James Spader discusses The Blacklist, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and more. James plays Red Reddington in the new NBC show The Blacklist. If you miss Breaking Bad make sure you watch The Blacklist because Charles Baker a.k.a. Skinny Pete stars as Grey. The Blacklist airs Monday nights at 10/9c on NBC.
Conference Call Interview Highlights:
Q: Now, they 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 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. You do start to see in subsequent episodes him conducting business that he is, you know, as soon as he – 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. 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 him – you see small samplings of him still conducting his nefarious affairs.
Q: As exciting as your Ultron role is, how is that going to impact your involvement with, “The Blacklist?”
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,” to – in preparation to get over to London and start shooting, “The Avengers.”
Q: You chose to shave your head for the pilot episode and 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. And it just felt – it felt like the right thing for him, so I – it was an idea that I instigated and I think it was the right choice. It just seemed to fit his lifestyle and, you know, he’s someone who has to move – travel lightly and move swiftly and it seemed eminently practical for him.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
James Spader: No. Well, we’ll wait and see. It’s still early autumn here in the – in fact, we’ll wait and see – ask me again in January.
Q: What attracted you to the project when you first read about – read the script.
James Spader: Well, that character. I mean, I just thought he was really – I just thought, first of all, that he seemed like he’d be great fun to play in the pilot, but he also just – he seems like he’d sustain over the course of the season and even over the course of, you know, multiple seasons. I just think, you know, 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.
Q: 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 Spader: It really depends on the medium I’m working in, you know. 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 and I, you know, I think that, you know, 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 think in a – you know, I’ve never been a great – 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 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, you know, 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 really has such – it has sort of an inherent surprise factor in this show just because you know so little going in. So I really – I like that aspect of it a great deal and I also, you know, I just – being able to find the piece of material that tries to marry successfully, you know, 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 you to sort of – 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.
Q: 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 really think – 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 it certainly takes – 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 tonight, the other people that are sort of joining the group. But, you know, I think he’s, you know, he – his main focus is really Elizabeth Keen and I think it was just much about having her join his life as me 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 – proves that he knows about her life that she’s unaware of.
Q: Can you talk about the character that Parminder is going to play and Red’s relationship with her?
James Spader: Parminder plays a CIA agent who is – she’s brought in actually by (Ken) (Alexander)’s character who works for the Department of Justice and it’s one of the stipulations that – I think her name is (Fowler), the character Jane Alexander plays, and it’s – she – in approving this deal that the – that everyone is (very reticent) about striking is – 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 Red’s involvement – or 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.
Q: How did the choice to embrace a fedora come about?
James Spader: Well, it really, 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, 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, you know, 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 – and difficult to place in terms of place or time. And lastly, you know, because of geography and where he is, you know, people who travel to distant places, hats are part of their lives, you know, because in different places on earth, you know, 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.
Q: 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, it’s really – 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, you know, after tonight in that, you know, after he’s come to an arrangement with the FBI, you know, he’s now moving freely again and he’s no longer a guy shackled to a chair in an (orange) containment cell. But also, you know, 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. And I think that that’s – you know, I think the similarities between these two things that you’re referencing disappear very quickly.
Q: 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 think – 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 so – too easy. But, you know what? Maybe the thing – maybe it’s a very circuitous route back to the simplest answer of all. So we’ll have to wait and see.
Q: 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 think it’s – 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 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 (unintelligible) in her life that even if she turns away from it, it’s still going to be there.
Q: So 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.
Q: Is there any particular scene or moment coming up that you’re excited for people to see?
James Spader: You know, I – 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 what you – 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 I – and it involves everyone. 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 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 it – 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.
Q: Is there anything in particular you did for this role to prepare?
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 and 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. And, you know, 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, is – 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.
Q: 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 come up with different shades of antagonism or shades of villainy to play? 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. 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. And sometimes you sort of – I try and approach things from all directions. You know, I really try and – I try and be open to that. You know, I really try and – sometimes you’re working backwards and sometimes you’re working forwards. And sometimes you have to look at something from both points – 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.
Q: What intrigued you about working with Mr. Wheaton 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 Feyee) 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 might’ve been – it was for a lot of reasons. It was, you know, I – there was a time in my life where I used to go over to my friend, (Will)’s house and – when I was a kid and I had (read any) comic books at my house and he had trunk loads of them. And I used to go over there and bury myself in his room with his comics and devoured 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. And it just seemed like something – you know, I’m – you know, it’s a great – it’s one of the great luxuries as an actor is you’re able to participate in projects that – the actual – 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 is – 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 (Michael Feyee) called – (Kevin Feyee), sorry – (Kevin Feyee) called up and said, “I found just the thing,” and (Jaws Wheaten) 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.
Q: 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 Spader: I think you can expect them at different times. I – yes, I – 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. So yes, I think there’s a deliberate effort to try and maintain that. How long that can sustain? I don’t know. You 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 mean, I think because I know that that’s always the thing that, you know, there’s a sort of visual surprise or a – there can be sort of a very, you know, visceral feeling of surprise or reaction that one can have but there can also be one that is – that I think the show satisfies which is one that’s a little more (unintelligible) than that and that it – 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.
Q: Can you explain what, “The Blacklist,” is for those who missed the pilot and what does it mean for Red?
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 – it’s 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, I think some – the targets sometimes are more calculated and I think at other times they’re not. Sometimes they serve an immediate purpose.
Q: 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, you know, 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, you know, 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, you know, I’m not sure whether it’s always just going to be the person of the week.
Q: James, 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 John Eisendrath, he sort of said that you came on board at the 11th hour, so I’m wondering how did you get the role down so well so fast.
James Spader: I don’t know. I – sometimes I think that’s just – I don’t know. You sometimes I just think it’s the right piece of materials falling in the right hands at the right time, and I don’t know. I – it’s just 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 and I think if you get enough out of something then enough comes out right back. And I think that’s part of what happened here. I just – I sort of – 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, you know, always remains to be seen. But I – 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 sort of – I read it and I sort of had a feeling for at least a direction.
Q: 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?
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.
Q: 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, who does devious things but we know he’s solid?
James Spader: 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 – it’s 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 so there’s – you have to rely on – and I think that – 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 – oh, in ways that maybe others aren’t quite so (facile) 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. You know, and a lot of his feelings in his life, you know, 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 I – 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.
Q: Does that affect how you play him, that – 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. And I think that he’s much more forthright than I think people are aware of. I think it’s very easy to take him – to project an awful lot onto him that – and have preconceptions about him that may go unproven.