Q & A: James Spader Talks ‘The Blacklist’, Creating a Character and Playing Ultron in ‘The Avengers 2′
The Blacklist is one of the highest rated new shows this season and much of that reason is because of James Spader. People love to watch him work (including me). His acting choices and use of his voice are so unique, it’s just a blast to watch him.
Spader plays Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, an ex-government agent who has been one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. He had been brokering shadowy deals for criminals across the world, but in the pilot, he mysteriously surrendered to the FBI with an offer to help catch the blacklist of criminals under the condition that he speaks only to Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico.
In this interview, Spader talks about his character and the research he did, shaving his head for the role, creating a character and playing Ultron in The Avengers 2.
The Blacklist airs at 10pm on Mondays on NBC
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.
As exciting as your upcoming role Ultron in The Avengers 2 is going to be, how is that going to impact your involvement with, “The Blacklist?” Is there any staggered schedule? How’s that going to work out?
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.”
You chose to shave your head for the pilot episode. 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.
Do you have any regrets about doing it?
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.
What attracted you to the project when you first 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.
A character like this is so mysterious, 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.
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.
Is it liberating to go to work every day as this character and channel all your devious impulses, maybe get them out of your system before you go home back to being a civilian again?
James Spader: Sure.
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. I mean, I really – yes is the answer to that. I mean, you know, it is – 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 and I don’t feel free because I think we’re still, you know, we’re – this is a startup business.
You know, starting a new show is a startup business and, therefore, there’s nothing free and easy about it yet. You know, maybe in, you know, five or six more episodes when things smooth out a little bit. And we’re not at 6s and 7s 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 and be able to – you know, I look for that in the things that I’ve picked over the years. I look for things that are, you know, very different from my life and things that are curious and idiosyncratic to me and then I like to find – you know, if I’m able just a little bit, step into a world that I know very little about.
And that’s great fun. And 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?
James Spader: You’ll actually discover in subsequent episodes that Red is actually not very technologically savvy. I think he’s actually – 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. 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?
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.
Is there anything in particular you did for this role to prepare or research or anything?
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.
When you play characters that are sort of in the darker end of the spectrum, like Red you’ll be going on to play a character like Ultron, how do you get into each individual one and kind of come up with different 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.
What intrigued you about working with Joss Whedon and the rest of the Avengers team? What was the sort of neat little hook that maybe you say, “I want to go from ‘Blacklist,’ to this gig?”
James Spader: Well, I met with Kevin Feige 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 Kevin Feige called up and said, “I found just the thing,” and (Joss) 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.
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.
Will we see on 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.
Executive Producer John Eisendrath said that you came on board at the 11th hour. 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.
You’ve had a lot of success on television. 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.