Q & A: ‘The Blacklist’ Star Megan Boone on Auditioning for Her Role, Working with James Spader and Why She Almost Quit Acting
The Blacklist stars James Spader as Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, a wanted fugitive who mysteriously surrenders to the FBI. When he does though, he has an offer: He’ll help catch the world’s most wanted criminals… but only if he can work with to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico.
I talked to Boone, who has appeared on Law & Order: LA, Blue Bloods and starred in the film, My Bloody Valentine, and Executive Producer John Eisendrath in a recent conference call where they talked about the new series. In the interview, she talks about auditioning for the role, working with Spader and how she almost gave up acting.
The Blacklist airs on Mondays at 10pm on NBC
Megan Boone: My experience was that I had kind of resigned to not participating very aggressively in pursuing network TV pilots, but I continued to ask the people that I work with to send me scripts this year while they were casting. Once I got ahold of The Blacklist and I read it, I was immediately kind of drawn to the character Elizabeth Keen and I worked really hard on it for about a week before I met with Eisendrath and Bokenkamp and Joe Carnahan, who directed it.
In that meeting, I just kind of put it all out on the table. I probably gave one of the better auditions of my career because it was one of the more important ones to me. I think they continued their search, but always kind of kept me in the mix as they were looking because obviously, it’s a very important part of the show and they wanted to make the right decision. I kept going back in and back in and back in, kind of rediscovering or discovering new things about who she was in the rooms with them, because you know, you can’t ever really repeat the same thing you did last time.
The audition process actually drew me closer and closer and closer to the piece. By the time they decided to cast me, I was already really sort of in this world and it was an amazing collaboration at that point because I felt so involved and then read with Diego Klattenhoff and Ryan Eggold and then they brought in James Spader. It just kept getting better and better – the quality – and all of the little pieces came together to create that sort of magic in a bottle that you need to have a successful show. Yes, that’s how I got involved.
Did you do a lot of research for this role at all?
Megan Boone: I’m still doing research for the role. I don’t think that will ever end. There’s just an endless amount of information and new information that comes as you’re developing it, I think. Every script that comes across the table introduces new elements of my character and personality. For instance, the episode we’re going into, I found that she has a little bit more of a sense of humor about things, which I think is born out of some of the trauma she experiences prior to that episode.
You know, the character is always evolving and changing and you know, I have the DSM5 and I’ve read some interviews with prominent type profilers for the FBI that have, you know, interviewed her and so forth. It’s always helpful to stay curious and keep an inquisitive mind about these kinds of things.
Megan, can you talk a bit more about the interaction between Elizabeth and Red? You talked a bit about the father/daughter kind of aspect. What else will their relationship be about?
Megan Boone: I think that what Elizabeth wants from Red is to understand the connection and his interest in her, so my ultimate goal and agenda with him is to uncover that mystery. And his agenda is a mystery to me. I’ve kind of stayed in the dark about what it is he wants from me and I discover it through the scene work with James Spader.
It has been a really wonderful way to work because I’m always trying to read him through his performance and through, you know, and my response to him has always sort of grown out of that ultimate overriding question of what it is he wants from me. If I knew any more than I do know now or any more than anyone knows about what he wants from me, then I think ultimately it would dull my performance a little bit, it would dull my experience creatively in the show and that’s what keeps it exciting for me.
Megan, can you sort of break down your character for us a little bit and maybe tell us a little bit about what we can expect to see from her in the first couple of episodes?
Megan Boone: Sure. Elizabeth Keen is a psychological profiler who is new to the FBI and it’s her first day at work when James Spader, Red Reddington, requests to speak with her and only her in order to provide detail for catching some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. She’s stressed into these situations and she’s not entirely prepared to be a field agent, however, it’s required of her now to go out and seek out these criminals in some of the most dangerous situations that she may encounter.
What you ultimately discover about her is that she’s very brave and capable despite her novice and there’s always that question of whether or not she can handle herself. Sometimes she does, but a lot of the times, the mistakes that she makes are the things that move the drama forward because there are just so many overwhelming circumstances that she has to face that ultimately, she falls short and makes mistakes, and people have to come and – like Diego Klattenhoff’s character, Ressler, and Harry Lennix’s character, Harold Cooper and they have to come in and sort of see just the sort of team around her and at the same time, question her presence in their department.
It’s almost as if she has both an incredible force of support around her and almost no one to turn to. She’s in a very precarious situation throughout the initial part of being curious.
