THE BLACKLIST Showrunner John Eisendrath Talks about the Show’s Inspiration, Getting Inside the Mind of a Criminal, Casting James Spader, and More

     July 28, 2013


Before every fall season starts, I watch all the pilots for all the networks, to see what stands out and to determine what I’ll cover.  One of the most promising pilots was for the upcoming drama series The Blacklist, due in large part to the intriguing and fun performance given by show star James Spader.  For decades, ex-government agent Raymond “Red” Reddington (Spader) has been one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives, brokering shadowy deals for criminals across the globe.  Now, he’s mysteriously surrendered to the FBI, offering to help catch a blacklist of politicians, mobsters, spies and international terrorists, under the condition that he speaks only to Elizabeth “Liz” 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 promote the show’s September 23rd premiere, showrunner/executive producer John Eisendrath talked about what inspired the show, getting inside the mind of a criminal to write the show, why James Spader was the perfect actor, just how challenging the casting process was, how important the reason that Red turns himself in is, how soon viewers will learn about his motivations, and that the series will be both episodic and serialized.  Check out what he had to say after the jump. 

the-blacklist-james-spaderQuestion:  What was the inspiration for The Blacklist?

JOHN EISENDRATH:  There have been many police procedural or crime shows that center around the heroes who are trying to catch the criminals.  And the idea was kicked around to center a show that is about catching bad guys, but with a bad guy at the center of it.  And that came about at around the same time that the real world criminal Whitey Bulger was found.  In fact, he’s now on trial in Boston.  He was one of the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives for 20 years and he was found living in Santa Monica, in an apartment.  

So, the idea was, “Well, what would happen if a man like Whitey Bulger turned himself in and said, ‘I am here. I have some rules that I want you to follow, but if you follow them I will give you the names of people that I have worked with, during the 20 years that I have been a fugitive.’”  So, there was a real world influence that affected the shaping of the show that was already being thought about.  How can you put someone that you don’t trust in the center of a show about trying to find criminals?  And here was an example in the real world of just such a person.  It was a fortuitous turn of events, where the idea for a show was being considered, and then here comes a real life story that helped give it some shape.

Do you have to think like a criminal, in order to write this show?

EISENDRATH:  It’s interesting.  In the pilot, Red says to Liz that you have to think like a criminal, and I do think that one of the incredibly fun things about working on a show like this is that you are trying to imagine how a criminal would look at things.  You’re trying to put yourself in the mind of a guy like Red Reddington and how he would look at it differently than a normal police procedural character might.  There is something incredibly fun about that and very exciting.  It’s scary how easy it comes to some of us, to think like a criminal.  It is enjoyable, and it’s a very specific character.  That, to me, is part of the reason I hope the show will be a success.  He is a very unique character.  He’s someone that you can love, love to hate and be intrigued by, and he will always leave you guessing.  Part of the joy of watching a show like this is that there’s a mystery in his character.

Why James Spader? 

the-blacklist-megan-booneEISENDRATH:  Now that we’ve seen him in the show, it’s easy to look back and go, “I can’t believe James Spader has never played a part like this.  He’s perfect for it.”  It’s hard for me to believe that he’s never played a master criminal before because he has the ability to be mysterious, dangerous and mischievous, in a way that seems perfectly suited to playing someone where you don’t know whether he’s good or bad.  There’s a certain amount of luck that is always a part of whether a show turns out to be good or bad.  The script that Jon Bokenkamp wrote for the pilot was great, but there are plenty of times where a great script does not turn out to be a great pilot, and there are a lot of reasons why that happens.  In our case, I feel like we were incredibly lucky, in that James Spader, as an actor, fit so perfectly with the character that was written.  And it was incredibly fun to watch, just to see him become this person that was written.  

It’s hard for us to take credit for wanting James Spader on The Blacklist.  We were smart enough to know that he’d be someone who would be good to get in it, but I don’t think any of us knew just how good he was going to be.  He’s amazing in it, and it was really fun to watch him just become this person.  That was a joy to see.  He’s just so this character, and he understands the character so well.  He always thought that his character should wear a hat and we were all like, “No, no hat.  No hat.  Nobody’s going to want to see a guy with a hat.”  And he was like, “I think he wears a hat.”  He was very insistent that his character would wear a hat.  And he was totally right.  I love the hat now.  Now, everybody is like, “Oh, my god, the hat is fantastic!  It’s so him!  He has to wear a hat!”  That was an example where he just had such a great feeling for how to bring this character to life, in ways that we couldn’t imagine, that were really enjoyable to see. 

