With a suspenseful storyline and the top-notch acting talent of Emmy winner James Spader, “The Blacklist” has become NBC’s highest-rated new show of the 2013-2014 TV season. For decades, ex-government agent Raymond “Red” Reddington (played by Spader) has been one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives. Brokering shadowy deals for criminals across the globe, Red was known by many as “The Concierge of Crime.” Now, he’s mysteriously surrendered to the FBI with an explosive offer: He will help catch a long-thought-dead terrorist, Ranko Zamani, under the condition that he speaks only to Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (played by Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico. For Liz, it’s going to be one hell of a first day on the job. What follows is a twisting series of events as the race to stop a terrorist begins.
What are Red’s true intentions? Why has he chosen Liz, a woman with whom he seemingly has no connection? Does Liz have secrets of her own? Zamani is only the first of many on a list that Red has compiled over the years: a “blacklist” of politicians, mobsters, spies and international terrorists. He will help catch them all… with the caveat that Liz continues to work as his partner. Red will teach Liz to think like a criminal and “see the bigger picture”… whether she wants to or not. Spader took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about “The Blacklist” during a recent telephone conference call with journalists. He also mentioned how he’s going to juggle the show’s schedule with filming “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in which he’s been cast as the villain Ultron.
Are we ever going to get into the details of what sort horrible things Red has done in the past?
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 … 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.
As exciting as your Ultron role is in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” how is that going to impact your involvement with, “The Blacklist?” Is there any staggered schedule? How’s that going to work out?
I’m hoping that it’s going to be a fairly smooth transition but I don’t know. We’ll wait and see how long “The Blacklist” plays, whether it plays a full season. If it plays a full season, then I’m 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 Blacklist's" first episode. How did that feel?
It felt wonderful. I had my hair long for, I think, the last few projects that I had done. And it just felt like the right thing for him. It was an idea that I instigated and I think it was the right choice. It just seemed to fit his lifestyle and he’s someone who has to travel lightly and move swiftly and it seemed eminently practical for him.
And do you have any regrets?
No. Well, we’ll wait and see. It’s still early autumn. We’ll wait and see. Ask me again in January.
What attracted you to “The Blacklist” when you first read the script?
Well, that character. I just thought, first of all, that he seemed like he’d be great fun to play in the pilot, but he seems like he’d sustain over the course of the season and even over the course of multiple seasons. I just think there are 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.
How far in advance do you know where his story is headed and 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 I’m working in, you know. I mean, in theater, you know everything going in. In film, you know a little bit less but still an awful lot. And in television you know very little. And I think that’s fine for me. I mean working in theater or film or television are three different sorts of jobs for an actor and I accept them as such. I think that the volume of material on a television show is so vast that I think that it helps in a way if it’s surprising from week to week.
I’ve never been a big TV watcher. And 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 and then I was so anticipatory about the next script that was going to come in and then what direction we’re going in and how the story might unfold and how relationships might evolve or what kind of mess we might be getting into next. And with this show, it just seems like the possibilities for that are limitless. I mean, it has sort of an inherent surprise factor in this show just because you know so little going in.
I like that aspect of it a great deal and I being able to find the piece of material that tries to marry successfully something that’s sort of growing and fun to watch and then also can be very dark and quite serious but also at times can be funny and humorous and irreverent. This show sort of marries those things very well and I like that because it allows the character to be … it’s just more exciting and compelling, I think, from an actor’s point of view. It’s just a much more compelling job.
Red turns himself into the FBI, but we don’t know his motivation for sure. 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?
I think it’s a combination of all the things you just discussed. I know that he still has criminal activity that’s going on. How much the FBI is going to serve that or not remains to be seen. And there certainly is an agenda in terms of the targets that he’s picking — there absolutely is an agenda, in terms of the direction that he’s taking this little group, that his mixed bag, more of whom you’re going to meet tonight, the other people that are sort of joining the group.
But I think his main focus is really Elizabeth Keen and I think it was just much about having her join his life as me joining hers. And I think that it seems to be the one way that he seems equipped to be able to bring to light to her proves that he knows about her life that she’s unaware of.
You mentioned new people. Can you talk about the character that Parminder Nagra plays and Red’s relationship with her?
Parminder plays a CIA agent. She’s brought in actually by Jane Alexander’s character who works for the Department of Justice and it’s one of the stipulations that— I think her name is Fowler, the character Jane Alexander plays — and in approving this deal everyone is very 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. And so she joins the group based on that. And Reddington’s involvement with her, right now at least, parallels the same sort of involvement that he has with the other FBI people besides Elizabeth Keen, in that it’s set at arm’s length and it’s with a certain amount of caution.
How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?
