Photographer: Franck Bohbot; Stylist: Monty Jackson; Groomer: Colleen Dominique
David Kelly brings his newest TV series to Peacock on Nov. 10 with The Calling, a crime drama about NYPD detective Avraham Avraham (Jeff Wilbusch), whose belief in mankind is his superpower when it comes to uncovering the truth. Set to a Hans Zimmer score, this deep commitment to spirituality and religious principles is thrown upside down during an investigation. Ahead of the premiere, Wilbusch spoke with LA Confidential about playing a detective, finding the good in people and his recent film, Schächten – A Retribution.
How did you prepare to play an NYPD detective?
I talked to two detectives, I went to a precinct and I asked so many questions that they already wanted to put me on a real case. They're like, “Jeff, start working. You're so motivated and you're so curious and you've got what we need, so just stay here. We need some people.” That was funny, but they meant it as half serious.
No one calls the police or detectives for good things. Always when the police are involved, it is something sad. They are actually just busy always with sad, dark things. And you don't know who to believe as a detective because a lot of people, for different reasons, are not always telling the truth. This trust thing is something that dawned on me.
My character Avraham has stayed very empathetic and very open, emotionally. I think this is also what's special about Avraham is that he’s so emotionally involved. Is it healthy? I don't know. He has no distance. He has no work life balance. He brings his work home and home is work.
How does Avraham’s spirituality help him as a detective?
He's very sensitive and spiritual. He's also religious. As he grew older, he found religion as part of his spirituality. He's not only religious… Avraham was Avraham even before he came religious, and I think this is a part of coping with the depravity he sees. He’s very spiritual. He utilizes his senses— hearing, seeing, touching, smelling— and he believes that using those senses can bring us much further than we think. He not only goes off of concrete evidence, he also really uses intuition. He really listens to people, even the unsaid, always. He always leads with empathy.
He tries to see the light in the dark and always sees the good in people. And I think also the message of the show is humanism and caring for people and that everybody deserves respect. Every single person in this world deserves respect. And I think this is a very unique character I have never seen on TV before. It doesn't mean that he's not susceptible to mistakes and suffering because he's so involved, that he has no distance. It doesn't mean that he's not flawed. It doesn't mean that he himself is not haunted by things. It doesn't mean also that he's a master of psychology and understands everybody, but the relationship to himself maybe needs some work.
He's so close to people that are in the cases, but he's very alone in his life. He has no children, he's single. He has maybe one friend. He has a very interesting, private life. But those contradictions are very interesting. He seems to understand so many people, but I don't know how much he understands himself. I think he's also a mystery to himself. This is what was so fun to discover throughout the season, also as an actor playing the character.
Avraham relies on this spirituality until one investigation makes him rethink his beliefs. What do you think people can learn from Avraham having this existential crisis, particularly in dealing with their own morals and beliefs?
I am thinking always how we learned from the past. There is no racism. There is no discrimination. There is no homophobia. We’ve learned, and then something happens and then a war happens and then antisemitism happens. It shakes one's beliefs in humanity and the good of people and that people are good in their essence. And then you open the news again and you get depressed. But the answer for me is no, people are good. We just need to find those people and we can do better and we should do better and there is hope for and we need to constantly try to be better. I think this is also the journey of Avraham. You look into the darkness and you look into the depravity of humankind and you say, “Still, I want to see the good in people and I want to believe these people are good in their essence.”
You’re also in the Picture Tree International Film Schächten – A Retribution, which has been making the festival rounds this year. It seems like there's some parallel between that role and in The Calling. Do you like playing characters that ultimately examine humanity?
I love challenging characters and interesting characters. Maybe it's a part of me. I think I'm drawn to characters who seem haunted by their past and I think they examine humanity and themselves and they understand maybe that the answer lies within them. It’s also an interesting thing, which roles you choose, which roles choose you.
I don't want to give too much away about Schächten. But I can say that it is very relevant and is connected to the very present time in America, in a way. While shooting the movie, so many things about the Nazi past and things that were like, “Oh, it was the 60s back then” and absurd. While we were shooting, we saw that maybe the past was not that resolved.
We were in Vienna in a restaurant and there was a photo of the prime minister of Austria who was an SS officer and in his past and it was proven that he knew of killing children and women. Back then it was already a big sensation that Austria had this person as a prime minister and countries cut ties with Austria in the 90s, but now 30 years later, there is still a photo of him hanging and signed by him.
What experience do you hope audiences have while watching The Calling?
It's so many twists and turns. It's really surprising and captivating, and I even knew the story. But having said that, it's a real character study. The characters are very emotional, very rich and so are the relationships between the characters. The cast is incredible. It's not a procedural. Although it’s in the crime drama world, the characters are so interesting. So I think it's very unique because it's a very interesting combination of interesting plots, the case, and the characters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Franck Bohbot