Hisham Tawfiq’s bodyguard character on NBC’s crime-thriller The Blacklist has become a fan favorite over the past four seasons. Never mind that in 2013, when Tawfiq arrived for what was originally intended as a one-off appearance, he hadn’t yet quit his day job: battling blazes for the FDNY. “James Spader approached me on my first day and got to know the backdrop of my life,” recalls Tawfiq, 47. “We just hit it off. And our personal relationship blended into the relationship of these characters.”
Prior to the show, Tawfiq established his badass bona fides through a series of roles that threatened his physical safety on a daily basis. In high school, the star running back pursued modern dance when injuries forced him to give up football. After graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, deploying to Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Later, Tawfiq landed a job as a corrections officer at New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.

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Through it all, the 6′, 200-pounder continued to dance, even going on tour with Gloria Gaynor. But the FDNY’s schedule allowed more time for auditioning, so he switched jobs again. It was while performing as Shaka Zulu—a part requiring dancing and acting—that Tawfiq had a career epiphany. “I loved the feeling I had playing this African warrior,” says Tawfiq. “I thought, ‘Lemme try this acting thing a little more.’”

The married father of a teenage son—and a 9/11 first responder—Tawfiq understands those life experiences gave him a leg up in Hollywood. “In the Marine Corps, you are not going to get through unless you bust your butt,” he says. “I took on that same attitude with acting. I put my head down and did the work.”

Hisham’s fit list

Raised Muslim on one of Harlem’s toughest blocks, Tawfiq began buffing up at age 12 to combat religiously intolerant bullies. But on the heels of rotator cuff surgeries in recent years, the actor has had to put his heavy weightlifting days behind him.

Nowadays, he sticks to cycling, yoga, swimming, and light weightlifting. His secret weapon on The Blacklist: resistance bands. “When I’m on set, I take my band and step on it, do curls, squats, and shoulder raises,” he says. “Five sets of 10 each.”

Tune in: Watch The Blacklist on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC starting September 27.