Fade to Blacklist
by Jay S. Jacobs
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.
They hit on the broad strokes of Red’s past in the pilot, but are we ever going to get into the details of what sort of nitty-gritty bad, horrible things he’s done in the past?
Yes, that’s going to be eked out slowly over the course of the episodes. An overall history lesson, I don’t think it will ever happen on the show. 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. 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 he’s 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? 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 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. He’s someone who has to travel lightly and move swiftly. It seemed eminently practical for him.
Do you have any regrets?
None. Well, we’ll wait and see. It’s still early autumn. Ask me again in January. (laughs)
What attracted you to the project when you first read the script?
You’ve seen the pilot?
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 also seems like he’d 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 I’m 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 that’s 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 it’s surprising from week to week. I’ve 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 we’d 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 that’s 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 actor’s point of view. It’s just a much more compelling job.