James Spader has made something of a specialty in playing suave,
sophisticated, seductive and morally bankrupt men.
As such, he may have found his alpha character in master-criminal Raymond
"Red" Reddington in NBC's new hit series The Blacklist. Red
is a super-criminal, the top of the FBI's most wanted list, who one
day surrenders to the authorities and offers to help them track down
some of the underworld's shadiest characters.
His only condition - or so he says - is that he insists
upon working with a young FBI agent named Elizabeth Keen (Megan
Boone). Quickly, though, it becomes obvious that Reddington knows
much more about this young fed's life than she knows about hers.
Still, he appears to be working on mostly good faith, so the Bureau
tentatively enters into an agreement with the man.
Red is a character that cries out for Spader, an actor who exudes
charm and humor, but also betrays an aura of self-interest and
ruthlessness. The actor has been nailing parts like this since he
popped up on the pop culture radar way back in 1986, playing the
smug rich kid in the classic drama Pretty in Pink. Since then
Spader has played a wide array of villains (and even occasional
unlikely heroes) on film (Sex Lies & Videotape, Less Than Zero,
Crash, Lincoln) and television (Boston Legal, The Office).
Recently Spader was cast as his first super-villain. He will be
playing title baddie in the second Avengers movie The
Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The day that the second episode of The Blacklist
aired, we were invited to a conference call with Spader about his
show and his career.
hit on the broad strokes of Redís past in the pilot, but are we ever
going to get into the details of what sort of nitty-gritty bad,
horrible things heís done in the past?
Yes, thatís going to be eked out slowly over the course of
the episodes. An overall history lesson, I donít think it will ever
happen on the show. Itíll be over the lifespan of the show that you
start to discover more and more about him. You do start to see in
subsequent episodes him conducting business. The first episode after
the pilot tonight is really the transition from him being a prisoner
to working out the parameters of his deal with the FBI and the
Department of Justice. Then, of course, they take on a case
immediately. But from that point - right away, you see heís now
moving freely. He is still living his life away from the FBI.
(laughs) In subsequent episodes, you see small samplings of him
still conducting his nefarious affairs.
As exciting as
your Ultron role is (in the next Avengers film), how is that going to impact your involvement with
The Blacklist? Is there any staggered schedule? Howís that going
to work out?
Iím hoping that itís going to be a fairly smooth transition
but I donít know. Weíll wait and see how long The Blacklist
plays, whether it plays a full season. If it plays a full season,
then Iím sure I will be packing my bags in the last few days of our
production on The Blacklist, in preparation to get over to
London and start shooting The Avengers.
You chose to
shave your head for the pilot episode. How did that feel?
It felt wonderful. I'd had my hair long for the last few
projects that I had done. It just felt like the right thing for him.
It was an idea that I instigated. I think it was the right choice.
It just seemed to fit his lifestyle. Heís someone who has to travel
lightly and move swiftly. It seemed eminently practical for him.
Do you have any
None. Well, weíll wait and see. Itís still early autumn.
Ask me again in January. (laughs)
attracted you to the project when you first read the script?
Youíve seen the pilot?
Well, that character. I just thought, first of all, that he
seemed like heíd be great fun to play in the pilot. But he also
seems like heíd sustain over the course of the season and even over
the course of multiple seasons. There are so many unanswered
questions. It felt like it would take a long time to answer the
questions. For me, just from a completely selfish point of view,
that was enticing because it opened the door to all sorts of
surprises as time goes on.
A character like
this is so mysterious, how far in advance do you know where his
story is headed? As an actor, do you like to know or would you
rather have that unfold for you as well?
It really depends on the medium Iím working in. In theater,
you know everything going in. In film, you know a little bit less,
but still an awful lot. In television you know very little. I think
thatís fine for me. Working in theater or film or television are
three different sorts of jobs for an actor. I accept them as such.
The volume of material on a television show is so vast that I think
that it helps in a way if itís surprising from week to week. Iíve
never been a great big TV watcher. So for the first time, when I
first started working on the series, I got the feel what it felt
like to be a viewer. Then I was so anticipatory about the next
script that was going to come in. What direction weíd be going in.
