The RTÉ Guide's Donal O’Donoghue meets Baz Ashmawy about his new tv series, Wingman, and finds out why Baz thinks it is very important to change with each new stage of life.
"Do you know I was once banned from this very room?" says Baz Ashmawy as we sit and chew the fat in the green-room where the Late Late Show’s guests hang out on a Friday night. We’re talking about, among other things, Ashmawy’s new TV series, Wingman, we’re talking about a rollercoaster career that saw him go from skid row to Emmy award-winner and we’re talking about how Pat Kenny wanted the man once known as Fun Bazzy banned from the green room.
"We came in here after the Late Late and we got wild. So Pat had a word with someone and we were banned! Now Pat was right to ban us but you’re different people throughout your life. I think the saddest thing is being the same person at 40 as you were when you were 20."
Baz, now 44, is a different animal in many ways but also, fortunately, not. Today he is in fine fettle, buzzing with that Baz Energy which has powered such TV shows as How Low Can You Go, Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mammy and last year’s All Bets Are Off. With Wingman, he has made another fine TV series, three stories that capture not only the gnarly bits of life but also those moments of joy. Thematically it’s a loose variation on Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mammy, the show that went global and bagged an International Emmy for the Dubliner. In that Baz travelled the world with his mammy, Nancy, and did crazy things: a comedy of error and terror that was also genuinely moving. Now he’s playing wingman to strangers, hoping in some small way to change their world and maybe his own too.
It isn’t easy. "This is the toughest thing I’ve ever committed to," wails a beleaguered Baz as he rattles towards the business end of the first episode of Wingman. Usually laidback, he’s wondering if he really ‘can fix it’ for Jimmy Byrne, a farmer from Togher in County Louth who dreams of starring in a professional production of Malachy McKenna’s two-hander play, The Quiet Land.
Late in the episode, with Jimmy in meltdown and the play’s director, the usually unflappable Peter Reid, visibly rattled, Baz howls in despair. In ways it’s like watching a reality TV show as penned by Samuel Beckett. Not just for the central characters (Baz with a pitchfork, Jimmy with a grin) but the whole package of a couple of middle-aged men searching for some sort of meaning in life and knowing that maybe they might come up short. But at least they gave it their best shot: not so much ‘Waiting for Godot’ as ‘Hanging on Hope’.
"It was very intense but there was no other way to make it," says Ashmawy who relocated to County Louth for his time with Jimmy, who went on a road trip with Joe and his son Conor (Episode 2) and who got stuck into Mixed Martial Arts with Emma (Episode 3). "It’s not a show you can dip into and dip out of for a day of filming."
Such immersion seems second nature for the TV man who admits to having an addictive personality. "Massively, completely!" he affirms. Of Wingman he says it is "watching someone achieve things which they didn’t think were possible" and he says that everyone, himself included, are prone to that. "I doubt myself all the time," he says. "It’s like you’ve been smoking for 20 years and have tried again and again to give up but failed. Then you start thinking, ‘that’s who I am: a smoker’. But that’s bulls**t."
There was a time Baz couldn’t get arrested in this town. Well, there was and he did (for drink driving). Life was bad then. No job, a mortgage and six children at home. "I was done, finished," he says. "I was told by someone high up in RTÉ that I didn’t have a career in telly. I respected that person and wasn’t angry about what he said. But I had been doing this for years at that stage and didn’t know anything else. It was also what I loved and I believed I was really good at it. So I went from there to 18 months later standing on a stage in New York holding an Emmy, thinking, ‘HOW THE HELL DID THAT HAPPEN?’ It was pure piggery, determination and the rest. I was helped by so many people but that last bit, that last 500 yards, that’s all you on your own."
Now he loves challenges, the ‘spice of life’, for some reasons that even go beyond not having a job. In his mid-thirties Baz underwent double lung surgery and nearly died. "I looked at the world a little differently after that," he says. "Up to that stage, I felt invincible. I was about 35 or 36 or so and had done How Low for a few years and had jumped off stuff and swam with sharks and rode bulls and all of a sudden you realise you’re not indestructible, that you could have died. I’m 44 now. My dad was 52 when he died. We are very different men. He didn’t look after himself and he died because of that. I want to dig my heels in. I want to be for the long run. There are loads of things I want to do for myself and with my kids. I have a hunger for life."
Baz was born in Tripoli, lived in Cairo until he was six when his parents, Nancy and Mohammed, moved to Dublin. Baz was eight when his father left home without a word. He was a lost teenager, unruly in school, booted from one to the next before finding unlikely redemption at a boarding school in Clara, County Offaly.
"I met kids down there who came from tough backgrounds," he says. "These kids were delighted to be there because it got them away from tough situations. So I started thinking I’ve got a lovely mum and she is really sweet and here I was hanging around the streets, smoking and skipping class and getting kicked out of school for the most moronic stuff. Clara was an eye-opener and it changed me completely. I went down one person and came back very different."
As to why he was so disruptive in the first place, he believes it was the absence in his life. "My dad had left home and I didn’t really have a male figure to look up to, a role model," he says. "My mum was working a lot and I spent my days lost as to what I wanted to do. I remember friends laughing at me at the time when I said that I wanted to work in TV. When I said to my mum that I wanted to do theatre, she looked into it, said that Trinity College did it. So I auditioned, got onto the course and started to believe. There is a big difference between dreams and ambitions: with dreams your feet are off the floor but with ambition they are planted there. You get a map on how to do it. And I was very lucky to have someone like my mum who helped me to draw my own maps in life."
His relationship with Nancy, for whom he is working on a new TV show, is bullet-proof. "She’s my best mate," he says. "She has this contentment that you can’t buy. I admire that." Life too has taught him to admire traits like resilience, compassion and empathy even if he thinks the latter is dying in an increasingly wired world. "The reality is that the things that give you happiness in life aren’t material possessions. The Top 20 moments in your life won’t include the day you bought yourself a Rolex. It is real moments like playing with the kids and laughing with friends and hanging out with my mum. It’s the real simple sh*t that you don’t appreciate sometimes, but as you get older I’ve learned that these are the things that really matter."
Wingman, in its own way, touches on these priorities. "People move on, they just do," says a reflective Jimmy at the end of the opening episode. It’s a poignant coda, a somewhat unexpectedly profound comment from a County Louth farmer on the transience of all things, TV and otherwise. Life moves on. Baz does too. But he still keeps in contact with Jimmy ("Can you imagine what it’s like for your children to hear The Gruffalo read in a heavy Louth accent?"), will be going to the Avengers: Endgame premiere with Conor and is still in contact with Emma. "Life is like a game of snakes and ladders," he says. "You’re up high and then you’re down low but more than anything you have to find happiness in the every day, to see those good times and to savour them."
Baz is looking for potential participants for the second season of Wingman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch Wingman on RTÉ One on Sunday at 9:30 or catch up on the RTÉ Player.