interact with each other. They're about stereotypes. And they're so deep and so emotional. And all the guys are, like, dragon fights and swords and stabbing each other.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: And there was this - I have to just say this. There was this one play that I will never forget - that it was these two girls. And one was the brainy girl, and one was the beautiful girl. And the brainy girl was secretly beautiful, and the beautiful girl was secretly brainy. But they both knew they couldn't be both.

(GASPS)

MARNO: Right? And I was like, what are we doing to our girls?

EISENBERG: I know. What are we...

MARNO: What are we doing to our young girls? Yes, I was - but it's profound, right?

EISENBERG: It's totally profound.

MARNO: That's why it stuck with me.

EISENBERG: So you put on Instagram a page from your own 9-year-old diary.

MARNO: I did.

EISENBERG: So first of all, you kept a diary when you were 9 years old.

MARNO: I did. I kept a diary from age 8 till about 22. And then I took a 10-year break and then at 32 started writing in my journal again.

EISENBERG: So when you were 9, what did you write about?

MARNO: It was like, why I like John (ph). And then the next week, it was like, pros and cons of John.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: And the week after that, it was like, why I hate John.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: And why doesn't John like me? I was like, girl, he didn't like you.

(LAUGHTER)

MARNO: I was reading through it. And I was like, why was I wondering whether or not he liked me. Anyway...

EISENBERG: What about Eric H.? He was in the page on the Instagram.

MARNO: Oh, my God, he was. And he liked me, and I didn't like him. I have learned nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right, are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

MARNO: I am, but I'm nervous.

EISENBERG: Oh, you'll be fine.

MARNO: OK, OK.

EISENBERG: Everyone, give her a hand - Mozhan Marno.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: So in addition to acting, writing, Instagramming your journal, you narrate audiobooks.

MARNO: I do.

EISENBERG: OK, so how did you get into that?

MARNO: You know, I - like all actors, we are always scrambling to figure out how to, you know, pay our bills and live. And this was one of them. This was a great way. And I met a guy at a party in LA who was, like, the Robert De Niro of audiobooks.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

MARNO: (Laughter) He was, like, a very successful audiobook narrator. And I asked him how I could get involved. And I guess so many people asked him that he had a Word doc prepared for this question.

EISENBERG: Oh, my God.

MARNO: And he just emailed it to me. And it was like, you have to make a demo. And then you have to like cart it around to all these audiobook conferences. And I was like, I'm not going to do that. (Laughter) That's bananas.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that sounds like so much work.

MARNO: So I left it completely alone. And then a year later, he emailed me and was like there's an audition for an audiobook about - it was a YA novel set in Afghanistan. And I was like, OK. So I auditioned for it and got it. And then a career was born.

EISENBERG: OK, yeah. So based on that, your game is actually about celebrity audiobook narrators. We're going to play you a clip. You just have to tell us who the celebrity is or what book they're reading. Or if you want to be all fancy, you can tell us both.

MARNO: Oh, damn.

EISENBERG: So let's give it a shot. And if you do well enough, listener Jason Poulson (ph) from American Fork, Utah, is going to win a Rubik's cube.

MARNO: Oh, OK.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Now you have a motivation.

MARNO: OK, wonderful.

EISENBERG: OK, here we go. This I-got-you-babe singer read this children's book about animals who are not very accepting.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE UGLY DUCKLING")

CHER: (Reading) But how big he was and all gray. And compared to the other ducklings, how ugly.

MARNO: Cher.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

MARNO: I wouldn't have known it was Cher if you hadn't said I got you, babe.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah?

MARNO: Yeah. It didn't sound like her.

EISENBERG: That's her reading "The Ugly Duckling." This is a line from the book. (Reading) What a strange-looking one you are. But that won't matter to us as long as you don't marry into our family.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: (Reading) The poor little duckling had no thought of marrying. He only wanted a quiet place to rest and a little water to drink.

MARNO: Oh, oh, no, that's awful.

EISENBERG: I know.

MARNO: They read that to children?

EISENBERG: They hadn't - not any more clearly. This action movie star has a very particular set of skills, including conducting a train to Santa's workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE POLAR EXPRESS")

LIAM NEESON: (Reading) As our train drew closer to the center of the North Pole, we slowed to a crawl. So crowded were the streets with Santa's helpers.

MARNO: Liam Neeson.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.

(APPLAUSE)

MARNO: He's also, like - he's, like, smoking hot. That's a smoking-hot man.

EISENBERG: Liam Neeson - smoking hot.

MARNO: Yeah, yeah. I generally know their voices.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Do you know the book?

MARNO: No.

EISENBERG: "The Polar Express." When Liam Neeson reads this version, a kid gets kidnapped.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That's terrible. OK, this is your last clue. She won an Oscar for her work in "Les Miserables" and may be angling for a role in "Wicked" based on this audiobook performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

ANNE HATHAWAY: We cannot be far from the road of yellow brick now, remarked the scarecrow as he stood beside the girl.

MARNO: Oh. Oh. Anne Hathaway.

EISENBERG: Yes. That is correct.

MARNO: Right.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: And do you know the book?

MARNO: It's "The Wizard Of Oz."

EISENBERG: Yes. That's correct, as well. Well done.

MARNO: Finally.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: I'd say you're pretty amazing at that...

MARNO: No.

EISENBERG: ...But let's toss it over to puzzle guru Art Chung. How did our special guest do?

ART CHUNG: Congratulations, Mozhan. You and Jason Poulson both win ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

MARNO: Yay.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: "The Blacklist" returns with new episodes in January and airs on Wednesdays on NBC. Give it up for Mozhan Marno, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

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