How the story might unfold. How relationships might evolve. What
kind of mess we might be getting into next.
With this show, it just seems like the possibilities for
that are limitless. It has an inherent surprise factor in this show
just because you know so little going in. So I really like that
aspect of it a great deal. Being able to find the piece of material
that tries to marry successfully something thatís thrilling and fun
to watch. Then also can be very dark and quite serious, but also at
times can be funny and humorous and irreverent. This show marries
those things very well. I like that because it allows the character
to be more exciting and compelling, I think, from an actorís point
of view. Itís just a much more compelling job.
think you donít need to worry about it being canceled. It was one of
the best pilots this year, so...
Red turns himself
in to the FBI but we donít know his motivation. Is he going to be
above board with them or does he still have some criminal activity
going on which the FBI may actually be unwittingly helping him with?
Itís a combination of all the things you just discussed. I
know that he still has criminal activity thatís going on. How much
the FBI is going to serve that or not remains to be seen. There
certainly is an agenda in terms of the targets that heís picking.
There absolutely is an agenda in terms of the direction that heís
taking this little group. His mixed bag, more of whom youíre going
to meet tonight, the other people that are sort of joining the
group. But I think his main focus is really Elizabeth Keen. It was
just much about having her join his life as me joining hers. It
seems to be the one way that he seems equipped to be able to bring
to light to her truth that he knows about her life that sheís
Can you talk
about the character that Parminder Nagra is going to play and Redís
relationship with her?
Parminder plays a CIA agent who is brought in actually by
Jane Alexanderís character who works for the Department of Justice.
Itís one of the stipulations of Fowler, the character Jane Alexander
plays. In approving this deal that everyone is quite reticent about
striking with Reddington, one of her stipulations is that they bring
on board this CIA woman that she trusts and has faith in. So she
joins the group based on that. And Reddingtonís involvement with
her, right now at least, parallels the same sort of involvement that
he has with the other FBI people besides Elizabeth Keen. Itís at an
armís length and itís with a certain amount of caution.
What about his
fashion sense? How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?
Well, it came about from a few different things. It came
from, first of all, just what Reddington looks like. Thatís a
byproduct of his life. We didnít want him to look as if heís from
any specific style of fashion, of any given year or from any given
place. Heís someone who would compile his wardrobe from around the
world. People dress differently in different parts of the world. He
has been on the move for a couple of decades now, if not longer. He
travels lightly. He has to wear clothing thatís practical. He has to
be someone whoís dressed to go straight from the jungle to a
bankerís office and be able to be comfortable and appropriately
dressed for both.
We also wanted it to be timeless. Difficult to place in
terms of place or time. Lastly, because of geography and where he
is. People who travel to distant places, hats are part of their
life. In different places on earth, people wear hats for different
reasons. Sometimes to keep their head warm but sometimes to keep the
sun off. I think heís used to that and so heís adopted it. It was a
look that came out of the practicalities of his life. Thatís what we
do you say to the people who are comparing the relationship of Red
and Elizabeth to that of Hannibal and Clarice Starling?
I understand that based on the pilot because you know so
little. Also because of the imagery in the pilot with somebody whoís
shackled to a chair in a big containment cell and this young FBI
woman coming in. There seems to be what might be perceived as an
obsessive compulsion that the criminal or the shackled guy has about
her. That disappears rather swiftly starting after tonight. After
heís come to an arrangement with the FBI, heís now moving freely
again and heís no longer a guy shackled to a chair in an orange
But also, itís very different from the obsessive
psychopathic obsession about this woman. He clearly has a very real,
given one-sided, but very real relationship with her and has
intimate knowledge of her background and her past. I think itís a
lot more than just fixating on somebody and finding out everything
you can about them. He really knows this woman and he knows of her
background. He knows of her family. He knows of her present life.
The similarities between these two things that youíre referencing
disappear very quickly.
