You knew the bad news was coming, but The Affair dropped a giant bombshell in Sunday’s episode: The good doctor Vic Ullah (Omar Metwally), who collapsed at the end of the season-four premiere, has late-stage pancreatic cancer. Just as shocking? He’s decided to forgo treatment and spend the rest of his life trying to make a baby with girlfriend Helen (Maura Tierney).
Ahead of the episode, Omar Metwally hopped on the phone to chat with Vulture from Chicago, where he’s reprising his Obie Award–winning role in Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj at Steppenwolf Theatre. The Tony nominee talked about why Vic’s decision surprised him, what he’d imagined Dr. Ullah’s childhood was like before we met his parents, and how his Affair co-star Maura Tierney is the key to pulling off both dramatic confrontations and moments of levity.
Vic’s story line is heartbreaking, but the upside is that we’re finally getting to learn more about the character. When you joined the show, did you know he was going to stick around this long?
I had no idea, actually. When I joined the show, it was for two episodes. I think [series creator] Sarah Treem had an inkling that it could be a part that turned into something more. But I don’t think that had been decided yet when I got on board. Fortunately for me, she wanted to explore the character.
The thing that stands out most about Vic, and has been so incredibly endearing about him, is that he’s not judgmental about Helen’s life. What do you think allows him to be that way?
It’s two things. The main thing, I think, is his love for Helen. He is really in love with her, and so really tolerates her, at times, erratic behavior. He understands, too, the challenges she’s facing with everything that has happened in her life. Being a surgeon who deals with life and death on a daily basis, I would imagine that certain things that might be a big deal to most people become less of a big deal when you’re really dealing with serious issues of health and life and all of that.
Vic’s reaction to his pancreatic-cancer diagnosis is, basically, “Let’s ignore it and have a baby!” But Helen goes against his wishes and tells his mother that he’s sick. What was it like filming that confrontation with Helen in the car?
That was an exciting scene to film. It’s really one of the first times, if not the first time in the show, that we really get a window into what’s going on in Vic’s mind — into his emotional life, into his thought process. The stakes are so high, emotionally, because both of them are dealing with this terrible news. Those kinds of scenes are the most interesting, challenging, and fun to work on, because you get to dive deep into what makes the character tick. And on top of that, I’m working with such a great actor in Maura Tierney.
Did it matter that you were in such a confined space? As a viewer, it made the scene feel that much more intimate.
Yeah, it is a very claustrophobic sort of enclosed space. I think it’s emblematic of the situation that these two characters find themselves in — there’s nowhere to go. There’s no way really out of this thing. And they’re on this journey together. I think where the scene takes place is a symbol for all of that.
What was the biggest thing you felt you had to accomplish in that scene?
That is a good question. One question we were wrestling with was where to pitch the scene emotionally. There’s a version of that scene where he’s screaming at her, yelling at her — there are always so many different ways it could be played. We wanted to find the right balance of Vic’s anger, but also his pain and his frustration and his love, and have all of those things fighting each other for prevalence.
It’s an intense, heartbreaking scene, but also sheds new light on Helen and Vic’s relationship. It’s the first time we get a sense of how lonely Vic’s life has been, since he felt he couldn’t share his diagnosis with his parents. But he can be angry with Helen because he can open up to her about his feelings.
That’s true — maybe the only person in his life. Once we meet his parents, we see, oh, there’s not a lot of freedom of communication there. There’s a lot of duty and obligation. Helen is the person in his life, and Vic is not the greatest communicator when it comes to these serious questions. I think Vic is very contradictory in a lot of ways, because he’s very honest and straightforward, but at the same time, once he gets this diagnosis, he has a lot of trouble talking about it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if Vic had been able to talk about this in more depth and with more clarity with Helen, maybe what happened could have been prevented.
You mean Helen sharing his diagnosis?
Exactly. As usual with The Affair, everybody’s to blame for the mistakes that happen.
But that’s why the show is compelling. That’s real life.
It’s incredibly human, isn’t it? That’s one of the best qualities of the show. It’s very real in that way.
Have you ever been surprised by the way Vic reacted or didn’t react to something?
Yeah, I was initially puzzled by the idea that Vic’s response to this terminal diagnosis would be, “I want to have a baby.” I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that would be my response. When I first read that, I had to really think about it. What is this about? What reasons could someone have, as they’re potentially getting ready to leave the world, to bring in a child? As the season unfolds, we understand that more and more, and he understands that more and more. Initially, I think he’s not fully cognizant of his reasons, and then he comes to a realization about what is really going on there psychologically.
The show thankfully has a lot of well-placed, but subtle moments of levity. Vic’s “bring your own crystal” line to Sierra is certainly one of them. Are those moments as much of a relief to you as they are for the audience?
Yeah, they really are. One of the things I love about playing Vic is that the writers let him be funny. I’ve done a lot of very dramatic work over the course of my career, including this season with Vic. But they don’t shy away from the humor, even in the midst of the serious questions that are cropping up. It is a relief, and again, I’m working with Maura, who is so brilliant with comedy and finds humor in these very nuanced and hilarious ways. Given how serious this show can be, I think that’s a good thing.