Interview : Raoul Bhaneja

From “The Sentinel” and “Weirdsville”


Raoul Bhaneja does it all. An accomplished musician, a director, and an actor- the reason for this chat. In The Sentinel, the Manchester-born Bhaneja plays an Arab American named Azia Hassard, a member of the secret service that’s assigned to protect the President (David Rasche) and the First Lady (Kim Basinger). CLINT MORRIS talks to him about his very interesting, and rather complex, role.

How did you get involved in “The Sentinel”?
I had seen the breakdown for the part about six months before the shoot and saw that it was probably going to shoot in Canada. I knew that Clark Johnson – a Canadian – was directing and that Aziz Hassad was – ethnically – a role I would have a decent chance being considered for. I kept my eyes on it and then eventually got in for an audition for Clark here in Toronto – we seemed to hit it off and I was lucky to get cast, even though actors aren’t supposed to say that kind of thing. They were lucky they got me [Laughs]. Funnily enough he asked me about the 275 plus episodes I did of a show here called Train 48 that was based on the Australian hit Going Home, the one about people who sit on a train commute home and talk…and talk and talk and talk….

Tell me about your character?
Aziz Hassad is an Arab American who is in the Secret Service and is on a team of agents that protect the President and the First Lady. I won’t say more in case it ruins any surprises for any one.

Was it intimidating working with such heavyweights as Michael Douglas, Kim Basinger and Kiefer Sutherland?
Most of my scenes were with Mr. Douglas, who was a producer on the film as well – as he has been for many of his projects his entire career. He was approachable and was professional with everybody. I met Mr. Sutherland for five minutes as he ate a hamburger outside his trailer – I had met his mother, who is a bit of a legendary theatre and political icon, Shirley Douglas, during a Tsunami benefit Canada for Asia on the CBC and just thought she was one of the coolest people on earth. I think I told him [Kiefer] that. Ms. Basinger was pretty private and we didn’t really have much to do with each other so I only saw her now and again. She is one of the few people I have ever seen in my life who actually emits light. I don’t know what it is but it ain’t just make up. She has a natural glow to her skin that is kind of amazing witness. Okay, enough… don’t want to sound creepy…

You’ve released a couple of CDs. So, what comes first? movies or music?
I love to act. I love to play music. I’ve done both for a long time. In fact I talk to you tonight after coming home from playing a show at a Toronto jazz club across the street from the Lord of The Rings theatre production and I ran into the guy (Brent Carver) who plays Gandalf. I guess what I mean is, I feel very at home in the blues world and in the world of acting.

Have you done any music for movies?
I’m doing the music for a documentary I’m producing about my one man show Hamlet, which opened in January and I take it to the Banff Centre for the Arts next week for a short run. The documentary chronicles the six years I’ve spent banging my head off the wall trying to make the show work and also interviewing great Canadian actors who have played the Dane – a list which happens to include Brent Carver, who is playing Gandalf in LOTR, Colm Fiore, Christopher Plummer and a host of others. I do have two music videos that you can watch on my band site – http://www.raoulandthebigtime.com – that I’m proud of. Friday night Im going to a play I wrote and performed some of the music in – so I guess the worlds do collide now and again… mostly in a good way.

You mentioned how well you got along with director Clark Johnson, on “The Sentinel”. Was he as good a director, as he was a guy?
Clark is one of us… by that I mean he is an actor and used to work behind the scenes as a stunt, effects and crew guy in the early days of his career. He’s also from a remarkably talented family of artists. In my books all this makes him is a cool guy to work with. He has a project in the works with Johnny Depp that sounds great and I imagine we are close to seeing him direct a great feature that is less of a “genre” picture as say Swat or The Sentinel. I enjoyed it and I have plans to work with him again.

Let’s talk about your next projects. What can you tell me about “The Dresden Files” and “Weirdsville”?
The Dresden Files is a pilot that has been picked up for series on the Sci Fi Network in the US, based on a series of novels of the same name written by Jim Butcher. It’s set in Chicago and it’s about a wizard private detective (played by Brit Paul Blackthorne). I play the guy who doesn’t believe in any of this magic hocus pocus one bit. It was an enjoyable shoot and Paul is a great guy. Fingers crossed that I will be involved with the future of that project if the stars align. Weirdsville is directed by Pump up The Volume director Alan Moyle and is perhaps one of the weirder movies that I’ve been involved with. I’m a little close to it but I think it is a funny and cool film. It has a quality to it which is very different from some of the cold and sometimes very earnest brand of serious Canadian movies – which I’ve been in and enjoyed – which many folks don’t’ relate to. This is about junkies, and stars the very talented Wes Bentley and Scott Speedman – who will surprise people with this one. Has anyone seen the film Kitchen Party directed by Gary Burns? Speedman is incredibly good in that movie. I play the drug king pin of a tiny town… it was a juicy role and I brought a lot of my own ideas and take on things to it which I hope work.

Did you have to do any research for your role in “Sentinel?
The coolest thing about the prep for this movie was working for a number of sessions as a team with my various actors under the guidance of Gerald A. Cavis who was in the United States Secret Service for many years. We did all kinds of stuff including training with live ammunition! – Which, to make clear, is very, very, very rare when getting ready for a film. However the process helped us all wrap our heads around what it means to “take a bullet” as being on of the things in life in that job that you not be scared of. Amazing.

THE SENTINEL opens across Australia August 3rd