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Q-and-A: James Spader talks NBC's 'The Blacklist'

by jmaloni
Mon, Oct 7th 2013 05:10 pm
`The Blacklist: Pictured, from left: Harry Lennix as Harold Cooper, James Spader as Raymond `Red` Reddington and Megan Boone as Elizabeth Keen. (NBC photo by Will Hart)
"The Blacklist: Pictured, from left: Harry Lennix as Harold Cooper, James Spader as Raymond "Red" Reddington and Megan Boone as Elizabeth Keen. (NBC photo by Will Hart)

Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni

James Spader could teach a master class on villainy.

From the stuck-up rich kid in "Pretty in Pink," to the smarmy mall suit in "Mannequin," the sly, stogie-chomping lawyer in "Boston Legal," to the out-there paper company manager on "The Office," and the sci-fi world-crusher Ultron in the upcoming "The Avengers" sequel, Spader has played bad, good-but-bad, super-bad, and every shade of grey.

In his new TV series, "The Blacklist," Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, one of the FBI's 10 most-wanted criminals. In the pilot, Red shocks the bureau when he voluntarily turns himself into custody. He offers to provide a blacklist, of sorts, and help investigators stop domestic terror plots while tracking down evil crimedoers only he can find.

Red offers his services on one condition: He'll only work with rookie profiler Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), whom he knows intimately (how, we don't know). In the season's first two episodes, Red stops a bomb from exploding in D.C., and unmasks a human slave trafficker. And while that sounds noble, both "good deeds" further advanced his cause (which, again, we're unclear about, but super-curious).

"The Blacklist" is a hit for hit-starved NBC. Ratings for weeks one and two were such that the Peacock ordered a full-season pickup. The show is super suspenseful and, thanks to Spader's interpretation of the character - arrogant, manipulative, brilliant - it has become "must-see TV" for the network that invented that term.

Spader recently spoke with BTS and colleagues, offering a glimpse into his character and why he chose the role.

Q: James, this show obviously is getting a lot of love from the critics and much of that is because of your work. When we talked to Exec. Producer John Eisendrath, he sort of said that you came on board at the 11th hour, so I'm wondering how did you get the role down so well so fast?

Spader: I don't know. I - sometimes I think that's just - I don't know. You sometimes, I just think it's the right piece of materials falling in the right hands at the right time, and I don't know. I - it's just when I read it, I sort of had a take on it that I felt that I understood something that I could bring and something that I would enjoy doing. And I think if you get enough out of something then enough comes out right back.

And I think that's part of what happened here. I just - I sort of - as soon as I read this character and this world, I sort of had a sense of what, at least, I could do with it and whether it's the right thing or wrong thing, you know, always remains to be seen.

But I - but it was not a piece of material that I read and I had to sort of be led by the nose through it to sort of understand it and find my way. I sort of - I read it and I sort of had a feeling for at least a direction.

Q: This is obviously your show. You've had a lot of success on television. I'm wondering how much input do you have or do you want to have on the scripts?

Spader: I seem to be having just enough, and I couldn't take on any more, that's 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 we're making them right.

Q: What attracted you to the project?

Spader: You've seen the pilot? Well, that character. I mean, I just thought he was really - I just thought, first of all, that he seemed like he'd be great fun to play in the pilot, but he also just - he seems like he'd sustain over the course of the season and even over the course of, you know, multiple seasons.

I just think, you know, there're so many unanswered questions and it felt like it would take a long time to answer the questions. And 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.

Q: They kind of hit on the broad strokes of Red's past in the pilot. Are we ever going to get into the details of what sort of things he did in the past?

Spader: Yes, I think that's going to be sort of eked out slowly over the course of the episodes. A sort of overall history lesson? I don't think it will ever happen on the show. I think it'll 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 that he is, you know, as soon as he - the (second episode) 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.

