Actor James Spader Speaks About “The Blacklist”

Hari Sreenivasan sits down with actor James Spader to discuss his role as one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives in TV series “The Blacklist.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, we’re going to turn to an actor who’s played some eccentric characters in his time. James Spader revels in offbeat like the award-winning cult hit of its time, “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” And also, mainstream blockbusters like “The Avengers.” He currently stars in a political thriller called “The Blacklist.” As one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives turned informant. This series has bagged him two Golden Globe nominations and the show has gathered a huge global following. Our Hari Sreenivasan spoke to the Hollywood star just recently.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, for our viewers who have not watched the show, what’s “The Blacklist” about?

JAMES SPADER, ACTOR, “THE BLACKLIST”: In the first episode, a man who was on the FBI’s most. wanted list gives himself up to an assistant director of the FBI. They take him into custody. He’s been wanted in many different countries and so on so forth and considered armed and dangerous. And he said that he wants to make a deal with the FBI.

SREENIVASAN: He was an informant now?

SPADER: Of sorts. He is steering them towards people that they’ve never heard of and that they aren’t even aware are out there.

SREENIVASAN: In this season, there’s a pretty significant plot twist and that his kind of immunity is compromised. He is now —


SREENIVASAN: — brought to justice or in the process of being brought to justice. We have a clip. Let’s take a look.


SPADER: Officer Baldwin asked for some identification and I gave him a false ID so magnificent even I started to believe my name is George Murphy. He said I looked around nervously. But the truth is, I made fun of the man. I refused to give him the respect he somehow believed he deserved. It happens. I get impatient, I make a comment I might regret. It’s one of my biggest issues in therapy along with some residual anxiety from childhood and a sexual fascination I’d prefer to discuss in chambers.


SREENIVASAN: That sort of quintessentially him. I mean, there’s a certain irreverence to everything he does, it doesn’t matter that his sort of life is on the line. In this case, he still jokes.

SPADER: He’s very confident.

SREENIVASAN: Is that easier to play over five season, six seasons that you get to know a character a little bit better?

SPADER: I was looking for something that was very fluid in terms of tone. So, I was successful, I think, in finding that in that this is a show that has at — in a different — by turns, very, very emotional, very funny, very intense, sometimes disturbing or startling. And sometimes a lot of those things all at the same time. And I wanted a character who I would still, after a period of time, if the show continued to run, a character that was enigmatic enough to me that I would still be surprised by him over time.


SPADER: And I’d still be curious about him over time. I remember when I first read the very first episode, pilots, you know, by the end of the story, you knew less about him than you knew at the beginning really. Anything you learn about him just poses more questions. And so, I knew that this was a character that would have a certain amount of staying power for me, at least —


SPADER: — in terms of curiosity.

SREENIVASAN: Are you surprised that it’s doing so well? I mean, everybody hopes that the project that they’re working on succeeds. Here you are average of 7 million plus people watching, six seasons into it.

SPADER: I responded to the material and responded to this character and that’s all I have as a gay really is what my opinion of it is and I was intrigued by the sort of marriage between a sort of method — sort of serialized sort of mythology to the show, married with the procedural. But I have no idea. I mean, I really have never been very good at that part of this business. I’m pretty selfish in terms of my reasons for taking things and they really — it rarely has anything to do with what a response by it may be from — for others or from others. But I —

SREENIVASAN: What does it have to do with?

SPADER: It really has to do with my interest in the material in the world that the story lives in. If it’s something that I’m interested in exploring, then I’ll do it.

SREENIVASAN: You know, this year, you’ve also, in the episodes, had story lines that have talked about and what is the meaning of truth, the internet is influencing so many things, conspiracy theories, and these are topics that America is challenged with right now. I’m assuming this is an intentional act from the writers, yourself.

SPADER: I mean, listen, there’s no question that, you know, one’s life seeps in and the world around you is — a show is a sponge to a certain degree, in terms of that. But it’s interesting that there’s a big storyline that’s going on right now and — on the show that the writers were working on long before it became a news item. And the same thing would happen on another show that I worked with for a long time, “Boston Legal,” where we really weren’t ripping from the headlines.


SPADER: And yet, again and again, I get a script and we’d be working on something and it became — by the time it aired, it was timely.

SREENIVASAN: You know, given that you’ve worked at “The Practice,” “Boston Legal,” do shows with multiple hit seasons, do they get better over time? Because I’ve heard from some people that the first couple of seasons are really where everybody just got their nose to the grindstone, third season, fourth season, now the money is starting to roll in, changes the dynamic a little bit?

SPADER: There are a lot of things that can be deciding factors in terms of how something changes and develops over time. Now, for instance, “The practice,” I came in on the last season. I think was the eighth season of that show. And I was brought in because six cast members had been let go. And what had happened was, the show had been on, it was in its eighth season. The ratings — I don’t think the ratings were as strong as they might have been in the past. And the show got picked up by the network for another season and they had had their licensing fee cut in half. So, David Kelly felt he couldn’t make the show, the quality. So, he had a choice, he could either continue with the show at a much-reduced licensing fee, in which case he’d have to fire people or he could end the show and, by that time, by an eighth season, the amount of people who are making their living on a television show is enormous.


