On the new NBC drama series The Blacklist, ex-government agent Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), who has been has been one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives, brokering shadowy deals for criminals across the globe, has mysteriously surrendered to the FBI. Offering to help catch a blacklist of politicians, mobsters, spies and international terrorists, his one condition is that he speaks only to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico. What follows is a twisting series of events that will lead everyone to wonder what Red’s true intentions really are.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Diego Klattenhoff (who plays FBI Agent Donald Ressler) talked about what it’s been like to go from facing off with Damian Lewis on Homeland (where he played Nicholas Brody’s former best friend, Capt. Mike Faber) to facing off with James Spader on The Blacklist, that he’s excited about the few notes he’s been given for where things are headed, why it was important to him that the show have a balance of serialized and procedural, and what it’s like to work with Joe Carnahan, who directed the pilot. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DIEGO KLATTENHOFF: It’s a tough life! They’re so similar, it’s uncanny. When you admire somebody and you go in there, part of your consciousness is saying, “Holy fuck, this is James Spader! This is Claire Danes! I’m doing a scene with Mandy Patinkin!” Luckily, I had that experience on Homeland, to work with these unreal people who are unbelievably talented, great actors. And to go into work with James, it was the exact same thing. For me, anyway, James is at that near iconic status of, “Holy fuck, it’s James Spader!” He’s done so many different things, in all the different mediums. He’s such a fiercely intellectual, consummate professional who is so well-prepared, going in to do a scene, that you just have to nod and take note. Some actors like to just walk in and feel it out. He has everything worked out for a reason, and you can’t do anything but admire it, take note, and then get in there and duke it out with him. It’s gonna lead to some great stuff.
Does it feel very unpredictable, working with him, since you never really know what he’s going to give you?
KLATTENHOFF: In a sense. He’s so well-prepared, but he’s also just so present, at all times. Any time you’re in a scene with him, he seems very well thought out. But, him being as present as he is, it draws you into that place, so you have to be on your toes to match him. It’s very much like a boxing match or a tennis game. You don’t know what he’s going to do next, and you have to be ready for it.
KLATTENHOFF: We were waiting around to see what they wanted to do on Homeland. This was during awards season, and they were gracious enough to let me know that they didn’t need me in the same capacity. I’m still recurring on that show. It’s been amazing to have that experience, and then have such a short break and find such rich material. It’s very hard to find great material like this, especially when you develop this pickiness where you literally go from Emmy Award-winning material to pilot scene where you’re going, “This is fucking grim.” It’s very hard to judge sometimes. It’s such a crap shoot. You have to get the casting right. You have to get the people behind it. Your director might not be the right director for the project. And then, it has to test and those people in that room, wherever they are, have to turn those buttons the right way at the right time. It’s such a crap shoot, but here we are.
I can’t tell you how good it is to go from Homeland to be lucky enough to find The Blacklist at the right time. It literally came at the very end of pilot season when I thought there was nothing left. At that time, I was happy that I didn’t sign on for anything that I didn’t really love. When this came along, my manager kept telling me about this script that was floating around out there in the ether, that was the script. I said, “Don’t break my fucking heart. I just want to get in and audition. I don’t want anything for free.”
As great as my representation was for finding it, I wanted to get in the trenches and fight it out. They found the script. On Tuesday, I read it and was blown away. On Wednesday, I had a meeting with the guys. On Thursday, I was testing for it. And then, within nine days, I was shooting in New York. The turn-around on this was really, really quick. So, to go from Homeland, and then through the whole pilot season experience to get to that point, and then now to get to this point, has been incredible.
KLATTENHOFF: Yes, but I can’t tell you. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that’s gonna come out over the course of the season, and hopefully over the next 10 years. The thing that the writers have created here is a very rich environment. The characters have so much potential. They’re dynamics and who they are to each other is very much this game of chess. Just because right now you don’t know about a character, so much can be revealed in three, four or five episodes, or by the end of the season. I have a few little notes about where we might be going, and it’s really good. I’m excited.
When you do a show like this on a network, you have more episodes per season, and you’re hoping for many seasons, was it important to you that all of these different layers be there, so that it’s not just about catching a criminal every week?
KLATTENHOFF: Yeah. I read things and respond to them. I’m very caveman, in that approach. That’s how it works for me. It’s real basic. I read it and thought it was a great tale with a lot of very interesting elements, and characters that have tons of potential to be revealed over a long term. I don’t want to find out, after the first season, that my character was real interesting in the beginning, but then I’m shot. There’s a lot of potential for everyone involved. For me, it comes from a gut place. And then, once I start analyzing it, I’m like, “Okay, this is why.”
The parallels between this and Homeland are eerie, in the sense of knowing exactly where you are when you read it. When I was reading Homeland, I was at my sister’s apartment in Toronto shooting an episode of Falling Skies, and my people got me the script. Cable is a great medium. It’s something I respond to. I’m not doing sitcoms. People don’t find me funny. That’s just the way it is. I’ve read a bunch of stuff for HBO, Showtime and Starz, and for some reason, it was just a lightening bolt. The same thing for The Blacklist. I was sitting at the kitchen table in L.A. and I couldn’t get up to get a glass of water. I was just in it.
It’s also been similar in the casting all coming together. We got an amazing director. The writers are talented. There’s a wide breadth of experience and talent. I think the show lends itself to being a serialized drama, as much as it does a procedural. We have all these writers who can bring in different tools. To have all those things work out along the way, and to get to this point, is very encouraging.
How was it to do the pilot with a director like Joe Carnahan?
KLATTENHOFF: Joe Carnahan is a fucking beast. I can’t say enough about what he brought to the table. He’s an immensely talented director. He’s a great guy. He brings in a real boots-on-the-ground sensibility with an auteur’s vision, mixed with the ability to shoot the shit out of The A-Team or Smokin’ Aces. And he’s doing two more episodes, which I couldn’t be happier about. Carnahan was in there up to his elbows, just working the gears. So, I’m real excited about the directors that we have signed on.
The Blacklist airs on Monday nights on NBC.