JAMES SPADER “THE BLACKLIST” INTERVIEW
By Abbie Bernstein
James Spader is at the Television Critics Association summer press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The actor, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, has been a star in both films and television, with Emmy wins for his work in both THE PRACTICE and its long-lived spin-off BOSTON LEGAL. Spader is here to talk about his starring role in NBC’s new series THE BLACKLIST.
In THE BLACKLIST, Spader plays former FBI agent-turned international criminal Raymond “Red” Reddington, who turns himself in and offers to help the Feds catch his erstwhile partners in illegal activities. There’s one catch – Red will only work with rookie FBI agent Elizabeth Keen, played by Megan Boone, for reasons only Red know.
Spader demonstrates his professionalism at the press event in not skipping a beat as one reporter is joined by several others, who are joined by more, until Spader is entirely surrounded by people asking him questions and wielding recording devices.
After press tour ends, it’s announced that Spader has been cast as the villainous Ultron in THE AVENGERS: THE AGE OF ULTRON. This means there was no opportunity to ask him about the movie at press tour, but fortunately Spader does a follow-up conference call. This article is a compilation of both interviews.
Asked if he’s a fan of the espionage genre in general, which broadly encompasses THE BLACKLIST, Spader at first says, “Not really,” then thinks it over. “I take that back. When you said, ‘Are you a fan of the espionage genre,’ for some reason, I immediately went to literature, because I’m a big reader, more than I am a consumer of films or television. And when it comes to reading, I don’t read any espionage or spy thrillers, [although] I loved THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. It’s a great book. But I love going and seeing films from that world. I like to watch the BOURNE movies. And I think that drew me to this as well, because I love seeing films that are from that world.”
Red is a much more physical role than Alan Shore in THE PRACTICE and BOSTON LEGAL or, more recently, Spader’s character on THE OFFICE, Robert California. Was the chance to beat people up onscreen part of THE BLACKLIST’s appeal?
“I don’t know if that really came into it,” Spader replies, “but it’s certainly a very different world than either of those other two you mentioned.”
Spader says it’s too soon in the life of the series to make a determination about who Red really is as a human being. “I don’t know enough about any character I would be playing this early on in the process. I have only known just enough to get through what I’ve gotten through so far. And for me, the excitement is making those discoveries as I go along.”
Of course, Spader has say into what those discoveries will be, although he eschews producer credit on the show. “I’d probably like the opportunity to participate in that sort of capacity and I couldn’t care less about the credit.”
With a character as ambiguous as Red, since there are few solid facts about him at this point, does it help in playing him that everyone, including Red and the audience, knows that he lies a lot?
“Certainly,” Spader laughs. “It sort of covers my mistakes, I guess. I think there’s no question that the audience is going to be wrong about things, and therefore, when they have a presumption, their presumption is going to turn out to be just that. And it can be on both ends of the spectrum. Hopefully, just when you’re starting to feel comfortable, he’s going to make you feel very uncomfortable in a startling way. But the opposite is true as well, I think. I had hoped that that came across even in the pilot, that in some of his dealings also with [the character Elizabeth], that he was different with her than he was with others. Sometimes with her he was still intimidating, and I don’t think he can avoid having a sense of danger about him.”
Is there a difference in playing someone like Red, where we truly don’t know his core, and someone like, say, Alan Shore, who may sometimes be devious, but is clearly deep down a decent guy?
“That feels more like three questions,” Spader replies. “To address the first part of it in terms of trust, [Red] 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 of. 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 in such dire straits so much of the time. He’s having to trust his life and the lives of others in any given set of circumstances and, therefore, the stakes are trust are so high. But by the same token, I think he’s fully aware of the fact that he’s dealing with a whole group of people [in the FBI] who don’t trust him at all. But it’s interesting to watch how he gains 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 this affect how Spader plays Red? “To a certain degree. I mean, 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. And I think 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.”