What was the casting process like, for Red Reddington?  Did you see or consider a lot of actors for that role?

EISENDRATH:  Casting pilots is a very difficult process.  Network pilots get greenlit at the same time, so everybody is trying to cast everybody, at the same time.  That’s always difficult, and we had a difficult time, by our own doing.  We were trying to figure out who the character should be.  So, you look at the universe of actors out there and you’re like, “Oh, I’m sure that Tom Cruise wants to do a TV show this year.  Maybe Tom Cruise will do the show,” or whatever.  There’s always that impulse, which is crazy and weird, and you know it’s the wrong impulse, but it’s impossible not to be drawn into it because you’re thinking, “A huge star is what we need to break out of the pack.”  And then, when you get past that nonsense and there’s literally only a week left before the show is supposed to start filming, you realize that you have to get back to the world of reality.  

the-blacklist-pilot-james-spaderNetwork shows are like the step-child of cable shows now.  Actors would much prefer, in many cases, to do 10 episodes a year on a cable show than do 22 episodes on a network show, and I totally get it.  It’s a better lifestyle, in many ways.  You get a lot of, “Oh, I’d love to do that show, if it was on cable.  Thank you, but no thank you.”  And then, you get back to the real world.  Nobody is going to come in and actually audition, so you never really get to see anybody.  It’s a little bit of guesswork.  Spader was never going to come in and audition for the role.  And that’s hard and you’re terrified because you care so much about the show, but nobody is going to read it, so you’re guessing about who’s going to be good.  So, all of that is a long way of saying that the casting process is almost always incredibly difficult, and it was, in our case.  

Once we arrived at the fact that Spader could be great for the show and he was actually interested in doing a network show, because he clearly could have done a cable show, we had a conversation with him.  Jon Bokenkamp and I called him and said, “This is our idea for the show.”  We had a long conversation with him and we realized that he completely understood who this person is.  We were 100% confident that he would be great in it.  And then, he just completely exceeded our already high expectations.  I believe he was cast three days before we were supposed to start filming, but I don’t feel like we are in unique territory there. 

How important is the reason that Red (James Spader) turns himself in, and will viewers find out this season?

EISENDRATH:  I think it is very important.  It is one of several big questions hanging out there.  Why does he turn himself in?  Why does he turn himself in now?  Why did he pick Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone)?  I think those are three central questions.  We will give answers for all of those questions, in the first season.  It is central to the show, and he has a reason that we hope viewers will find worthy of the number four on The Blacklist deciding to up and turn himself in. 

How soon will viewers learn Red’s motivation for turning himself in? 

james spader the blacklistEISENDRATH:  I like to think of it as teasing out, rather than dragging out.  We will tease it out throughout the series.  I think there will be a period of time where some of our heroes will think, “We’re just doing his work for him, taking out his enemies and rivals, so he can go back into the criminal world having used us to take out a lot of people who were in his way.”  But for part of the time, I think viewers will wonder if he turned himself in because he was scared.  Is there someone out there who scared Ray Reddington so much that he looked for protection from the FBI?  And then, there will be other times where we may feel like he has genuine penance that he’s trying to pay.  It’s not mutually exclusive.  Part of the fun of the show will be, just when you think it’s one thing, we may do an episode that makes you think it’s something else, and then we can circle back.  Part of the joy of the show will be the guessing game of, “What is the reason that he turned himself in?  Can we trust him?  Is he using us?”  The moment Liz begins to trust him, something might happen that makes her go, “I can’t believe I thought that maybe I could ever trust this guy.”  And the back and forth of that, we feel we can prolong for the foreseeable future.

Once you reveal all of that, will there still be more story?

EISENDRATH:  I think that there is a relationship that will develop between Red and Liz that has many years of stories to tell.  The first part of it will be learning what the reason that he turned himself in is.  But, once you learn that, any good answer to that question will be one that prompts four or five other questions.  Hopefully, that will be worth the viewer’s time to watch.  Just because we give the answer to one of the early questions that we deposit in the pilot, does not mean that there won’t be others that come from it.  So, yes, we will answer some of the questions from the pilot, but those will just spin off other questions that I hope will push the show and pull viewers forward into subsequent seasons, should we be lucky enough to have the subsequent seasons.

