Sepideh Moafi was tasked with a big undertaking when “Black Bird” series creator Dennis Lehane cast her as the lead of the new Apple TV+ show. As a true-crime series about a serial killer, set mainly inside a jail and starring a primarily male cast, Moafi is one of the few female voices in the show.
“He said, ‘Look, you and I are going to have a lot of conversations,’” says the Iranian-American actress. “’It’s important for us to get [your character] right. And I need your help. She needs to represent all of womanhood, and I can’t do that. You can do that.’”
“Black Bird” was developed by Lehane, who penned popular novels including “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island.” The source material for the six-part series was a memoir by Jimmy Keene, played in the series by Taron Egerton. In the ’90s, in exchange for early release from prison, Keene went undercover to elicit a confession from a serial killer suspected of murdering over 20 girls. Moafi stars as an FBI agent overseeing the case; the series also stars Greg Kinnear as a fellow investigator, and the late Ray Liotta as Keene’s father.
“This show is special, because it is technically a period piece, but the way that the story’s told, it feels timeless,” she says. “It explores these bigger themes of toxic masculinity — from [my character’s] perspective, what it takes to be the only woman in a male-dominated world living under patriarchy — [as well as] deeper, darker themes like the human experience and the human psyche.”
As a genre, the audience for true crime is overwhelmingly female, and Moafi notes that the stakes felt different for her character. “She understands this cuts deep for her in a way that it might not for her male counterparts,” says Moafi. “She’s surrounded by a lot of good men who can sympathize with these women. [But] she is the one person in this show, in this world, who feels these crimes on a cellular level.”
In the lead-up to filming, Moafi looked to media coverage of the case and podcasts and spoke with several retired FBI agents to get a feel for her character’s environment. Moafi’s character — Lauren McCauley — is a fictionalized composite character and named for Lauren Bacall and Neil McCauley from the ’90s crime film “Heat,” an aesthetic inspiration for the series.
“Lauren’s very in her skin and owns every space she walks into. You feel just by her presence and being the way she is what it must have taken to be a woman in the ’90s in the FBI,” says Moafi. “Women had to work 20 times harder than their male counterparts just to get an ounce of respect.”
That dynamic extended to her character’s look onscreen, which evolved from natural to more made-up. “Part of that is her just growing up, but a lot of that too is being in the FBI for a number of years and seeing what works. Lauren can read any room, take the temperature and modify. She’s like a chameleon; she changes for what she needs and who she’s dealing with.”
Moafi speaks highly of series lead Egerton, who also served as an executive producer.
“We both come from theater backgrounds, so we quickly realized that our processes were very compatible,” says Moafi, describing the Welsh actor as a “caretaker.” “It was just so refreshing to trust that he has the potential of the project and of the scenes first on his priority list. And so we could take all the time we needed to find the truth and heart of the scene. And then once we found it, time would fly and we would move so fast.”
Moafi is currently in L.A. wrapping production on the third season of “The L Word: Generation Q,” in which she plays the beloved character Gigi. Afterward, she has several film projects on the docket, including a movie opposite Edie Falco and Jeannie Berlin, the lead role in a Nicholl Fellowship-supported script about a young Syrian mother, and her first Persian film role.
“There are some juicy film projects on the horizon,” she says.