The new drama debuts Monday, Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. on NBC
From Sex, Lies, and Videotape to his recent stint on The Office, James Spader is famous for playing unusual characters and for doing so under a distinctive thatch of hair. On the action drama The Blacklist he maintains the first half of that tradition with his portrayal of a superintelligent supercriminal. The second? Definitely not. Indeed, Spader’s character sports a buzzed coiffure, more Breaking Bad than Boston Legal. ”I thought he should be streamlined,” explains the actor. ”For the last 20 years he’s been moving from place to place, from climate to climate. This is a haircut he could get in any barbershop in any corner of the world.”
The mystery of the short-haired Spader is one of the very few raised by the show’s pilot that the Blacklist team is willing to answer. The actor plays Raymond ”Red” Reddington, among the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, who surrenders to the bureau at the start of the pilot and offers to help them capture a ”blacklist” of fellow perps they don’t even know about. The catch: Red insists he be paired with newbie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Why did the young Red abandon a promising naval career — and his own family — to embark on a life of crime? Why does he want to help the FBI now? And why is he obsessed with Keen, with whom he has no apparent connection? These are just a few of the conundrums that writer and exec producer Jon Bokenkamp has no intention of resolving right now. ”I love that kind of storytelling,” says Bokenkamp. ”The Blacklist is certainly a case-of-the-week show. But on the shows that I love, you go back for the people, and I think it’s exciting that there are questions around them.”
The genesis of the series dates back a couple of years to a meeting Bokenkamp — who wrote the 2004 Angelina Jolie thriller Taking Lives — took with another future Blacklist exec producer, Jon Fox. ”Jon had this nugget of an idea: What would happen if a Keyser Söze-like, mythic criminal started to talk?” recalls Bokenkamp. While he didn’t write the character of Reddington with Spader in mind, the actor ”brought a sense of humor that I didn’t feel was in the script but he claims he saw,” says Bokenkamp. ”The joy that Red takes in being Red is one of the things that makes this unique.” Certainly it is a pleasure to watch Red’s bored exasperation as he fills Keen in on the pilot’s MacGuffin, the kidnapping of a general’s daughter by a long-thought-dead terrorist. ”If one rolls one’s eyes at exposition as a preemptive strike before the audience rolls theirs, it softens the blow a little,” chuckles Spader, who was recently cast as the villain Ultron in the Avengers sequel.
Although The Blacklist was partly inspired by The Usual Suspects, the quid pro quo-ing between Spader and Boone in the pilot calls to mind a different movie: The Silence of the Lambs. ”First of all, we should be so lucky to have the comparison be worthy,” says showrunner John Eisendrath. ”At the same time, Red Reddington is not a serial killer and there might be a slightly darker side to Elizabeth Keen than there was in Clarice Starling.” The exact nature of that relationship is one of the show’s big mysteries. But there is something paternal about Reddington’s dealings with Keen, and Boone says that has been the case with her and Spader off screen as well. ”You would imagine he would be difficult to collaborate with, given how enigmatic his characters are,” she says. ”However, he’s really open and available on set.”
Spader says that while he knows some of what’s going to happen on The Blacklist in the near future — and also a ”few fundamental things that are more far-reaching” — he is perfectly comfortable being kept in the dark moving forward. ”My reticence in describing characters I’ve played over the years is finally supported by the fact that I’m playing a character I really don’t know much about.”