James Spader Discusses The Blacklist and Avengers: Age of UltronJames Spader returns to series TV after a successful run in The Practice and Boston Legal with NBC’s The Blacklist. The series, which was one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall 2013 season, has earned rave reviews from critics and viewers alike. In it, Spader plays Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, an ex-government agent who is one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. He turns himself in and offers to help hunt down a blacklist full of terrorists, mobsters, and spies if he’s allowed to work directly with FBI profiler Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Keen (played by Megan Boone). Why did he turn himself in and what’s his connection to Elizabeth? Those are secrets yet to be disclosed on the new dramatic show airing Monday nights at 10pm.
In support of The Blacklist, Spader took part in a conference call with journalists to discuss what the audience can expect from the show in upcoming episodes.
James Spader The Blacklist Interview
Are we ever going to get into the details of what sort of nitty-gritty bad, horrible things he’s done in the past?
James Spader: “Yes, I think that’s going to be sort of eked out slowly over the course of the episodes. A sort of overall history lesson? I don’t think it 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. [...]The first episode after the pilot 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.”
You chose to shave your head for the pilot episode. How did that feel?
James Spader: “It felt wonderful. I had my hair long for, I think, the last few projects that I had done. 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 and he’s someone who has to move and travel lightly and move swiftly, and it seemed eminently practical for him.
Do you have any regrets?
James Spader: “No. Well, we’ll wait and see. It’s still early autumn here. In fact, we’ll wait and see…ask me again in January.”
What attracted you to the project when you first read the script?
James Spader: “You’ve seen the pilot?”
James Spader: “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 just 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.”
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 Spader: “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, you know, working in theater or film or television are three different sorts of jobs for an actor and I accept them as such. I think that 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.
You know, 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 of what it felt like to be a viewer. 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. I also just like 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’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 sure. 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 Spader: “I think it’s a combination of all the things you just discussed. 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 certainly is an agenda in terms of the targets that he’s picking and there absolutely is an agenda in terms of the direction that he’s taking this little group. But, you know, I think his main focus is really Elizabeth Keen and I think it was just much about having her join his life as me joining hers. I think that it seems to be the one way that he seems equipped to be able to bring to light [and] prove that he knows about her life that she’s unaware of.”
How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?
James Spader: “Well, it really, I think, came about from 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. 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, you know, 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.
We also wanted it to be timeless and difficult to place in terms of place or time. And lastly, you know, 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.”
What do you say to the people who are comparing the relationship of Red and Elizabeth to that of Hannibal and Clarice Starling?
James Spader: “You know, 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 second episode] 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.
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.”
Is it very freeing and liberating to go to work every day as this character and channel all your devious teaming impulses, maybe get them out of your system before you go home back to being a civilian again?
James Spader: “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. You know, 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 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 to step into a world that I know very little about. 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.”
There’s some speculation that Red is actually Elizabeth’s father. What are your thoughts on that?
James Spader: “I don’t really have any thoughts on that because I don’t think he is, but I don’t know for sure. You know, 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 and it’s always seemed – 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.”
How long do you think it will take for Elizabeth to maybe find some trust in Red and really start working with him?
James Spader: “I think it starts happening quicker than she’s even aware of. I mean, 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 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.”
You just mentioned that Red being Elizabeth’s father would be too simple but we also have learned at the end of the pilot episode that there’s something weird going on with her husband. Could there be a connection between Red and her husband?
James Spader: “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.”
Is there any particular scene or moment or something coming up that you’re excited for people to see?
James Spader: “You know, 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 very different or quite different from one another in terms of the nature and tone of the different episodes, but also the form of them are different from one another and also what you learn about these people as you start to learn more is very intriguing and compelling – and it involves everyone. It involves everyone. There’s no one who’s left out of it. 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 and, therefore, for people who stay with the show, I think there’s much more satisfaction than just a straight procedural because of that. You’ve got this greater story that you’re invested in and the characters are invested in and that 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 Remington 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 standalone episodes can feed the sort of [threaded] story and the [threaded] story also serves the weekly episodes.”
Is there anything in particular you did for this role to prepare or research or anything?
James Spader: “You know, 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 that I know that live and work in our world. Also just a lot of 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. 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 given different sets of circumstances on a television show seems to be more fluid 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.”
When you play characters that are sort of in the darker end of the spectrum, and in this case, you’re playing Red and then you’ll be going on to play a character like Ultron, how do you get into each individual one and kind of come up with different shades of antagonism or shades of villainy to play? Like, how does your thought process work?
James Spader: “You know, 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. 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. You know, 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. I try and look at both and then say if they made up with one another, then I think I’ve got a scene.”
Can you explain what the blacklist is?
James Spader: “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 in his head and the targets can sometimes be quite spontaneous based on whatever’s going to serve his greater agendas. 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 Spader: “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, you know, I presume also that certain cases might last a couple of episodes or longer. I don’t know. As the it unfolds, I’m sure that will change and develop. I’m not sure whether it’s always just going to be the person of the week.”
How much input do you have or do you want to have on the scripts?
James Spader: “I seem to be having just enough and I couldn’t take on any more, that’s for sure. Our schedule is too oppressive to be able to take on any more. But just enough to be able to do the scenes and try and feel like we’re making them right.”
Red is a very ambiguous character and 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 like, say, Alan Shore from Boston Legal, who does devious things but we know he’s solid?
James Spader: “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, you know, he lives in a world and moves through a world and works in a world where trust is a very fragile and delicate thing. 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. And, therefore, trust is something that 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.
You know, and a lot of his feelings in his life, 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, you know, 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 Spader: “To a certain degree. I mean, 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. 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.”
How is filming your role in Avengers: Age of Ultron going to impact your involvement with The Blacklist? Is there a staggered schedule?
James Spader: “I’m hoping that it’s going to be a fairly smooth transition but, you know, 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.”
What intrigued you about working with Joss Whedon and the rest of the Avengers team? What was the sort of neat little hook that made you say, “I want to go from Blacklist to this gig?”
James Spader: “Well, I met with [Kevin Feige] a couple years ago and just told him that I would love to come into that world at some point if the circumstances were right. And I don’t know, it was for a lot of reasons. There was a time in my life where I used to go over to my friend’s house when I was a kid and I hadn’t read any comic books at my house and he had trunk loads of them. I used to go over there and bury myself in his room with his comics and devour them. And then I sort of put that down in my life and [began to pick] it back up again. And then I have three sons and a couple of them along the way have shown a real keen interest in that sort of world and so before it was too late, I wanted to try and see if I could be part of it.
It just seemed like something… You know, it’s one of the great luxuries as an actor is you’re able to participate in projects that even the process of making the thing or the world you’re entering is so foreign to you and that foreign world, in many cases, forces you to work in an entirely different way and the challenge becomes so different. And I was intrigued by that. You know, I’ve been doing this a long time and it seemed like it would be great fun to do something that I have no frame of reference for, and there you go.
The right thing came along and Kevin Feige called up and said, ‘I found just the thing,’ and Joss Whedon gave me a call and said that he really wasn’t thinking about anybody else for it and that he thought it would be great fun to do. And so here we go.”