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TV Goodness Q&A: The Blacklist’s James Spader [INTERVIEW] 

Photo Credit: Patrick Ecclesine/NBC
Photo Credit: Patrick Ecclesine/NBC

We’re only two episodes into the season so far and we’re hooked. We’ve always liked James Spader in this type of role. He’s a “bad” guy, but his motivations are decidedly opaque. Does he really want to help the FBI or is he really just helping himself? So far, we know Red has a Blacklist of people he thinks are truly heinous. We may never know his true agenda, but the FBI needs his help so for now they’re along for the ride. TV Goodness participated in a press call with James Spader last week. He gave us some intel on what attracted him to this role in the first place, what to look forward to this season, and why he thinks Red is so interested in Lizzie.

Photo Credit: Will Hart/NBC
Photo Credit: Will Hart/NBC

What attracted you to the project when you first read the script?

James Spader: “Well, that character. I mean 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’re 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.”

Is there anything in particular you did for this role to prepare? Did you do research?

James: “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 I know that live and work in our world. [I had] a conversation with the writers and 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. You know, who people are and how they behave under – 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.”

This show obviously is going to get a lot of love from the critics and much of that is because of your work. When we talked to EP John Eisendrath, he sort of said that you came on board at the 11th hour. How did you get the role down so well so fast?

James: “I don’t know. I just think it’s the right piece of material 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. 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 had a feeling for at least a direction.”

Photo Credit: Will Hart/NBC
Photo Credit: Will Hart/NBC

Can you explain what “The Blacklist” is for those who missed the pilot and what does it mean for Red?

James: “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 just – it’s in his head. And the targets can sometimes be quite spontaneous based on whatever’s going to serve his greater agendas. And I think sometimes the targets 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?

James: “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 just – I don’t know. As the till unfolds, I’m sure that will change and develop and I’m not sure whether it’s always just going to be the person of the week.”

The pilot 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?

James: “I think you can expect them at different times. Without question you can. I think that that’s a burden 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 know that that’s always the thing that there’s a sort of visual surprise- 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. 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.”

We know the broad strokes of Red’s past, but are we ever going to get into the details of the bad, horrible things he’s done?

James: “Yes, I think that’s going to be sort of eked out slowly over the course of the episodes. [But] a sort of 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 Freelancer”] 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 small samplings of him still conducting his nefarious affairs.”

A character like this is so mysterious. 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?

James: “It really depends on the medium I’m working in. 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 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. 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. 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. So I really like that aspect of it a great deal and just 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 that. 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 in with?

James: “I think it’s a combination. I know that he still has criminal activity that’s going on, whether the FBI – how much the FBI is going to serve that or not remains to be seen. And 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 [in “The Freelancer”], 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 [as] much about having her join his life as me joining hers. And I think that it seems to be the one way he seems equipped to be able to bring to light to her. [It] proves that he knows about her life that she’s unaware of.”

How long do you think it will take for Elizabeth to maybe find some trust in Red and really start working with him?

James: “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 mean, 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 he’s in her life even if she turns away from it. It’s still going to be there.”

Reddington is very technologically savvy. He’s very plugged in. How plugged in are you? Are you hip technologically?

James: “You’ll discover in subsequent episodes that Red is actually not very technologically savvy. I think 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.”

Can you talk about the character that Parminder Nagra plays and Red’s relationship with her?

James: “Parminder plays a CIA agent works for the Department of Justice. It’s one of the stipulations that Fowler, the character Jane Alexander plays, [has] in approving this deal that 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.”

When you play characters that are sort of on the darker end of the spectrum, how do you get into character? How do you come up with different shades of antagonism or shades of villainy to play? How does your thought process work?

James: “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. I try and approach things from all directions. I really 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 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.”

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?

James: “Sure. 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. I mean, 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 we’re still- this is a startup business. You know, starting a new show is a startup 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 6s and 7s 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 and be able to- 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, 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 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 and to somebody who the audience knows deep down is a decent person who does devious things but we know he’s solid?

James: “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. I mean, 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. Therefore, trust is something 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. 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. 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.”

Does that affect how you play him? The trust or lack thereof in each interaction?

James: “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 and have preconceptions about him that may go unproven.”

There’s some speculation that Red is actually Elizabeth’s father. What are your thoughts on that?

James: “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. But I know that that’s been something that’s been posed to me in the past. 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.”

We learned at the end of the pilot episode that there’s something weird going on with Elizabeth’s husband. Could there be a connection between Red and her husband?

James: “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?

James: “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 quite different from one another in terms the nature and tone of the different episodes, but also the form of them are different from one another. As you start to learn more [it’s] very intriguing and compelling. And 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. For people who stay with the show, I think there’s much more satisfaction than just a straight procedural because you’ve got this greater story that you’re invested in and the characters are invested in. 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 Reddington 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 story and also serves the weekly episodes.”

What do you say to the people who are comparing the relationship of Red and Elizabeth to that of Hannibal and Clarice Starling?

James: “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 starting after [“The Freelancer”] 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 a 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. I think the similarities between these two things that you’re referencing disappear very quickly.”

How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?

James: “Well, I think, it came about- 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 not 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.”

The Blacklist airs Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.

Edited for space and content.

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