John, obviously you’ve had a lot of success in television. This looks like another great series, but what in your mind is it about this show that sort of makes it special and worthy of joining your list of hit shows?
John Eisendrath: Well, that list is a lot shorter than you might think, but I appreciate that. I would say – well, first of all, it does in my mind always begin with a great script and John Bokkenkamp wrote a great script and one that had great characters in it and a situation that I think was incredibly compelling. After that, it’s mostly, I think, a lot about luck, you know, a lot of times and finding people, you know, like Megan and like Spader, you know, you can never count on going out to cast something and getting people who understand the parts and who in many ways, bring from their own lives something that both adds to the part, but also relates to it.
I think in both Megan’s case and Spader’s, you know, there is something about each of them as individuals that molded with the character that was on the page and that is essential to having a successful show because at that point then, they really become dimensional. I think it’s a combination of the script, finding the right cast, which is almost, you know, which is incredibly difficult as I’m sure you and everyone on the call knows, the casting process for TV products is insane, and you know, it’s all done at the same time. So in finding the right people, we were incredibly lucky.
Then I think also, it’s a lot of shotgun marriages that go on in the course of creating something. Joe Carnahan – I’d never met him before. I’d heard of his work, I’d watched his movies, I was a fan of his, but I never worked with him before and he did an amazing job. That, you can never count on and you never know it’s going to happen, but he did an amazing job, so sort of all the pieces fell in place in a way that you can look backwards and say, “Oh, yes, totally. We had it under control the whole time.” The truth is, you really never know.
Spader signed on I think three days before this pilot was going to shoot and there was talk about pushing the pilot, not doing it, we couldn’t find the right guy to play Red, so it was always very chaotic and again, you have to be very, very lucky to have it work and then, you know, I think once those pieces come together, moving forward, each episode is like the chapter of a really good novel where you know, you’ve started with a great first chapter and the pilot, and hopefully every episode we can deliver a new chapter that’s, you know, as good as the first one.
John, have you cast any really great guest stars that you’re willing to talk about?
John Eisendrath: Well, we have cast guest stars that we love. I’ll just give you one example because he’s doing the episode right now. Tom Noonan is playing one of the guys off the blacklist and you know, that’s an example of the kind of actor we’re getting who really can live in the part of the, you know, characters of the blacklisters that we have on the show.
Isabella Rossellini has been announced, so could you talk a little bit maybe about what’s doing?
John Eisendrath: Yes, of course. There too, there’s another example. I mean, Noonan was just on my mind because he’s in the episode at the moment, but Isabella Rossellini did – she did a role on the show where, you know, she played someone who was perceived to be, you know, a really admirable, outstanding, great humanitarian. Maybe she turns out that way and maybe she doesn’t.
All I would say is that she did an amazing job, but one thing that I was most impressed with is you know, sometimes you ask all the actors, but even the guest actors, to do things that really I would think, you know, test their comfort level. We did that with her and she did an amazing job just throwing herself into certain scenes that, you know, were about as far away from the days of her, you know, modeling career and you know, graceful, elegant persona as one could possibly get. She did it with great enthusiasm.
Megan Boone: We’ve been working with Clifton Collins Jr. this episode, too. He’s a great, great actor. I was so excited to have him on the show and I mean, it’s been an incredible experience for me because these guys keep bringing in some of the best actors to do these guest spots. I understand why they’re doing it. The episodes are written so well. The parts are really meaty and exciting.
Megan, do you have a favorite scene that you enjoyed filming that you can share with us?
Megan Boone: Oh, gosh. The scene in the pilot where I stab Red in the neck was really an incredible day. We were on the 29th floor of the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, which for me was just kind of larger than life, you know, just an experience that felt a little bit like I had gone into a different paradigm or something.
It was my first scene shooting with James and that was the first time I learned what an incredible co-worker and collaborator he was going to be. I did not know what to expect, as I’m sure anyone going into a working relationship that doesn’t know, but you know, I found it – it was so refreshing to me to be kind of nervous and I kept to myself and I just worked as hard as I could that day, and he would pull me aside in between scenes and ask me how I felt the scene was going, what I needed form him and by the end of the day, I was just as open and sort of collaborative involved and free as I could be with anyone.
That’s a huge testament to him that he made me feel that comfortable. You know, Joe Carnahan was directing us and that and I absolutely loved working with him. I got on the elevator and went down from the 29th floor that day and went out on Park Avenue and just kind of ran for a couple of blocks because I was just so excited and happy that this is my new working relationship. It was one of those moments in New York City that you never forget.