Well, it really, I think, it came about [because of] a few different things. It came from, first of all, just sort of what Reddington looks like. And that’s a byproduct of his life. We didn’t want him to look as if he’s from any specific style of fashion of any given year or from any given place because he’s someone who would compile his wardrobe from around the world.
And people dress differently in different parts of the world. And he has been on the move for a couple of decades now, if not longer. And he travels lightly but he has to wear clothing that’s practical. He has to be someone who’s dressed to go straight from the jungle to a banker’s office and be able to be comfortable and appropriately dressed for both. And we also wanted it to be timeless and difficult to place in terms of place or time.
And lastly, because of geography and where he is people who travel to distant places, hats are part of their lives because in different places on earth people wear hats for different reasons. Sometimes to keep their head warm but sometimes to keep the sun off. And I think he’s used to that and so he’s adopted it. I think it was a look that came out of sort of the practicalities of his life. And that’s what we arrived at.
What do you say to the people who are comparing the relationship of Red and Elizabeth to that of Hannibal and Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs”?
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, in that after he’s come to an arrangement with the FBI, he’s now moving freely again and he’s no longer a guy shackled to a chair in an orange containment cell.
But also 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 the similarities between these two things that you’re referencing disappear very quickly.
Is it very freeing and liberating to go to work every day as this character and channel all your devious impulses, maybe get them out of your system before you go home back to being a civilian again?
Sure. I don’t know. I don’t 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 I’m going to the set this morning and I don’t feel free because I think this is a start-up business.
Starting a new show is a start-up business and, therefore, there’s nothing free and easy about it yet. Maybe in five or six more episodes when things smooth out a little bit. And we’re not at sixes and sevens so much. Then maybe I might feel a little more free. But 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 very different from my life and things that are curious and idiosyncratic to me and then I like to find, 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.
Red Reddington seems to be very technologically savvy. He’s very plugged in. How plugged in are you in real life?
You’ll actually discover in subsequent episodes that Red is actually not very technologically savvy. He is sometimes wishful about the old days of what spying and espionage and criminal activity might’ve been like as opposed to what it’s 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, I’m completely technologically ignorant. I don’t know how to type.
There’s some speculation that Red is actually Elizabeth’s father. What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t really have any thoughts on that because I don’t think he is but I don’t know for sure. 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. I know that that’s been something that’s been posed to me in the past and I’ve always been surprised when faced with that as a possibility as an outcome because it seems too easy. But, you know what? Maybe it’s a very circuitous route back to the simplest answer of all. So we’ll have to wait and see.
How long do you think it will take for Elizabeth to maybe find some trust in Red and really start working with him?
I think it starts happening quicker than she’s even aware of. First of all, it’s hoisted upon her so she sort of has to accept that lot. But I think also she finds herself sort of compelled to be doing that in spite of either her intuition or her better judgment. I think in a way, there’s something that compels them to each other and in subsequent episodes, she wrestles with that. She wrestles with the fact that he’s in her life, like it or not. And he’s not just in her life because of this work. He’s in her life because it’s becoming abundantly clear he’s part of her life. And even if she turns away from it, it’s still going to be there.
You just mentioned that Red being Elizabeth’s father would be too simple. But we also have learned at the end of the pilot episode that there’s something weird going on with her husband. Could there be a connection between Red and her husband?
You’re going to have to watch just a couple more episodes and you’ll start to see more and more. But I don’t think there’s anything that’s alluded to in any of the episodes that aren’t either by design for what’s going to unfold next or a purposeful misdirection to lead you down the wrong path so that you’ll be better surprised when you arrive at the right path.
Without spoiling too much, is there any particular scene or moment or something coming up that you’re excited for people to see?
The three episodes that follow the pilot are all very different. And now I’ve now seen the fourth and the fifth episode. They’re all very different or quite different from one another, in terms of the nature and tone of the different episodes, but also 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. And it involves everyone. It involves everyone.
There’s no one who’s left out of it. And I think that the writers have done a great job in terms of that, in terms of balancing what you learn and what you don’t learn and then how you learn it and whether what you learn is right or wrong. I think 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 and, therefore, for people who stay with the show, I think there’s much more satisfaction than just a straight procedural because of that, because you’ve got this greater story that you’re invested in and the characters are invested in and that at the end of the day, I think that’s ultimately what the show is about.
The week-to-week episodes are to serve this life that’s unfolding in front of you and that life is Red Remington and Elizabeth Keen and that’s inclusive of every aspect of their lives. It’s inclusive of Reddington’s life away from her but also it’s inclusive of her entire life whether it be her background, her past, her parents, her childhood, her relationship with her husband, her future. I think it’s exciting that way, the way that the sort of stand-alone episodes can feed the sort of story and the story also serves the weekly episodes.