After doing years of courtroom drama and a season of half-hour comedy, Spader likes the fact that THE BLACKLIST has a wider variety of environments. “It gets outdoors a lot. And this show will travel to other countries. It’s much more expansive.” That is, the story will occur around the globe – other nations will be simulated in New York, where the series is produced.
How is working with Megan Boone and with Harry Lennix, who plays the head of the FBI department tasked with working with Red? “So far, it’s been tremendous,” says Spader. “You have to put it in the context of what we’ve shot so far. This is early days, and my time spent with the other actors in this has been very much sniffing around each other, not in terms of actors, but in terms of characters. [Elizabeth] is very trepidatious in terms of [Red]. It’s a very different thing for him. He’s been so looking forward to this – there’s been a long time building up to this, or that’s the implication, at least. And I think Megan spoke very eloquently about how she approached the character and what she intuitively felt about her and the connection between herself and Red. And that came across in working with her. She has a real sense of this.”
In real life, Spader is the father of three sons, the youngest of whom is currently four years old. How old will the child have to be before his father lets him watch THE BLACKLIST? “It’ll be some time,” Spader replies. “He’s my third son and I don’t think any of my sons, looking back on it, have ever been able to see any film or television project that I’ve been working on while I’ve actually been working on it. Well, no, that’s not true – the older two sons, if they cared to, certainly could watch BOSTON LEGAL. But the age that they were at when I was doing that, they couldn’t have been less interested,” he laughs.
Spader says he has never had a particular map for his career. “I’m a terrible planner. I don’t plan anything. I just looked for different things and looked for things that surprised me, that seemed different from the last thing.”
This includes going back and forth between the mediums of feature films and television. “Oh, they’re entirely different. I mean, they’re so different to work on – they’re just so different in every way, and that’s exciting. And doing theatre work is so different again. It’s very fun being an actor.”
THE BLACKLIST has been picked up for a full season, which means it will continue filming into spring – which is when THE AVENGERS: THE AGE OF ULTRON is scheduled to begin filming in London. How is that going to work? “I’m hoping that it’s going to be a fairly smooth transition,” Spader says. “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.”
How did Spader become involved with THE AVENGERS? “Well, I met with Kevin Feige a couple years ago,” Spader explains, “and just 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 when I used to go over to my friend’s house when I was a kid. I never had any comic books at my house and he had trunkloads of them. And I used to go over there and bury myself in his room with the comics and devoured them.
“And then I 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 [comic book] world, and so before it was too late, I wanted to try and see if I could be part of it. It’s one of the great luxuries as an actor 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 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. The right thing came along and Kevin Feige called up and said, ‘I found just the thing,’ and [AVENGERS writer/director] 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.”
Earlier this year, Spader completed work on THE HOMESMAN, a Western starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones. “That was really great fun,” Spader relates, “and I think will be a really neat movie. It’s set in the West in 1860, and it’s about a journey that a man and three women are traveling a long distance across the barren West, and he’s transporting these women who have lost their minds, who are way out in the prairie in the middle of nowhere. He’s transporting them east so that they can be properly cared for, with Hilary Swank, who is cognizant. And they encounter a bunch of different sort of eccentric characters along the way. And I play one and John Lithgow plays one and Tim Blake Nelson plays one and then they end with Meryl Streep. So it’s great fun.”
Spader says he’s not one to hide in his trailer – providing the elements are kind. “It depends on the time of day and the weather conditions, but I like to be out and part of the process.”
Asked if he has any guilty pleasures, Spader observes, “You know, I don’t feel guilty about much.”
Does he have any final words about THE BLACKLIST? “I think people are interested and curious and intrigued by it. I hope that we’re successful in also people really having fun with it, because ultimately, it should be that. A thriller is thrilling only if it’s fun, and that’s what the show should be. The pilot is like that, and I hope that the show is that moving forward.”
Interview by Abbie Bernstein