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James Spader – Fade to Blacklist

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

James Spader stars as Raymond “Red” Reddington in “The Blacklist.”

James Spader

Fade to Blacklist

by Jay S. Jacobs

James Spader has made something of a specialty in playing suave, sophisticated, seductive and morally bankrupt men.

As such, he may have found his alpha character in master-criminal Raymond "Red" Reddington in NBC's new hit series The Blacklist. Red is a super-criminal, the top of the FBI's most wanted list, who one day surrenders to the authorities and offers to help them track down some of the underworld's shadiest characters.

His only condition - or so he says - is that he insists upon working with a young FBI agent named Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Quickly, though, it becomes obvious that Reddington knows much more about this young fed's life than she knows about hers. Still, he appears to be working on mostly good faith, so the Bureau tentatively enters into an agreement with the man.

Red is a character that cries out for Spader, an actor who exudes charm and humor, but also betrays an aura of self-interest and ruthlessness. The actor has been nailing parts like this since he popped up on the pop culture radar way back in 1986, playing the smug rich kid in the classic drama Pretty in Pink. Since then Spader has played a wide array of villains (and even occasional unlikely heroes) on film (Sex Lies & Videotape, Less Than Zero, Crash, Lincoln) and television (Boston Legal, The Office). Recently Spader was cast as his first super-villain. He will be playing title baddie in the second Avengers movie The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The day that the second episode of The Blacklist aired, we were invited to a conference call with Spader about his show and his career.

They 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?

Yes, that’s going to be eked out slowly over the course of the episodes. An 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 first episode after the pilot tonight 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. 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. (laughs) In subsequent episodes, you see small samplings of him still conducting his nefarious affairs.

As exciting as your Ultron role is (in the next Avengers film), how is that going to impact your involvement with The Blacklist? Is there any staggered schedule? How’s that going to work out?

I’m hoping that it’s going to be a fairly smooth transition but 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.

You chose to shave your head for the pilot episode. How did that feel?

It felt wonderful. I'd had my hair long for the last few projects that I had done. It just felt like the right thing for him. It was an idea that I instigated. 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. It seemed eminently practical for him.

Do you have any regrets?

None. Well, we’ll wait and see. It’s still early autumn. Ask me again in January. (laughs)

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

You’ve seen the pilot?


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 seems like he’d sustain over the course of the season and even over the course of multiple seasons. There are so many unanswered questions. It felt like it would take a long time to answer the questions. 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, 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 as well?

It really depends on the medium I’m working in. In theater, you know everything going in. In film, you know a little bit less, but still an awful lot. In television you know very little. I think that’s fine for me. Working in theater or film or television are three different sorts of jobs for an actor. I accept them as such. 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 great 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. Then I was so anticipatory about the next script that was going to come in. What direction we’d be going in. How the story might unfold. How relationships might evolve. What kind of mess we might be getting into next.

With this show, it just seems like the possibilities for that are limitless. It has 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. Being able to find the piece of material that tries to marry successfully something that’s thrilling and fun to watch. Then also can be very dark and quite serious, but also at times can be funny and humorous and irreverent. This show marries those things very well. 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.

I think you don’t need to worry about it being canceled. It was one of the best pilots this year, so...

Thank you.

Red turns himself in to the FBI but we don’t know his motivation. 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 him with?

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. There certainly is an agenda in terms of the targets that he’s picking. There absolutely is an agenda in terms of the direction that he’s taking this little group. His mixed bag, more of whom you’re going to meet tonight, the other people that are sort of joining the group. But I think his main focus is really Elizabeth Keen. It was just much about having her join his life as me joining hers. It seems to be the one way that he seems equipped to be able to bring to light to her truth that he knows about her life that she’s unaware of.

Can you talk about the character that Parminder Nagra is going to play and Red’s relationship with her?

Parminder plays a CIA agent who is brought in actually by Jane Alexander’s character who works for the Department of Justice. It’s one of the stipulations of Fowler, the character Jane Alexander plays. In approving this deal that everyone is quite 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. It’s at an arm’s length and it’s with a certain amount of caution.

What about his fashion sense? How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?

Well, it came about from a few different things. It came from, first of all, just what Reddington looks like. 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. He’s someone who would compile his wardrobe from around the world. People dress differently in different parts of the world. He has been on the move for a couple of decades now, if not longer. He travels lightly. 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. 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 life. In different places on earth, people wear hats for different reasons. Sometimes to keep their head warm but sometimes to keep the sun off. I think he’s used to that and so he’s adopted it. It was a look that came out of the practicalities of his life. 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?

I understand that based on the pilot because you know so little. 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 an obsessive compulsion that the criminal or the shackled guy has about her. That disappears rather swiftly starting after tonight. 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 an orange containment cell.

But also, it’s very different from the obsessive 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. The similarities between these two things that you’re referencing disappear very quickly.

I enjoyed the pilot. You were really quite wonderful in it.

Thank you very much.

Is it very freeing and liberating to go to work every day as this character and channel all your devious scheming impulses? Get them out of your system before you go home back to being a civilian again?



(laughs) I don’t know. 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. 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. I don’t feel free because I think we’re still... this is a startup business. Starting a new show is a startup business and, therefore, there’s nothing free and easy about it yet. (laughs again) Maybe in five or six more episodes when things smooth out a little bit. We’re not at sixes and sevens 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. 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. Things that are curious and idiosyncratic to me. Then I like to find, if I’m able to just a little bit, step into a world that I know very little about. That’s great fun. 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.