I enjoyed the
pilot. You were really quite wonderful in it.
Thank you very much.
Is it very
freeing and liberating to go to work every day as this character and
channel all your devious scheming impulses? Get them out of your
system before you go home back to being a civilian again?
I donít know.
I donít know anything else to say to you in response to that except
yes, unless I were to repeat your question back to you. Yes is the
answer to that. I will say this, as you were posing the question to
me, I think of whether I feel free as Iím going to the set this
morning. I donít feel free because I think weíre still... this is a
startup business. Starting a new show is a startup business and,
therefore, thereís nothing free and easy about it yet. (laughs
again) Maybe in five or six more episodes when things smooth out
a little bit. Weíre not at sixes and sevens so much. Then maybe I
might feel a little more free.
But I must say, itís quite fun to go and play this guy. I
look for that in the things that Iíve picked over the years. I look
for things that are very different from my life. Things that are
curious and idiosyncratic to me. Then I like to find, if Iím able to
just a little bit, step into a world that I know very little about.
Thatís great fun. Then it allows you to dispense of it quite easily
when you go home at night and jump into your own life and spend time
with your family.
very technologically savvy. Heís very plugged in. How plugged in are
you? Are you hip technologically?
Youíll actually discover in subsequent episodes that Red is
actually not very technologically savvy. I think heís actually
sometimes wistful about the old days. (laughs) What spying
and espionage and criminal activity mightíve been like, as opposed
to what itís more like today which is much more technologically
driven. But he obviously has to have people who supply that for him
because he certainly has to contend with that part of his world.
Myself, Iím completely technologically ignorant.
interviewed Scott Bakula. He played an Internet cop in some movie
and he had to actually take typing lessons to be able to look like
he could be an Internet cop because he didnít know how to type, so
I donít know how to type either.
speculation that Red is actually Elizabethís father. What are your
thoughts on that?
I donít really have any thoughts on that. I donít think he
is, but I donít know for sure. First of all, I wouldnít divulge what
the nature of their relationship was to you in any case, no matter
what it was, because I think thatís something that the only way one
earns that information is to watch the show. I know that thatís been
something thatís been posed to me in the past. Iíve always been
surprised when faced with that as a possibility as an outcome
because it seems too easy. But, you know what? Maybe itís a very
circuitous route back to the simplest answer of all. So weíll have
to wait and see. (laughs)
long do you think it will take for Elizabeth to find some trust in
Red and really start working with him?
It starts happening quicker than sheís even aware of. First
of all, itís hoisted upon her so she has to accept that lot. But I
think also she finds herself compelled to be doing that in spite of
either her intuition or her better judgment. In a way, thereís
something that compels them to each other. In subsequent episodes,
she wrestles with that. She wrestles with the fact that heís in her
life, like it or not. Heís not just in her life because of this
work. Heís in her life because itís becoming abundantly clear heís
part of her life. Heís an element in her life that even if she turns
away from it, itís still going to be there.
mentioned that Red being Elizabethís father would be too simple. But
we also have learned at the end of the pilot episode that thereís
something weird going on with her husband. Could there be a
connection between Red and her husband?
Youíre going to have to watch just a couple more episodes
and youíll start to see more and more. But I donít think thereís
anything thatís alluded to in any of the episodes that arenít either
by design for whatís going to unfold next or a purposeful
misdirection to lead you down the wrong path so that youíll be
better surprised when you arrive at the right path.
too much - is there any particular scene or moment or something
coming up that youíre excited for people to see?
You know, the three episodes that follow the pilot are all
very different. Iíve now seen the fourth and the fifth episode.
Theyíre all very different. Quite different from one another in
terms of the nature and tone of the episodes. The form of them are
different from one another but also what you learn about these
people as you start to learn more is very intriguing and compelling.
It involves everyone. It involves everyone. Thereís no one whoís
left out of it. The writers have done a great job in terms of
balancing what you learn and what you donít learn and then how you
learn it and whether what you learn is right or wrong.