You mentioned what a joy it is working with James Spader, do you guys share that sort of a close bond relationship in any way as friends?
Megan Boone: Yes. Actually when we were shooting the pilot, it was the day we were diffusing the bomb and I was having a difficult time and you know, I was kind of spiraling down this very serious mindset because it’s a drama, so you think, you’re shooting a drama, you should be very serious about your work. He just came up to me and he put his hand on my shoulder and he looked at me for a good minute. It made me feel like he was going to say something very, very, very serious. I kind of leaned in and he goes, “Just have fun. It’s the most important part.”
Ever since that point, his presence is kind of a reminder to enjoy myself in the process. I think that, you know, no matter what genre you’re working in, even if it is a high space drama and a thriller, if you’re not enjoying yourself and you’re not having fun, then the curiosity dies. That is one thing that James has an abundance of. He’s always, always working further into the story and there’s just so much I can learn from working with him, so the joy, the fun and the way that he really is present, he brings that to the work.
You know, on the other hand, this is one of the most difficult experiences I’ve never had and without that difficulty and level of challenge, I don’t think that the colors would be there to play Elizabeth Keen because she is entirely overwhelmed, so it’s about funneling all of it and dumping all of it into the scene work as much as I can – the fatigue, the exhaustion, the feeling of being overwhelmed – but maintaining that inquisitive, joyful feeling for the work, that is what keeps me going and it’s a huge lesson that I learned from James.
Is there a lot of physicality in this role for you or is it all stunt doubles and you don’t have to do anything like that?
Megan Boone: It’s a combination of things. You know, they have me being dragged and they have me, you know – sorry, there are some things that I feel like I cannot say – but I definitely am like – I had a cake of dirt along my forearms one night that I had to kind of wipe off with a towel. I don’t leave sets without blood all over my hair and face – not my blood, but fake blood. Every week, I leave set having to get rid of some kind of fake wound. I participate a lot physically in the show. I’ve been doing kaomagma and I’ve been doing weight training and I’m in the best physical shape of my life just to prepare to do this. It is very vestal and it is a very physical role.
You talked about how you didn’t want to know all of the details, but how much of an overall arc were you given and how much of your own personal input were you able to put into your character as it was being developed and what was the most challenging and rewarding point about taking this role for you?
Megan Boone: Wow. The most – for me, the most rewarding things come from challenge. You get through a very difficult week and then you see a scene put together from that week and it’s really good. That is a very satisfying and rewarding feeling. As far as my personal input and how much information I was given, these are all little pieces of the overall puzzle that you’re constantly filling in. It never gets complete. I’ve never had an experience with an actor where I’m like, okay, I’m done, my painting is finished and it’s time to hang it on the wall.
I feel like every day, I wake up and I read something – I try to engage in something new that will inspire a new thought that will inspire a new moment on screen that will add to the episode. That’s a process and a part of the work that I love and I also find very rewarding. It’s never-ending. It’s a journey. It’s not like, okay, I have all the information about my character now, it’s all filed away and it’s time to shoot this episode and once it’s over, I’ll just work on the intentions for the next episode and it will be complete.
There are the collaborative elements working with other people. The great thing about this work experience for me that I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced is I feel like everyone around me has an intelligence that I can draw from and that can influence me and help me to do a better job. They also have a very – everyone on this show has a very generous nature and is willing to give and receive and trade ideas, so it’s a very creative environment, so that’s been extremely rewarding as well.
In addition to Megan’s character and James Spader, could you talk a little bit about the casting of the regular or main characters on the show and again, a little bit about what that was like for you?
John Eisendrath: Sure. You know again, generally, as I mentioned, casting for pilots is a very difficult process. All the pilots, certainly the network and all the cable pilots are all casting at the same time, so you’re scrambling over the same, you know, very talented pool of actors, but there’s a lot of competition, so it’s very difficult. It’s also incredibly subjective, so you’ll see a lot of incredibly talented actors come in and you just know that they’re not the person who you imagined playing the part. That is also, you know, adds to the difficulty.
We, again, I think we’re very lucky. I’ll give you an example. We had, I think – I can’t remember the number – but we auditioned many, many people for the role of Tom Keen. I don’t know why. I can’t recall why Ryan Eggold was not in the first, you know, dozen or so people that we read for the part. It might’ve been that he wasn’t available. I can’t really remember.