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

You’ll actually discover in subsequent episodes that Red is actually not very technologically savvy. I think he’s actually sometimes wistful about the old days. (laughs) 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.

I once interviewed Scott Bakula. He played an Internet cop in some movie and he had to actually take typing lessons to be able to look like he could be an Internet cop because he didn’t know how to type, so it’s...

I don’t know how to type either.

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

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, 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. 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. (laughs)

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

It starts happening quicker than she’s even aware of. First of all, it’s hoisted upon her so she has to accept that lot. But I think also she finds herself compelled to be doing that in spite of either her intuition or her better judgment. In a way, there’s something that compels them to each other. In subsequent episodes, she wrestles with that. She wrestles with the fact that he’s in her life, like it or not. 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. He’s an element in her life that even if she turns away from it, it’s still going to be there.

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?

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?

You know, the three episodes that follow the pilot are all very different. I’ve now seen the fourth and the fifth episode. They’re all very different. Quite different from one another in terms of the nature and tone of the episodes. 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. It involves everyone. It involves everyone. There’s no one who’s left out of it. The writers have done a great job 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.

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. Therefore, for people who stay with the show, 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. At the end of the day, 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. That life is Raymond 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. It’s exciting that way, the way that the standalone episodes can feed the 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?

I read some stuff about the world that Red Reddington lives in. I just buried myself into the material at hand. Also people that I know that live and work in that world. Also just a lot of conversation with the writers. You spend a lot of time sitting and talking about back stories but also future stories and the shape of things.

The great thing about a television series also is a lot of those things start to take shape as you’re just making the show. Who people are and how they behave under different sets of circumstances. On a television show it seems to be more fluid than it is certainly than it would be in stage or in a film. It’s something that evolves and grows as the show becomes its own entity.

When you play characters that are in the darker end of the spectrum – you play Red and then you’ll be playing 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?

I look to story. I look to the influences or relations in whatever that character’s life happens to be. I also look to see what their everyday life would be like and how that would inform who they are. [I] also try and look at what sort of person can live that sort of life.  All those things 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. 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. That would be what I mean by working backwards. Sometimes you look at 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 if they made up with one another, then I think I’ve got a scene.

Without getting too spoiler-y, I’m curious, what intrigued you about working with Mr. Whedon and the rest of the Avengers team?

Well, I met with Kevin Feige a couple years ago and told him that I would love to come into that world at some point if the circumstances were right. It was for a lot of reasons. There was a time in my life where I used to go over to my friend, Will's house, when I was a kid and I hadn't read any comic books at my house. He had trunk loads of them. I used to go over there and bury myself in his room with his comics and devoured them. Then I put that down in my life and just to get it back up again. I have three sons and a couple of them along the way have shown a real keen interest in that 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 great. 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. That foreign world, in many cases, forces you to work in an entirely different way. The challenge becomes so different.

I was intrigued by that. 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. There you go. The right thing came along and Kevin Feige called up and said, “I found just the thing.” Joss Whedon gave me a call and said that he really wasn’t thinking about anybody else for it. He thought it would be great fun to do. And so here we go.

The pilot was full of a lot of gasp inducing moments. Can we expect more of that in every episode? How hard is that to maintain?

I think you can expect them at different times. Yes, 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. (laughs) 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. It can shift with great misdirection too, so just when you’re feeling comfortable with something, you realize that you’re not.

That’s somewhat what you’re talking about because I know that that’s always the thing, that there’s a visual surprise or 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 deep seeded than that. 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.

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

The blacklist is just a name that Reddington gives to a freeform and very fluid list of targets. But there is no list. It’s in his head. (laughs) The targets can sometimes be quite spontaneous, based on what’s ever going to serve his greater agendas. As I said, I think sometimes the targets sometimes are more calculated. At other times they’re not. Sometimes they serve an immediate purpose.

Will we see on person be checked off that list every episode?

I pause only because we’re at the beginning of what could be an indeterminate lifespan of a show. 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 presume also that certain cases might last a couple of episodes or longer. I don’t know. As the show unfolds, I’m sure that will change and develop and, you know, I’m not sure whether it’s always just going to be the person of the week.

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 [show creator] John Eisendrath, he said that you came on board at the eleventh hour, so I’m wondering how did you get the role down so well so fast.

I don’t know. Sometimes I just think it’s the right piece of material falling in the right hands at the right time. It’s just when I read it I had a take on it that I felt that I understood something that I could bring. Something that I would enjoy doing. If you get enough out of something then enough comes out right back. I think that’s part of what happened here. As soon as I read this character and this world, I had a sense of what I could do with it. 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 be led by the nose through it to understand it and find my way. I read it and I had a feeling for at least a direction.

This is obviously your show. You’ve had a lot of success on television. I’m wondering how much input do you have or do you want to have on the scripts?

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. 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. 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?

That’s a big question. It feels more like three questions. 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. 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 that I think he has a great understanding for. 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.

A lot of his feelings in his life, he’s having to trust his life and the lives of others in any given set of circumstances. Therefore, the stakes of that trust are so high. But by the same token, I think he’s fully aware of the fact that, in this relationship at least, he’s dealing with a whole group of people who don’t trust him at all. It’s interesting to watch how he gains small, little finger and footholds into their trust. 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?

To a certain degree. I’m conscious 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 people are aware of. It’s very easy to project an awful lot onto him and have preconceptions about him that may go unproven.

Copyright ©2013  All rights reserved. Posted: October 3, 2013. 

Photo Credit: © 2013 Patrick Ecclesine. Courtesy of NBC. All rights reserved.

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