'The Blacklist': James Spader is very, very good at being very, very bad
In NBC's "The Blacklist," premiering Monday, Sept. 23, Spader is Raymond Reddington, one of the FBI's most wanted. He strolls into FBI headquarters, announces himself and prepares to be arrested.
Trained at the Naval Academy, where he graduated at the top of his class, "Red" Reddington was groomed to be an admiral. In 1990, while en route home to spend Christmas with his wife and young daughter, he vanished.
When Reddington surfaced, he was a mercenary of the highest order. He's a spy but for no particular country. He seems to know everyone and everything and trades information for money.
Reddington brokers deals all over the world. Why? To what end?
One of the show's tag lines is "Who is Red Reddington?" and it's apt. He is definitely an enigma.
Reddington is controlled and consistently the smartest man in the room. He's dapper, with the easy elegance of a man accustomed to finer amenities. He is a man at home everywhere but likely without an address.
Dapper off-screen as well, Spader relaxes on the patio of the Beverly Hilton, lights a cigarette and reflects on this new drama. Is Reddington a terrorist? A spy?
"You shouldn't be able to piece together that [after seeing only the pilot]," Spader says. "That takes away from the fun of doing a television series. I love the story, and I love the complexity of the story."
"Television is very fluid and evolving, as a story," he says to Zap2it. "This allows for spontaneity. This show, the premise, can go in any direction. It can go anywhere."
This drama, taking place in Washington, D.C., is bound to draw comparisons to CBS' drama "Hostages," also set in the nation's capital. In both pilots, an armed man who is not timid about drawing blood tells someone that she has a choice: her family or the larger good.
In "The Blacklist," FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen ( Megan Boone) is told she can save her husband or many people. It's unclear if her husband is worth saving.
"As extreme as these circumstances are for her, I think many women can relate to being in a situation in an intimate relationship with someone and wanting to believe one thing, but then being shown another and clinging to that thing and sort of living in denial and wanting to know the truth, but also wanting to believe what may be the lie," Boone says.
In "Blacklist" we don't know yet who is lying, though Keen seems earnest and determined to find the truth. It's her first day on the job, and all she wants to do is make a good impression.
She winds up with one of the FBI's most important cases when Reddington mandates he will only talk directly with Keen. The FBI dispatches helicopters and SUVs to ferry her to headquarters. Agents who have been working on this case for years are none too thrilled to have it handed to a newbie.
Keen is unaware as to why Reddington insists on dealing exclusively with her. The obvious answer is that Keen is the daughter Reddington abandoned 23 years ago. Like much in the pilot, their connection is not spelled out, so we are not sure if he is her father; that could be too obvious.
Reddington knows so very much about Keen -- from the scar on her palm to the grown-out streaks in her hair. Then again, he knows so very much about everyone.
With a languid way of talking and an arrogance borne of superior intelligence, Reddington does not seem disturbed when the FBI holds him in a high-tech cell and plants a chip in him so they can monitor him at all times.
Rather, he is bemused that anyone would try to thwart him. Given his connections to shady characters, it's logical to think Reddington orchestrated the violence and chaos that marks the pilot. There are a horrendous and staged car crash, a kidnapping, and a chase scene through the National Zoo.
A sweet little ballerina is put in extreme peril, and we get a glimpse into Keen's home life, which is not going to be much easier than her work life. Somehow Reddington is connected to all of this.
"He disappeared for 20 years and started to be linked with criminal activity around the globe," Spader says. "And that grew and grew until he was reputed to be a very enigmatic, international crime figure. He knows a lot of people."
He segues into speaking Russian. He knows someone who can disable a bomb. We get the feeling the only way to take him down may be a bullet to the heart, but we're not sure what motivates the man.
Money alone isn't enough for Reddington, Spader says.
"I want people to be intrigued," he says. "And to relish it because that is what I am doing in playing it. It's a provocation of curiosity because you should want to be surprised and want to wonder and be happy when you think you know and you don't."