Is there anything in particular you did for this role to prepare or research?
I read some stuff about the world that Red Reddington lives in and I just buried myself into the material at hand and also people that I know that live and work in our world and 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 sort of the shape of things.
And the great thing about a television story also is a lot of those things start to take shape as you’re just making the show — who people are and how they behave given different sets of circumstances on a television show seems to be more fluid than it is certainly than it would be in stage or in a film, but it’s something that evolves and grows as the show becomes its own entity.
When you play characters that are sort of in the darker end of the spectrum, how do you get into each individual one and kind of come up with different/ How does your thought process work?
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 I try and approach things from all directions. I try and be open to that.
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.”
What intrigued you about working with writer/director Joss Whedon and the rest of the “Avengers” team?
I met with Kevin Feige [Marvel Studios president of production] a couple years ago and just told him that I would love to come into that world at some point if the circumstances were right. And I don’t know. 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 had read many comic books at my house and he had trunk loads of them. And I used to go over there and bury myself in his room with his comics and devoured them. And then I sort of put that down in my life and began to pick it back up again. And then I have three sons and a couple of them along the way have shown a real keen interest in that sort of world. And so before it was too late, I wanted to try and see if I could be part of it.
It’s one of the great luxuries as an actor is you’re able to participate in projects — even the process of making the thing or the world you’re entering is so foreign to you and that foreign world, in many cases, forces you to work in an entirely different way and the challenge is becomes so different. And I was intrigued by that.
I’ve 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 and there you go. The right thing came along and Kevin Feige called up and said, “I found just the thing,” and Joss Whedon gave me a call and said that he really wasn’t thinking about anybody else for it and that he thought it would be great fun to do. And so here we go.
The “Blacklist” pilot episode was full of a lot of gasp-inducing moments. Can we expect more of that in every episode? And how hard is that to maintain?
I think you can expect them at different times. 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.
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 think because I know that that’s always the thing that there’s a sort of visual surprise, or there can be sort of a very visceral feeling of surprise or reaction that one can have but there can also be one that I think the show satisfies … 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.
For those who didn’t see the pilot, can you explain what the Blacklist is and what does it mean for Red?
The Blacklist is just a name that Reddington gives to a sort of freeform and very fluid list of targets but there is no list. It’s in his head. And the targets can sometimes be quite spontaneous based on what’s ever going to serve his greater agendas. And I think the targets sometimes are more calculated and I think at other times they’re not. Sometimes they serve an immediate purpose.
Will we see one person be checked off that list every episode?
I pause only because we’re at the beginning of what could be an indeterminate lifespan of a show. So it’s hard for me to answer that with any kind of absolute. But I know that there’s a very real desire that there at least be a case that’s pursued on a weekly basis. But I presume also that certain cases might last a couple of episodes or longer. I don’t know. As the till unfolds, I’m sure that will change and develop. I’m not sure whether it’s always just going to be the person of the week.
“The Blacklist” executive producer John Eisendrath said that you came on board “The Blacklist” at the 11th hour, so how did you get the role down so well and so fast?
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. 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.
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 always remains to be seen. 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 read it and I sort of had a feeling for at least a direction.
You’ve had a lot of success on television. How much input do you have or do you want to have on the scripts?
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.
Red is a very ambiguous character. People don’t trust him, and he knows they don’t trust him. Is there a difference in how you approach playing somebody who is ambiguous to the people around him and to the audience, compared to somebody who the audience knows deep down is a decent person like, say, your “Boston Legal” character Alan Shore, who does devious things, but we know he’s solid?
That’s a big question. It feels more like three questions, but I think 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 there’s no rule of law in his world … Trust is something that I think he has a great understanding for. I think he knows when to recognize when it’s there and he can recognize when it’s not in ways that maybe others aren’t quite so facile at. And I think it just may be because of the fact that he’s faced with it with such dire straits so much of the time
And a lot of his feelings in his life, he’s having to trust his wife and the likes of others in any given set of circumstances and, therefore, the stakes of that trust are so high, but by the same token, I think he’s fully aware of the fact that he’s dealing with, in this relationship at least, he’s dealing with a whole group of people who don’t trust him at all. But it’s interesting to watch how he gains small, little finger and footholds into their trust and that’s 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 interaction?
To a certain degree. I mean, I’m conscientious of that to a degree but I also have the luxury of knowing when he’s being forthright and when he’s not. And I think that he’s much more forthright than I think people are aware of. I think it’s very easy to project an awful lot onto him that — and have preconceptions about him that may go unproven.
For more info: "The Blacklist" website