The Blacklist star Harry Lennix on the big 'Kuwait' secret and the many versions of Red
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Blacklist season 7, episode 4, “Kuwait.”
Blacklist viewers finally have answers about what went down in Kuwait.
The relationship between Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) and Raymond Reddington (James Spader) was interesting from the start because it predated the events of the series. Making it even more intriguing was the secret tied to Kuwait that was alluded to in way back in season 1.
Now, thanks to the Cooper-centric episode “Kuwait,” we know what happened all those years ago. Flashbacks reveal that Cooper did nothing to stop the illegal activities of his corrupt military superiors, something he has always been deeply ashamed of. When his partner Daniel Hutton threatened to blow the whistle, his superiors had Hutton snatched up in Kuwait and then told Harold he was killed. During the investigation that followed, the real Raymond Reddington was part of the panel looking into the issue.
Drawing Cooper back to the Middle East in the present day is a very alive Hutton, who says he is a prisoner of war and wants his old partner to come get him. Reddington offers his help and suggests not involving his team in order to keep them in the dark about what Harold did. Complicating the trip is Harold’s decision to tell Main Justice about Reddington’s real identity: Russian operative Ilya Koslov.
The harrowing ordeal puts Harold through the wringer and is a showcase for Lennix. Harold gets kidnapped by Hutton, who believes his old partner was much more involved in the illegal activity than he actually was. In the end, Red saves Harold, Harold tells Main Justice what he turned a blind eye to in Kuwait all those years ago, and he comes to terms with Koslov.
We spoke to Lennix about telling this part of Harold Cooper’s story, his relationship to Reddington/James Spader, and what he thinks about a possible return to The Matrix.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you find out what Harold’s secret was, and what were your thoughts when you discovered all the details?
HARRY LENNIX: I knew that Reddington and Harold knew each other from the military. I guess I could presume from the Navy specifically, and that it had something to do with what was going on during Desert Storm or Desert Shield at that time. That was a hotbed around the ’90s, I actually had friends who were in that conflict. I knew a little bit about the history of what those engagements were. So while I knew the kind of vague aspect of it, I don’t know the details.
That’s true also of some of the details of what happened specifically to Cooper in Kuwait. The actor, Harry, I did not know the details of it, but it’s been really cool to kind of do that backward mathematics as an actor and to fill in those blanks. I look back and I think, “Well, is there anything that makes what happened in the earlier seasons, when we referenced it, inconsistent with what is going on in this episode?” And thank God we have such gifted writers that they did all that math for me. It’s really just kind of a joy to be able to fill in some of the mortar between the bricks of the story.
How much did you enjoy telling this Cooper-centric story and allowing the viewers to get to know him better?
I compare it a little bit to being in the singing group everybody knows, the Temptations. In their classic configuration their lead singer was David Ruffin, and from time to time they would give a song with Eddie Kendricks. So this time I feel like it’s like Otis Wilson getting to sing a lead on the song. The same group of singers, they’re going to make the same sound, do the same great dance moves, but this particular song the lead is going to be George Harrison, Ringo instead of Paul or John. This is my song and I like making music, but I also like singing lead, so it’s great.
Do you think Harold’s drive to take care of his people, Liz [Megan Boone] being a prime example, comes from what happened with Hutton all those years ago?
I definitely think so. I think that now more than ever he knows that in battle or on a mission or whatever, the idea of “no man left behind” is something that he believes very deeply. And there are times in battle or espionage or any number of other kind of intelligence operations that you have to decide if you’re willing to save an individual at the risk of the organization. That really is the balancing act that law enforcement has to deal with every day. And I think that for Cooper, he seems committed to making sure that he leaves no man or woman behind.
This episode includes some great Cooper-Red scenes. What has it been like building that rapport with James Spader over the years?
Well, James Spader is a is a great actor, and being able to act with a great actor, that never gets tiring in any way. It never becomes something that I take for granted. He’s always dialed in. I’ve never known him not to be. Anytime you get to parry and play with somebody like that, it’s going to bring out things that would not normally be brought out. It’s been really cool getting to grow in comfort with an actor as a character on this show. It’s deepened our ability really to go to places that we don’t always get a chance to go, where it’s not “Hey, Liz, tell Cooper and the team to go after this person in this case.” This comes from something that Harold did directly and has nothing do, really, with his association with Reddington.
But because we’ve established this relationship, both Harry and James and Cooper and Red, over this amount of time, it gives you a feeling of safety and security, so that you can take risks in other ways rather than in trying to develop a camaraderie or a working rhythm or a relationship. That’s established, so we actually get to do other things and concentrate on other things.
How has playing Harold specifically opposite Reddington changed now that he knows Red is actually Ilya?
I think it’s changed a lot. We have the devil we know and the devil that we don’t know. When you thought that you knew this particular person and he isn’t who you thought he was, even though you’ve had a long history with this person, whoever he is, what is the intention of that person? Like, I think we could rely on Reddington to know, at least we believe, that he was operating in his own best interests. But if he is not in fact Reddington, then in whose interest is the operating?
Copper tells Panabaker the truth about Kuwait instead of Red’s true identity at the end of the episode. What do you think that says about what Cooper has learned, and how has his view of Illya as Red changed?
It becomes almost philosophical. We are constantly redefining ourselves and figuring out ourselves before and after events. There’s cause-and-effect that has great impact on people. We frequently think that we might do one thing and in reality, there is a bigger principle, something that we’ve learned and not know from an events or situation. I think that events and circumstances reveal things about us that we couldn’t possibly know until we go through that crucible of the present. Even if it comes as a blast from the past. So that’s what I love about it, is there’s kind of a great symmetry to it. We believe we’ve known these characters for some years now, but we’re always finding out different things. And I think that that’s true of life and it’s true of a really good, long-running show.
Does this revelation, this ordeal, actually change Cooper?
In all honesty and to some degree of relief, I don’t know. I think that we will find out whether or not he’s willing to let something go, something that he seemed unwilling to let it go for a long time. But I do think that once you kind of set something in ink, so to speak, now that we have dealt with this aspect of Cooper’s past, what other aspects will we be able to deal with and what will they reveal? I hope we spend more time with the two of them in their mutual past, so to speak.
I do have to ask about the news that they’re making a fourth Matrix movie. As someone who starred in the second and third movies, do you have any thoughts about the franchise’s return, or anything you’d like to share about being part of the previous installments?
I can only tell you that it was great being in it for the first two. I haven’t heard anything about going forward with it. It would be great. I’d be delighted and honored, and had a great time on it. I got to meet so many friends in Australia and become even closer friends with my buddy [Laurence] Fishburne. We were kind of family. We were there for some time, almost two years, working on the sequels and so forth. I haven’t heard one thing about it except for the people who signed on for it, but it would be awesome. I’m a fan of the franchise of The Matrix. I think that every movie that’s been made since that time in this genre has been affected by it and impacted by it. Lana Wachowski I know is coming back to direct, and this is a great genius from my hometown of Chicago. So I’m certainly gonna see it; even if I’m in it, I’ll see it. I can’t wait.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
James Spader is Raymond "Red" Reddington, a mastermind criminal who teams up with the FBI.