Megan Boone: I can tell you. Ryan wasn’t interested in doing TV and then his agents nagged him and nagged to read the script. He wouldn’t and then finally, they said they’re really looking for this character and the script is incredible. You’re missing out on an opportunity if you don’t read this. He read it and then he shipped himself from New York to audition in LA, I think. He was actually working on a film with (Tony Kaled) in New York at the time.
John Eisendrath: See, Megan knows all of this. I know nothing. I had never seen him before. I had no idea he was doing a move with (Tony Kaled). I’d never heard of the guy before. He was great. Literally, he walked in and I can’t remember why, but I think he walked in and we weren’t quite ready. I think even before he auditioned, we were like, okay, I think this guy might be the right guy. It was sort of like, oh, there he is. That’s what I was saying earlier – that rare sort of – you’re very lucky when that happens. You’re like, yes, that’s the guy we want for the part because before then, you want someone who’s this and someone who’s that and one guy comes in and he’s got one part of what you want and not the other and then reverses for the next guy and then you see someone in our case, it was Ryan. I was like, oh yes, he’s got it all. That was true with him and you know, the same was true with Diego. Again, Megan probably knows – I don’t know why we didn’t see him for a while. Maybe he was still on Homeland, I have no idea, but he too was somebody who came in late in the process. We had auditioned and auditioned and auditioned people to play the part of Ressler and I can’t remember whether we made an offer that didn’t go through. You know, that happens sometimes, too where you know, you make an offer and then that deal doesn’t close and you’re like oh God, that’s never going to work. Then the next guy walks through – and with Diego it was like that – he came late in the process as well. Like with Ryan, we were like, where have you been? Oh, okay, and now we know he was in Homeland. I hadn’t watched Homeland and Bokkenkamp hadn’t watched it either. It wasn’t like we were familiar with him or knew him from that show, we just thought oh yes, he’d be great. I think that’s true for them and I can’t remember – you know, well I mean again, and with Harry, Harry I think came – the truth is everybody came. Megan was the first person we casted by I think a long way and everybody else just took a long, long time.
Megan, you had mentioned earlier that you considered given up acting a few years ago. Looking at your film and TV bio, you’re a relative newcomer, so it shocks me to hear you say that given the performance that you’ve given us in the pilot. What advice – I’m just curious – what advice would you have for a young actress?
Megan Boone: It’s very easy to become discouraged as an actress in your 20′s because the roles that are written for 20 year old girls generally discount the possibility that they could have intelligence or have struggled other than boy problems. Ultimately, I would – part of my career would be that I would like to find stories that change that and give young women an opportunity to express themselves in a different way. I found it very difficult to find a median for expression at a young age as a woman.
I’m entering into a period in my life where for one reason or another, there are female roles few and far between, but there are female roles that I feel like are interesting. I think the advice that I would give to young women would be to continue to develop themselves and continue to stay true to themselves, be patient and know that life can change in an instance in this field. You know, coming together with a project like this is a lot like finding, you know, a soul mate or falling in love.
It’s like you wait your whole life and wonder if it’s ever going to happen to you and one day it does, and then you’ve got a whole new set of problems, but at least your life is evolving and transforming and you’re being challenged on a new level. You know, I look back at those times and I wish that I had known then what I know now because I would’ve not had gotten so discouraged, but fortunately, I had mentors like Jane Alexander and other wonderful men and women who are in my life that help me to feel like I should continue to move forward in this path.
If a young woman out there doesn’t have that, you know, and is reading this, then I would hope that they would remember that that role is out there. Those experiences are out there as long as you keep an open mind and understand that life can change in an instance.
You’ve talked, Megan, about collaboration with everyone. Does that mean that there’s room for like improve when it comes to some of the lines or do people more stick to the script?
Megan Boone: Well, the script is…
John Eisendrath: I’m listening very closely to that, Megan.
Megan Boone: The script is very particularly written and put together. Ultimately, I find that I rise to it every episode. You sort of figure out why they made that decision and that decision is often times more specific and has a lot more clarity than anything that you could bring into it in the amount of time that we have.
Improvisation is a freedom and an option that we have once we get the take of the scripted dialogue, but it’s not necessarily something that I ever feel like I need to creatively because ultimately, I’m just trying to tell the story and the story is given to me by a group of very good writers who have deliberately written these scenes and gone over and over them to make sure that they’re right. I don’t think that me or anyone in the cast feels on the day of shooting that there’s anything that really needs to be done differently.