Already a break-out hit of this Fall, THE BLACKLIST has seduced and entranced viewers into the wicked spy game of Red Reddington (James Spader) and why he is so fascinated by FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). In a recent press call, star James Spader offered some teasing speculations and candid answers about what exactly is Red’s plan and how does it involve Liz Keen.
The show has kind of hit on the broad strokes of Red’s past in the pilot, but 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: 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. You do start to see in subsequent episodes him conducting business. 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.
What attracted you to the project when you first read the script?
JAMES: 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 also 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.
A character like this is so mysterious, so 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, everything going in. In film, a little bit less, but still an awful lot, and in television you know very little. 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 and 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. I’ve never been a big TV watcher. 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 and 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. 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 like that aspect of it a great deal and 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 more exciting and compelling, I think, from an actor’s point of view. It’s just a much more compelling job.
Can you talk a little bit about when Red turns himself into the FBI. 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: 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. 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. That is his mixed bag, more of whom you’re going to meet, 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 much about having her join his life, as Red joining hers. And I think that it seems to be the one way that he seems equipped to be able to bring to light to her life and proves that he knows about her life that she’s unaware of.
What what is Red’s relationship with the character played by Parminder Nagra?
JAMES: Parminder plays a CIA agent brought in actually by Jane Alexander’s character, who works for the Department of Justice. It’s one of the stipulations that the character Jane Alexander plays. In approving this deal that 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. 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.
You chose to shave your head for the pilot episode, how did that feel?
JAMES: 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. So 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 travel lightly and move swiftly and it seemed eminently practical for him.
How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?
JAMES: It came about by 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. 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 difficult to place in terms of place or time. 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.
What do you say to the people who compare 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. 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 in that after Re’s come to an arrangement with the FBI and he’s now moving freely again and he’s no longer a guy shackled to a chair in an containment cell. But it’s also 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. And I think the similarities between these two things that you’re referencing disappear very quickly.
Is Reddington very technologically savvy? It seems he’s very plugged in.
JAMES: You’ll actually 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.
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 and I’ve always been surprised when faced with that as a possibility as an outcome because it seems too easy. But 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: 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. And he’s put in her life that even if she turns away from it, he’s still going to be there.
At the end of the pilot episode there a revelation about 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.
Is there any particular, like, 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 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. But also what you learn about these people as you start to learn more is very intriguing and compelling and 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, because 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 story and the story also serves the weekly episodes.
The pilot was full of a lot of gasp inducing moments. Can we expect more of that in every episode?
JAMES: I think you can expect them at different times. Without question you can. I’m just quickly running some of the episodes you might have. But, yes, I think that that’s a burden that this show now carries. So 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 think because I know that that’s always the thing that there’s a sort of visual surprise or 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 which is one that’s a little more than that, and as I said, 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.
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 (THE PRACTICE/BOSTON LEGAL), 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. 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 adept at and 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. 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 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.
And does that affect how you play him, the trust or lack thereof in each interaction?
JAMES: 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.
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 in his head. And the targets can sometimes be quite spontaneous based on what’s ever going to serve his greater agendas. And I think sometimes the targets are, as I said, the targets sometimes 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 don’t know. As the show 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.
To see what next grand chess move Red makes, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of THE BLACKLIST on Mondays at 10:00 a.m. on NBC. Who’s next on the list?
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