And then, of course, they take on a case immediately. But from that point - right away, you see he's now moving freely. He is still living his life away from the FBI and, in subsequent episodes, you see him - you see small samplings of him still conducting his nefarious affairs.

Q: What do you say to the people comparing the relationship of Red and Elizabeth to that of Hannibal and Clarice Starling?

Spader: You know, it's really - you know, I understand that based on the pilot, because you know so little and also because of the imagery in the pilot with somebody who's shackled to a chair in a big containment cell and this young FBI woman coming in.

And there seems to be what might be perceived as a sort of obsessive compulsion that the criminal or the shackled guy has about her. That disappears rather swiftly starting, you know, after (the second episode) in that, you know, after he's come to an arrangement with the FBI, you know, he's now moving freely again and he's no longer a guy shackled to a chair in an (orange) containment cell.

But also, you know, it's very different from the sort of obsessive sort of 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.

So I think it's 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. And I think that that's - you know, I think the similarities between these two things that you're referencing disappear very quickly.

Q: There's speculation Red is actually Elizabeth's father. What are your thoughts on that?

Spader: I don't really have any thoughts on that because I don't think he is, but I don't know for sure. You know, I think that's something that, first of all, I wouldn't divulge what the nature of their relationship was to you in any case no matter what it was because I think that's something that the only way one earns that information is to watch the show.

But I think - I know that that's been something that's been posed to me in the past and it's always seemed - I've always been surprised when faced with that as a possibility as an outcome because it seems so - too easy. But, you know what? Maybe the thing - maybe it's a very circuitous route back to the simplest answer of all. So we'll have to wait and see.

Q: The pilot was full of a lot of gasp-inducing moments. Can we expect more of that in each episode?

Spader: I think you can expect them at different times. I - yes, I - yes, without question you can. I'm just quickly running some of the episodes you might have. But yes, I think that that's a burden that this show now carries. So yes, I think there's a deliberate effort to try and maintain that. How long that can sustain? I don't know.

You know, I think one of the great things about this show is that it can shift directions very quickly and it can shift with great (misdirection) too, so just when you're feeling comfortable with something, you realize that you're not.

And that's somewhat what you're talking about because, I mean, I think because I know that that's always the thing that, you know, there's a sort of visual surprise or a - there can be sort of a very, you know, visceral feeling of surprise or reaction that one can have, but there can also be one that is - that I think the show satisfies, which is one that's a little more ... than that and that it - 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 you're falling and you don't know into which rabbit hole you might be falling into.

Q: When you play characters that are sort of in the darker end of the spectrum - you're playing Red and then you'll be playing Ultron - how do you get into each role and come up with different shades of antagonism or shades of villainy to play?

Spader: You know, I look to the story, and I look to the influences or relations in whatever that character's life happens to be. And I also look to see what their everyday life would be like and how that would inform who they are and also try and look at what sort of person can live that sort of life.

And all those things sort of come together and marry with a given set of circumstances in the story and on the page. And there's a character. And sometimes you sort of - I try and approach things from all directions. You know, I really try and - I try and be open to that.

You know, I really try and - sometimes you're working backwards and sometimes you're working forwards. And sometimes you have to look at something from both points - 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. And that would be what I mean by working backwards. And sometimes you look at sort of who they are and where they come from and it leads you to how best they might behave in those circumstances. And I try and look at both and then say - if they made up with one another, then I think I've got a scene.

When asked again about playing a villain, Spader said, "I must say, it's quite fun to go and play this guy. ... I look for that in the things that I've picked over the years. I look for things that are, you know, very different from my life, and things that are curious and idiosyncratic to me, and then I like to find - you know, if I'm able just a little bit, (to) step into a world that I know very little about.

"And that's great fun. And 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."

Of "The Blacklist," Spader said, "I think it's exciting ... the way that the sort of standalone episodes can feed the sort of threaded story, and the threaded story also serves the weekly episodes."

"The Blacklist" airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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