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Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 9:12:16 AM
by s. indramalar
In the hot seat: James Spader is having fun learning more about his character and the show The Blacklist with each script he receives.
Versatile actor James Spader relishes his role as the master crook in TV’s brand new crime drama, The Blacklist.
IF the opening sequence of the pilot episode of The Blacklist is anything to go by, this crime thriller may actually live up to the promotional hype about it being this season’s “best new drama”.
In the scene, Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) — one of America’s most wanted crooks — strolls into Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters, identifies himself to the officer at the front desk, turns around and walks towards the FBI crest on the floor in the middle of the foyer. He then removes his coat and his hat, kneels down with his hands clasped behind his head and gives himself up.
Red clearly isn’t a criminal at the end of his tether. Oh, no. He’s turned himself in but it’s obvious he is still calling the shots.
The former Navy officer who betrayed his country to build a business brokering deals for international criminals quickly proffers a deal with the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix): he has information on Ranko Zamani, a terrorist long thought to be dead, with a revenge plot against Washington, DC. He will release this information and secure Zamani’s capture as long as he works with one federal agent: Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie who hasn’t even clocked in for her first day at work as a profiler.
Why would a man so powerful, who has eluded capture for 20 years, turn himself in with his only demand being that he works with a seemingly clueless newbie? Who is she to him? What are the dynamics at play here?
It is this mystery surrounding the character that drew Spader to the role.
“The script for the pilot was so mysterious and enigmatic ... there was a lot of freedom in terms of what I was allowed to do with the character. You don’t really learn a lot about this man’s past from the pilot script alone and frankly we’re now shooting Episode Five and I still don’t know much about him.
“He just seems to be someone who is really comfortable in the extreme, very dangerous and dire circumstances. He seems comfortable no matter what comes his way. He seems comfortable with surprise ... in fact, he relishes it. He takes great delight in the perilous journey that he is on,” says the 53-year-old in a recent telephone interview with Asian media.
And what a job Spader does.
As intriguing as the story may be, the real pull of the show (and the opening scene) is clearly Spader. In the less-than-two-minute opener, Spader manages to make Red a compelling villain (or anti-hero – we’ve yet to ascertain which) – mysterious, dangerous, eccentric, charming and revolting all at once. And stylish too.
In his 30-plus-year acting career, the charismatic actor has built an impressive resume which has seen him go from a preppy bad boy in popular teen flick Pretty In Pink to a drug dealer in Less Than Zero, a sexual voyeur in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies And Videotape to a sadomasochistic lawyer in the indie movie Secretary. Most recently, Spader was in Steven Spielberg’s period film Lincoln where he played W.N. Bilbo, a political lobbyist for the president.
And his next role is as the villain Ultron in Marvel’s superhero flick The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. On television, Spader is best known for his role as eccentric, quick-witted but ethically ambiguous lawyer Alan Shore on the hugely popular legal drama Boston Legal.
Clear-cut roles are clearly not what Spader goes for.
“I like to look for a real dichotomy in a character. Characters that are difficult to pigeonhole and have a great deal of conflict in their life and in their temperament and this guy’s (Red) definitely has that. He is a very bad guy but he seems to have a plan afoot that might turn out to be righteous.
“There is a strange honesty and truth about him even though he lives in this nefarious world. And there seems to be this honesty about him when he is dealing with Elizabeth Keen and I am intrigued by that relationship and the dichotomy of that relationship with the rest of his life,” he explains.
In the pilot (which airs tonight on AXN), Red successfully guides the federal agents to the capture of Zamani. Apart from demanding to work only with Agent Keen, Red talks his way out of being locked away in a cell. Instead, he is housed in a swanky five-star hotel from which he easily slips out to wander the city and carry on his “business” – yes, the Feds aren’t exactly made out to look too smart in the show!
At the very end of the episode, Red reveals “the blacklist” – a roll-call of top crooks (the authorities don’t even know some of them exist) he will help them capture, also on his terms.
From here on in, The Blacklist becomes a procedural, with each episode witnessing the capture of a different bad guy and the overarching storyline about Red and his relationship with Keen.
Spader says: “I like the fact that the series stands alone from week to week ... but ultimately the episodes are all tied together by this sort of greater, serialised story that is unfolding. This story has to do with the relationships of the different players in the piece over a longer term. That intrigued me. I like the fact that the show has the opportunity to incrementally let you discover the secrets and the nature of the relationships of the people and their lives,” he says.
On the telephone, Spader is pleasant and enthusiastic as he talks about his character despite the fact that he’s been doing a slew of publicity interviews over the past few months to promote the series. He deliberates carefully on each question and his answers are well thought-out.
When asked for clues about the relationship between his character and Keen, Spader reveals that his knowledge about the exact nature of their relationship and their individual characters is also very limited. And that’s the way he likes it.
“The story is unfolding as we are go along. I do have a sense of what their relationship is but how that is going to unfold and how we are going to make these discoveries as we go further ... that I don’t know.
“I do know that their lives are wrapped up with each other’s and there are things Elizabeth Keen will learn about her life and how it relates to him. I want to be able to have only as much information as I need to do the performance for each episode but beyond that, I expect to be surprised along the way.
“That’s the fun of doing a television series in the same way that it’s the fun of watching a television series. To be surprised from week to week as the scripts arrive. I am still doing the same thing as I did as a kid. I am out there playing pretend and one of the fun things when you’re a kid playing pretend is that the story changes in seconds and the story line can go veering off and come right back again. Television is like that,” he says.
It’s hard to believe but The Blacklist is Spader’s first foray in the crime/thriller genre.
To prepare for the role, Spader read ... the newspapers.
“Most of my preparation was (having) long conversations with the director (Jon Bokenkamp) and having a sense of that world of international crime just by reading the papers and non-fiction books about the subject. I mean, the conception of the character is in the script and the rest is in the imagination.
“Imagination feeds behaviour and I think allowing my imagination to enter that world and explore it for a while is what it is. Obviously I am not going out and conducting international criminal activity as part of my research so I just read, think and talk about it and get at it from any direction I can from the confines of my living room,” he says with a laugh.
Catch the premiere of The Blacklist on AXN (Astro Ch 701 / HD Ch 721) on Oct 6 at 10pm.
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TV, The Blacklist, James Spader
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