SPADER: And he decided to keep those people employed for another year. And so, he fired six actors. And I met with him and he said, “I’d like to have you come in and be on the show.” And he basically was burning this house down that he built. And that’s what that character was doing. But then, halfway through the season, the network came and said, “Well, how about another series with this same character, you know.”

SREENIVASAN: And you get a spin off?

SPADER: Yes. So, all of a sudden, I did “Boston Legal.” But here you have — I was brought in as a destructive force on “The Practice.” Now, how do you construct a series around, you know, a — you know, just to — around the cat and a hat —


SPADER: — which is what David conceived of when he thought of that character.


SPADER: And you don’t even know who I am. You do have the slightest idea who I am. Am I — should I — am I supposed to recount all the points of my life leading up to this moment and then — and just hope that it’s coherent, that it makes some sort of sense to you? It doesn’t make any sense to me. You know, I was there. You know, I don’t have the slightest idea who I am and I — I’m supposed to be able to explain it to you. And why? Tell — no. You tell — tell me why? Why do I have to explain myself to you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because maybe I can help you.


SREENIVASAN: When I look back at these characters, clearly, it’s someone who doesn’t like himself in some ways, at least, according to some of the other characters. In this show, “Blacklist,” recently, there has been a shrink that kind of looks at your deepest darkest corners and says, you know, your fear is that you’re an impostor. You go all the way back to Steff, a horrible character back in “Pretty in Pink” and the other characters are telling you that it’s really — that your floating is some of the stuff that’s driving you.


SPADER: Listen, I’m getting really bored with this conversation, all right. You know, if she wants your little piece low-grade — take it, you know. But if you do, you’re not going to have a friend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If that’s right?

SPADER: Yes, that’s right.


SREENIVASAN: Are you drawn to this sort of thing?

SPADER: I don’t believe that to be the case.

SREENIVASAN: You’re good at it.

SPADER: I just don’t know if that’s really what it is that’s driving. I don’t know whether that really what was driving Alan Shore and I’m not convinced that’s what is driving Reddington. I don’t know how much merit I give to that.

SREENIVASAN: OK. You look for conflict in characters, because they’re —




SREENIVASAN: Is it — are they more fun to play?

SPADER: Yes. It is that that is still the most compelling aspect of the character in “Blacklist” is that is the dichotomy that I find and the conflict that I find in him all the time. And by the way, I was very spoiled and that — you know, it’s — listen, it’s — to a certain degree, it’s my design. I mean, that’s also what I found most compelling about that kind — other character that we’re talking about, you know, Alan Shore, is the dichotomy in him. And this man, Raymond Reddington, who is so ruthless and brutal at times, who is incredibly vulnerable and thoughtful and has such an understanding for the quality of life and the beauty of life and the value of life and what would be the thing that would teach him that and give him such an incredible appreciation for life is that he’s so familiar with the loss of life.


SPADER: All those years I spent worrying about you, fancying myself your guardian angel, I should have taken one look at you and known you’d be fine.


SPADER: And he’s so familiar with the taking of life. And I think that has given him a — a very keen sensibility for the cost of loss of life.


SPADER: You know, it’s a strange thing to play, but somebody who has completely come to terms with the end of his life at some point. And yet –

SREENIVASAN: Fully present —

SPADER: Fully present and fearless, in a way. I think his comfort with his own mortality probably gives him great confidence, no matter what the hell’s on the other side of a door that he might be walking through.

SREENIVASAN: So I’ve read that you’re detail-oriented to a point of obsessive-compulsive. Is that accurate?

SPADER: I — I think I’m in a job that is — that’s conducive to that disorder, if you want, for lack of a better term. I’ve only had it been helpful for me as an actor, having a compulsion toward attention to detail or a compulsive attention to detail.

SREENIVASAN: Are you still learning as an actor?


SREENIVASAN: What are you learning now that you maybe didn’t figure out in the last 20 years —

SPADER: The same crap I was learning at the very beginning. Sometimes it’s as simple as to slow down a little bit, and sometimes it’s as simple as speeding up a little bit. Sometimes the best direction in the world is do it quicker or do it slower. You know what I mean? It’s —

SREENIVASAN: Yes. This is where you came to find your future in acting. What, did you drop out of high school?

SPADER: I did. Not a future in acting. I really —

SREENIVASAN: Just to find your future?

SPADER: New York has always represented a very — very, very important part of my life. It was the place that I left home to move to.

SREENIVASAN: You opted into this.

SPADER: This is what I wanted. I — I loved this city, and I still do. I still — I’m really one of those people who — I don’t really need to leave New York very much. Like I love to travel. I do love to travel, and I know there are people that, oh, well, you know, the city’s only bearable if you can get the hell out of it. I don’t agree with that. I love the city to live in. I’m one of — I really truly believe that New York is the most wonderful place on earth to live and a terrible place to visit. It’s actually much better for living. You can actually live a very calm and relaxed life here, because you don’t feel like you have to fit everything in. You come here and visit, and it’s like you’re exhausted by it. And therefore, people perceive the city as an exhausting place to be. And I don’t find it that way. I find a calm in the center of this chaos.

SREENIVASAN: James Spader, thanks so much.

SPADER: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with David Wallace-Wells about climate change and Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian about his 544 day imprisonment in Tehran. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with actor James Spader about his role as one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives in the TV series “The Blacklist.”