Brilliantly morphing from do-gooder (as Boston Legal's Alan Shore) to mesmerisingly anarchic - that's Emmy award-winning actor James Spader in M-Net's The Blacklist. This nifty crime drama is great viewing as Raymond "Red" Reddington, the FBI's most wanted fugitive, throws a string of curve balls while helping to eliminate the most dangerous criminal figures on his sort of bucket list. His obsession with Special Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) has also set off warning bells. Debashine Thangevelo got the lowdown on both their characters...
JAMES Spader is the kind of actor who could sell candy to a dentist. Yep, he is pretty darn convincing in his role-play.
The inimitable actor tends to lull viewers with an unassuming introduction before unleashing that tour de force dynamism as he sinks his teeth into the role.
We have seen him at his creative best in The Practice and Boston Legal and in movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape, as a sexual voyeur; Secretary, as an S&M-loving attorney; The Music of Chance, as a poker-playing drifter; and The Watcher, as a drug-addled detective.
Now he is making serious waves as Raymond “Red” Reddington in M-Net’s The Blacklist.
He plays this dangerous charac- ter with aplomb and an air of enigma. Aside from the powerplay between his fugitive character and the FBI, he does an impeccable job of adding colour and humour by exploring Red’s proclivity for living in the lap of luxury.
Then there is Red’s rather bizarre interest in Special Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie profiler who is thrust into a world of mayhem – and this, all on her first day.
On slipping into the skin of Red, a visibly older and slightly balding Spader shared: “I had a tough time after Boston Legal. David Kelley married comedy and drama very effectively on that show. He walked a very fine line between the two because they all seemed delineated. Boston Legal was unique in that sense. I love thrillers, but they aren’t always the most fun to work on. They tend to be very plot-driven, and, at the end of the day, the plot wins out. You’ll be working on a scene and the most important thing is that you see a knife or realise that a letter has been slipped into someone’s pocket.
“So when I read The Blacklist, I saw that it really was character- driven. There’s certainly great action and thrilling plot lines. It has twists and turns, and a lot of international appeal in terms of its characters. But it is ultimately a character-driven show. It’s about relationships. You have the core relationship between my charac- ter and the FBI profiler. Their relationship is very complex.
“If you eke out information in tiny increments, I feel that it could sustain through the lifetime of a series. And with my character, in particular, I found the opportunity for an ironic and irreverent per- spective of life around him.”
Delving into Red’s agenda, the actor surmised: “There’s certainly a quality of redemption in him. He clearly wants a life change.”
Although he isn’t much of a TV buff, Spader, who will be appearing as the havoc-wreaking robot Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, shared his thoughts on returning to the small screen.
“There’s a funny thing about working in television, where I find myself invested in the story. I can’t wait to see what happens. I love the idea of discovering something that you then incorporate into your character. I like those surprises.
“Doing TV is like playing as a child; the world you are in is fluid and constantly evolving. I love that. You have to be fast on your feet and ready for everything. This story has such latitude, and such a broad spectrum of where it can go,” he pointed out.
The actor says the line between good and bad tends to blur where his character is concerned.
He revealed: “I used to love going back and forth. It played hell for my agents because Hollywood has a very short memory. If you played a bad guy in your last movie, they only remember you as that. So you go out for the role of the good guy, and they can only think of you as the bad guy. In terms of expediency, and especially with The Blacklist, I feel I have been able to marry the good and the bad. Red is definitely an anti-hero. He’s a good guy who does some very bad things.”
In taking on a new character appearance also contributes a great deal to selling it. On Spader shaving his head, he commented: “That was my idea. I thought it was essential for Red, who truly has to move swiftly through life. I don’t think he has an hour to get a haircut. Also, I thought it would be fun for the show. My hair was very long before the pilot and I thought it would be great to see Red with long hair when he appears on the FBI’s Most Wanted List at the beginning of the pilot.”
Expanding on working with Boone, Spader offered: “Our relationship working together was analogous to the two charac- ters working together. We had no preconceptions about working together. I was very curious about her. And I think just the mix of age and experience has been great. It’s proving to be great fun. We are becoming friends just like in the show. As for her character, she’s drawn in because of his demands, but once there, she can’t help going back and being drawn to it.”
And it is this interesting dynamic between the two that propels the crime drama.
THE PAWN PROFILER
A NEWBIE to the FBI family, Keen is gung-ho about earning her stripes as a greenhorn profiler.
But before she could have her first cup of java at the office she is thrust into the volatile world of Red and his list of demands.
Thirty-year-old Boone doesn’t have an extensive resume as yet. She has appeared in Cold Case, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Blue Bloods, My Bloody Valentine 3D, Sex and the City 2 and Step Up Revolution, to single out well-known offerings. But The Blacklist is certainly going to propel her to greater stardom in Hollywood.
And she is rather compelling as a happily married, feisty, fearless, borderline narcissistic special agent.
On slipping into the skin of her character, Boone said: “My first preparation was for the initial audition. And because the role was coveted, they had us back and back and back and kept auditioning. And through the process I learnt more because you can never really repeat the audition process. So I discovered new things about her. It went so well and I was able to get the role because I was in a very creative mindset at the time.
“I did some interviews with FBI profilers who were very prominent and had interviewed some of the craziest psychopaths known to man. But most of the things I learn from her come as the series evolves. Like, she has a better sense of humour now and that’s from the trauma in previous episodes. She’s changing in reaction to what’s happened to her.”
As for the connection between Red and Keen, the actress teased: “The most precious thing is that mystery because it allowed me to go into every scene wondering what he wants. Therefore I can look for the answer in different ways. James has secrets about him that he holds from me, decisions he’s made about Reddington. So I go into the scene and try to figure it out.”
Off screen, Boone says he has this “paternalistic nature”. She continued: “He is unconventional and very direct. I’m really nostalgic and have a strong connection to the relationships in my life. It’s real life imitating art in many ways. The minute you start working with him he absolves the anxiety because he’s so kind, generous and collaborative. He’s a consummate professional.”
To intimate that viewers are in for an adrenaline rush with the high-octane action, wouldn’t be an understatement. But the psychological curve balls thrown as the criminal mastermind tries to get into the head of his profiler are the kind of unadulterated thrills that are bound to get this series a few Emmy nominations.
• The Blacklist, M-Net (DStv channel 101), Tuesdays, 8.30pm.