It makes for a show that is pretty unique to me just in
that episodes can stand alone and yet they also feed a greater
story. Therefore, for people who stay with the show, thereís much
more satisfaction than just a straight procedural because of that.
Because youíve got this greater story that youíre invested in and
the characters are invested in. At the end of the day, thatís
ultimately what the show is about. The week-to-week episodes are to
serve this life thatís unfolding in front of you. That life is
Raymond Reddington and Elizabeth Keen and thatís inclusive of every
aspect of their lives. Itís inclusive of Reddingtonís life away from
her but also itís inclusive of her entire life whether it be her
background, her past, her parents, her childhood, her relationship
with her husband, her future. Itís exciting that way, the way that
the standalone episodes can feed the threaded story and the threaded
story also serves the weekly episodes.
there anything in particular you did for this role to prepare or
research or anything?
I read some stuff about the world that Red Reddington lives
in. I just buried myself into the material at hand. Also people that
I know that live and work in that world. Also just a lot of
conversation with the writers. You spend a lot of time sitting and
talking about back stories but also future stories and the shape of
The great thing about a television series also is a lot of
those things start to take shape as youíre just making the show. Who
people are and how they behave under different sets of
circumstances. On a television show it seems to be more fluid than
it is certainly than it would be in stage or in a film. Itís
something that evolves and grows as the show becomes its own entity.
When you play
characters that are in the darker end of the spectrum Ė you play Red
and then youíll be playing a character like Ultron. How do you get
into each individual one and kind of come up with different shades
of antagonism or shades of villainy to play? Like, how does your
thought process work?
I look to story. I look to the influences or relations in
whatever that characterís life happens to be. I also look to see
what their everyday life would be like and how that would inform who
they are. [I] also try and look at what sort of person can live that
sort of life. All those things come together and marry with a given
set of circumstances in the story and on the page. And thereís a
character. I try and approach things from all directions. I really
try and be open to that.
Sometimes youíre working backwards and sometimes youíre
working forwards. Sometimes you have to look at something from both
perspectives to get a handle on something. Sometimes you look at
somebody and how they behave in a given set of circumstances and it
leads you to who they are. That would be what I mean by working
backwards. Sometimes you look at who they are and where they come
from and it leads you to how best they might behave in those
circumstances. I try and look at both and if they made up with one
another, then I think Iíve got a scene.
getting too spoiler-y, Iím curious, what intrigued you about working
with Mr. Whedon and the rest of the
Well, I met with Kevin Feige a couple years ago and told
him that I would love to come into that world at some point if the
circumstances were right. It was for a lot of reasons. There was a
time in my life where I used to go over to my friend, Will's house,
when I was a kid and I hadn't read any comic books at my house. He
had trunk loads of them. I used to go over there and bury myself in
his room with his comics and devoured them.
Then I put that down in my life and just to get it back up
again. I have three sons and a couple of them along the way have
shown a real keen interest in that world and so before it was too
late, I wanted to try and see if I could be part of it. It just
seemed like something great. Itís one of the great luxuries as an
actor is youíre able to participate in projects that even the
process of making the thing or the world youíre entering is so
foreign to you. That foreign world, in many cases, forces you to
work in an entirely different way. The challenge becomes so
I was intrigued by that. Iíve been doing this a long time
and it seemed like it would be great fun to do something that I have
no frame of reference for. There you go. The right thing came along
and Kevin Feige called up and said, ďI found just the thing.Ē Joss
Whedon gave me a call and said that he really wasnít thinking about
anybody else for it. He thought it would be great fun to do. And so
here we go.
The pilot was
full of a lot of gasp inducing moments. Can we expect more of that
in every episode? How hard is that to maintain?
I think you can expect them at different times. Yes,
without question you can. Iím just quickly running some of the
episodes you might have. But yes, I think that thatís a burden that
this show now carries. (laughs) Thereís a deliberate effort
to try and maintain that. How long that can sustain? I donít know. I
think one of the great things about this show is that it can shift
directions very quickly. It can shift with great misdirection too,
so just when youíre feeling comfortable with something, you realize
that youíre not.