How would you describe Red’s relationship with Elizabeth Keen?

the blacklist james-spaderEISENDRATH:  There will be mystery in it, of course.  There will be the question of, “Is he someone who has a deep, mysterious reason to care about this woman?  Does he have a deep, mysterious reason that leads him to want to manipulate her, for an end that we can’t see yet?  Does she possess something that he wants, but can’t access yet or doesn’t feel like he can get hold of until he has gotten closer to her?”  I think that the question of, “Is he a guardian angel on her shoulder, or is he the devil on her other shoulder?,” is again something that we want to tease out over time.  In the early episodes, if you imagine yourself as Elizabeth Keen, you will have almost no other questions on your mind, but “What is this man doing in my life?  Look what has happened to my life since he has shown up.”  It’s not a question we’re going to ignore.  He’s going to go right at it.  But, he is going to parse out the answers in his own sweet time.

Will you ever explore Red’s backstory?

EISENDRATH:  We will get glimpses of his back story, frequently.  He’s going to introduce us to people that he knows and that he’s worked with.  He’s drawing us into the world of the blacklist.  He’s going to be showing us glimpses of the life that he led.  He has been in America, part of the time, but  you may wonder why he chose not to turn myself into the CIA.  Is it possible that there are people within that community that want him dead?  The question of the enemies of Red’s that are out there, they can be in the world of crime.  They can be in the world of government.  The enemy within, as well as the enemy without.  He’s got people on the blacklist that are going to take our heroes all over the world, so why not then turn himself into the CIA?  Is there a reason for that?  So, we are going to get glimpses of his life, not only in the blacklist stories we tell, but with his wife and daughter.  Of course, we’re going to revisit that story and find out what happened to his family, in the intervening 20 years, and what his relationship, if any, is with them.

What led you to cast Megan Boone and Harry Lennix in their roles?

the blacklistEISENDRATH:  We looked pretty far and wide for the character of Liz.  Casting is so subjective, but when Megan came in – and she did audition – it was one of those auditions where, right away, we were like, “There is something specific about her.”  I felt like there was a darkness that she could access.  It’s funny because it wasn’t something that we put in a breakdown.  It wasn’t really something that was obvious in the script, but it was something that Jon and I have talked about.  Part of the first season is almost a little like Darth Vader and Luke, tempted by the dark side.  She isn’t just a goody two-shoes.  She actually has something lurking under there.  So, when she did the audition and it was clear that she had the ability to access that, it was really affecting.  We thought, “Yes, that is it.”  From the first time she auditioned, we felt like she was the one that we wanted.  When you want to cast someone who’s unknown, as a centerpiece of your show, you’ve got to do some lobbying to make sure everybody is okay with that and comfortable with that.  And we really felt comfortable, from the beginning, that she was the right person.  

Certainly in the pilot, Harry’s role can seem like it’s think-less.  There’s not that much to work with because so much of it is introductory material for him to let the other people launch into their stories.  And one of the things that I loved about him is that the way he plays it is incredibly likeable and warm and inviting, and yet he’s a very high-ranking, spymaster character.  He’s like the spider wooing the person into the web.  When he says to Liz, “Don’t profile yourself, just tell me about you,” he’s smiling, sweet and affable, but he’s really a dangerous character who is capable of being very cunning.  You don’t get to that job unless you’re capable of that.  So, we wanted someone who could play against the underlying fact that someone does not get to be high-up in the world of counter-intelligence without being a very tough customer, and he played against that.  In many ways, that’s a more dangerous way to play it because you are disarming people while you’re watching them the whole time.  I also like the idea that I feel like there’s a history between him and Spader’s character.  I like the way they play off each other.  There’s a seeming openness about the way Harry plays the role of Cooper, and Spader’s Reddington is so tight.  It’s a really great opposite way of portraying those characters.

Is this show going to be one crime per episode, or is it going to be serialized, so that viewers have to follow the whole season to really know what’s going on?

the-blacklist-posterEISENDRATH:  In the beginning, and for the foreseeable future, there will be someone on the blacklist that Red offers up, and that we take down.  So, there is an episodic nature to those stories.  Obviously, like any show that isn’t a show like CSI or Law & Order, the character stories are serialized.  There will be the story about Liz and her husband, and the bigger mythological questions of, “Why pick Liz?  Why did Red turn himself in?”  There will be tentpole moments, throughout the first year, that address those questions, but not in every episode.  But on an episode-to-episode basis, we will have someone on the blacklist that we go after and take down.

The Blacklist premieres on NBC on September 23rd.