I'm drawn to conflicted characters: James Spader on playing Raymond Reddington in 'The Blacklist'

Swetha Ramakrishnan

Jun,04 2015 16:19:11 IST

There's a lot that goes behind celebrity interviews. It's not all laughter and compliments like TV one-on-ones would have you believe. However, the prospect of interviewing James Spader would be exciting for pretty much anyone. After all, who would want to give away the chance to say, "Sorry, can't stay. I have a conference call with James Spader."

You may recall James Spader as the voice of Ultron, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but he also plays smarty-pants Alan Shore in Boston Legal, the creepy attorney Edward Grey in The Secretary and the eccentric Graham Dalton in Sex Lies and Videotape. Apart from the fact that Spader has a tendency to play the most edgy characters with panache, you can't deny that he's a star actor. He sinks into every character like he's living them, and you would expect nothing less from him.
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James Spader. Image by AP.

You may have many grouses with Alan Shore in Boston Legal but you can't help but swoon when he comes on screen. There's something captivating about an actor that walks into frame knowing he owns your attention for the next 45 minutes. Spader played the role of Alan Shore for 4 years, and numerous awards later, at the end of the series in 2008, he wanted a bit of a break from television.

"Originally, when I finished Boston Legal, I took some time off looking for something to follow it and ended up doing a play for a year -- a David Mamet play, in New York," said Spader, during our conference call. "I ended up spending a year where I worked as a guest on the television show, The Office, and also did Steven Spielberg's film about Abraham Lincoln -- and had a wonderful year doing that while I continued to look to see if there was another television series that I might be interested in doing."

That series was The Blacklist. What makes Spader's portrayal of Raymond "Red" Reddington so popular is his ability to bring in doses of black humour in the most edge-of-your-seat moments. He has a straight face in any given situation, even as he plays a wanted criminal who surrenders to the FBI for immunity. It almost seems as if he maintains the mysteriously calm, yet bordering psychotic persona in all his characters.

"I read it [The Blacklist] and I was intrigued by the character, and the story, and the possibilities for the direction that the series could go," said Spader, also adding "The character's sense of humour, I thought, was such an interesting juxtaposition to what the realities of his life were. The realities are very often dangerous, and quite dramatic and extreme. I saw the possibility for a sense of humour within that life. I responded to that immediately and have done everything I can to try and explore that as much as we can on the show."

Perhaps it's his personal interest in the stories that are being told that makes Spader so involved in his characters. "The writers, John Bokenkamp, John Eisendrath, and myself have been collaborating very closely about every aspect of this character and how he fits within the life of the show since the very beginning, since the very first episode," he said.

But make no mistake, for Spader, the edgier the better. One of the most striking things about The Blacklist as a show is your frustration with Reddington and his motivations. He's a tough character to crack, and that adds to the charm of watching a thriller. This seems to be a deliberate move on Spader's part: to not be a hero, but to never meander into villain territory as well. He admits to finding fascination in the grey.

"I've found that there has always been a long historical precedent in both film, and in television, and in literature of the anti-hero," said Spader. "It's always been those characters that I've been the most drawn to, characters who are very conflicted, and not just conflicted but also very often very dichotomous or -- as you say -- they sort of live in the grey area."

By this time, we're floored by his insight while playing complex roles. "I'm much more interested in the idea that you're never quite sure what he is," said Spader of Reddington, "Whether he's more a good man who's capable of very, very bad things or whether he's a bad man who's capable of very good things."

Well, we'll never really know, but we take solace in the fact that Spader doesn't either and that's okay. Sometimes grey is good.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2015 16:33 PM