Thatís somewhat what youíre talking about because I know
that thatís always the thing, that thereís a visual surprise or a
very visceral feeling of surprise or reaction that one can have. But
there can also be one that I think the show satisfies, which is one
thatís a little more deep seeded than that. As I said, just when you
think you really are getting a handle on something, your handle just
slips right out of your grasp and you realize that youíre falling
and you donít know into which rabbit hole you might be falling into.
you explain what ďThe Blacklist,Ē is for those who missed the pilot
and what does it mean for Red?
The blacklist is just a name that Reddington gives to a
freeform and very fluid list of targets. But there is no list. Itís
in his head. (laughs) The targets can sometimes be quite
spontaneous, based on whatís ever going to serve his greater
agendas. As I said, I think sometimes the targets sometimes are more
calculated. At other times theyíre not. Sometimes they serve an
Will we see on
person be checked off that list every episode?
I pause only because weíre at the beginning of what could
be an indeterminate lifespan of a show. Itís hard for me to answer
that with any kind of absolute. I know that thereís a very real
desire that there at least be a case thatís pursued on a weekly
basis. But, I presume also that certain cases might last a couple of
episodes or longer. I donít know. As the show unfolds, Iím sure that
will change and develop and, you know, Iím not sure whether itís
always just going to be the person of the week.
obviously is going to get a lot of love from the critics and much of
that is because of your work. When we talked to [show creator] John
Eisendrath, he said that you came on board at the eleventh hour, so
Iím wondering how did you get the role down so well so fast.
I donít know. Sometimes I just think itís the right piece
of material falling in the right hands at the right time. Itís just
when I read it I had a take on it that I felt that I understood
something that I could bring. Something that I would enjoy doing. If
you get enough out of something then enough comes out right back. I
think thatís part of what happened here. As soon as I read this
character and this world, I had a sense of what I could do with it.
Whether itís the right thing or wrong thing always remains to be
seen. But it was not a piece of material that I read and I had to be
led by the nose through it to understand it and find my way. I read
it and I had a feeling for at least a direction.
This is obviously
your show. Youíve had a lot of success on television. Iím wondering
how much input do you have or do you want to have on the scripts?
I seem to be having just enough. I couldnít take on any
more, thatís for sure. Our schedule is too oppressive to be able to
take on any more. But just enough to be able to do the scenes and
try and feel like weíre making them right.
Red is a very
ambiguous character. People donít trust him and he knows they donít
trust him. Is there a difference in how you approach playing
somebody who is ambiguous to the people around him and to the
audience and to somebody who the audience knows deep down is a
decent person like, say, Alan Shore [from
who does devious things but we know heís solid?
Thatís a big question. It feels more like three questions.
To address the first part of it in terms of trust, he lives in a
world and moves through a world and works in a world where trust is
a very fragile and delicate thing. He very often has to conduct
business and he very often has to conduct his life on simply trust
because thereís no rule of law in his world. Therefore, trust is
something that I think he has a great understanding for. He knows
when to recognize when itís there and he can recognize when itís not
in ways that maybe others arenít quite so facile at. I think it just
may be because of the fact that heís faced with it with such dire
straits so much of the time.
A lot of his feelings in his life, heís having to trust his
life and the lives of others in any given set of circumstances.
Therefore, the stakes of that trust are so high. But by the same
token, I think heís fully aware of the fact that, in this
relationship at least, heís dealing with a whole group of people who
donít trust him at all. Itís interesting to watch how he gains
small, little finger and footholds into their trust. Thatís
something that develops with time. Probably with him, it takes a
great deal of time.
And does that
affect how you play him - the trust or lack thereof in each
To a certain degree. Iím conscious of that to a degree but
I also have the luxury of knowing when heís being forthright and
when heís not. I think that heís much more forthright than people
are aware of. Itís very easy to project an awful lot onto him and
have preconceptions about him that may go unproven.
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