On the 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 interview to discuss his compelling new show, actor James Spader talked about why he wanted to play this character, gradually revealing just what Reddington is up to, how much he anticipates reading each script to see what’s coming next, how wonderful it felt to shave his head for the role, just how often the show will continue to switch directions from what viewers expect, and how much input he gets with the scripts. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
JAMES SPADER: Yes, I think that’s going to be eked out slowly, over the course of the episodes. I don’t think an overall history lesson 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, how he conducts business with the transition from him being a prisoner to working out the parameters of his deal with the FBI and the Department of Justice. From that point, you’ll see that he’s now moving freely. He is still living his life away from the FBI and, in subsequent episodes you see small samplings of him still conducting his nefarious affairs.
What was it that attracted you to this show?
SPADER: Well, the character. First of all, he seemed like he’d be great fun to play in the pilot, but he also seemed like he’d sustain over the course of the season, and even over the course of multiple seasons. I just think that there are so many unanswered questions, and it felt like it would take a long time to answer those 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? As an actor, do you like to know, or would you rather have that unfold for you?
SPADER: It really depends on the medium that I’m working in. 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, which is fine for me. Working in theater, film or television are three different jobs for an actor, and I accept them as such. The volume of material on a television show is so vast that it helps, in a way, if it’s surprising from week-to-week. I’ve never been a big TV watcher. So, when I first started working on the series, I got to 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, what direction we’re going in, how the story might unfold, how the relationships might evolve, and what kind of mess we might be getting into next. With this show, it just seems like the possibilities are limitless. It has an inherent surprise factor in just because you know so little, going in. I like that aspect of it a great deal. It’s just more exciting and compelling, from an actor’s point of view. It’s just a much more compelling job.
You chose to shave your head for the pilot episode. How did that feel?
SPADER: It felt wonderful. I had my hair long for the last few projects that I had done, and it 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. He’s someone who has to travel lightly and move swiftly, and it seemed eminently practical for him.
Do you have any regrets about it?
Red has turned himself into the FBI but we don’t know his real motivation for that. Is he going to be above board with them, or is the FBI may unwittingly helping his with his own criminal activity?
SPADER: I think it’s a combination of those things. 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 and the direction that he’s taking this little group. But, his main focus is really Elizabeth Keen. It’s just as much about having her join his life as me joining hers. It seems to be the one way that he’s equipped to prove that he knows things about her life that she’s unaware of.
How does Parminder Nagra’s character fit into things, and what is Red’s relationship going to be like with her?
SPADER: Parminder plays a CIA agent who is actually brought in by Jane Alexander’s character, who works for the Department of Justice. It’s one of her stipulations in approving this deal that everyone is very reticent about striking, so she joins the group based on that. 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 she’s at arm’s length, and it’s with a certain amount of caution.
There’s been some speculation that Red is actually Elizabeth’s father. What are your thoughts on that?
SPADER: I don’t really have any thoughts on that. I don’t think he is, but I don’t know for sure. First of all, that’s something that I wouldn’t divulge because I think that’s something where the only way one earns that information is to watch the show. That’s something that’s been posed to me, in the past, and I’ve always been surprised when faced with that, as a possible outcome, because it seems too easy. But, you know what? Maybe it’s a very circuitous route back to the simplest answer of all. We’ll have to wait and see.
Is there a connection between Red and Elizabeth’s husband?
SPADER: You’re going to have to watch a couple more episodes, and then you’ll start to see more and more. 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.
Will the show continue to have gasp-inducing moments, and how hard is that to maintain?
SPADER: You can expect them at different times. I think that that’s a burden that this show now carries. There’s a deliberate effort to try to maintain that, but how long can that sustain? I don’t know. 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. There can be a very visceral feeling of surprise or reaction that one can have, but just when you think you really are getting a handle on something, your handle 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.
Will someone be checked off of the blacklist with every episode?
SPADER: 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. 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 also presume that certain cases might last a couple of episodes or longer. I just don’t know. As things unfold, I’m sure that will change and develop. So, I’m not sure whether it’s always just going to be the person of the week.
Is it very freeing and liberating to go to work every day, as this character, and channel all of your devious teaming impulses, maybe getting them out of your system before you go home back to being a civilian again?
SPADER: Sure, but I don’t feel free because we’re still this start-up business. Starting a new show is a start-up business and, therefore, there’s nothing free or easy about it yet. Maybe in five or six more episodes, when things smooth out a little bit. Then, maybe I might feel a little more free. But, 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 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. That’s great fun. 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.
Having had past success on television, how much input do you have or do you want to have on the scripts?
SPADER: I seem to be having just enough. I couldn’t take on any more, that’s for sure. Our schedule is too oppressive to be able to take on any more. So, I have just enough to be able to do the scenes and try to feel like we’re making them right.
The Blacklist airs on Monday nights on NBC.