We here at Absolute Music Chat have been privileged to interview many members of both the cast and crew of the hit NBC show The Blacklist. In this article we have selected excerpts from some of these interviews about their experiences working with the lead actor in the show, James Spader.
(Excerpt from interview with Bazzel Baz by Paula Courtney originally published May 13, 2018)
“BB: Let me tell you about James Spader: I can tell you there were times when I would be on set and I would have a speaking role, and if my actions needed fine tuning or refining, he would very diplomatically and generously come to me quietly and say, ‘You might want to think about looking in this direction or you might want to deliver that line this way.’ And he didn’t have to do that. I found him to be remarkable, in that he could go home at night and maybe learn twenty pages!”
(Interview with Scottie Thompson by Paula Courtney originally published January 17, 2018)
”PC: Getting back to The Blacklist everyone on the show who I have interviewed, has gone into great detail to describe how wonderful James Spader (Reddington) is as an actor, and a person actually. What are your thoughts about James?
ST: He was really, really pleasant, and so professional. I mean: it’s amazing how much he is invested and has so much material to learn and also is an executive producer on the show. He’s so smart. There was a scene, we were working on figuring out what the set up was; I think we were in a bit of a time crunch as happens often on set, and he suggested to the director, ‘Well, what if we do it this way?’ The director loved it, because it wasn’t so time consuming of a setup. He could see that.
And he not only thinks about that as well as his performance, he talks with his co-stars and the people who come in as guest stars like myself. I’ve certainly heard stories of people who don’t take the time to say hello – he definitely does. He is just so generous with his time, there was a scene we were doing (and our characters had known each other a bit longer by the time this scene was happening) and I wasn’t quite in that ‘comfortable place’ – I think I was probably still a little anxious – and he offered me some and it put me at ease in terms of the character; it really helped my performance in the scene and I’m really grateful that he offered that up. Obviously he wants the show to be the best it can be; it certainly wasn’t required that he help me out, and it just make me look better too, so I was grateful.
PC: I read there was a scene cut where Red was asking if you had a record player, and handed you records by the likes of Chico Hamilton and Fred Kats and wondered, with James being such a huge music fan, if he was like, ‘Oh you have got to listen to this!’ Or is it not that kind of relationship you share?
ST: It was definitely his idea, as was eating the anchovies which I wasn’t keen on. When we were shooting that scene he said, ‘Just you wait,’ because we got really good ones, and by the end of it I was saying, ‘Oh they taste really good!’
But yeah it was his idea for the jazz records, I hadn’t heard of Chico Hamilton. When I read the script I was like, ‘I’ve got to listen to this album,’ and it’s just great music. That’s what is so cool about what we do – you are always learning.
Music makes such a difference in television but also in life in general, certainly in the final product of film or TV.”
(Excerpt from interview with Daniel Knauf by Paula Courtney originally published August 19, 2017)
“PC: Do you think the character of Red would have been different if it was played by someone other than James? He has brought his own style to his portrayal of Red.
DK: If it wasn’t for James Spader, the show wouldn’t work at all. The show is Red Reddington.
Red Reddington is the heart of that show. Everybody wants to see Red, they want to know Red, what’s he going to do next, how is he going to react. And that role is so perfect for James: it’s tailored to every strength he has. There was a scene at the end of a script and I came up with a conclusion and it’s where they find the presidential limousine buried underneath the religious compound.
It’s priceless! There’s just not many actors… that scene at the end of the Mombasa Cartel with Peter Fonda… Red’s speech is — I mean I wrote it, but James elevated it. He just picked it up and it appears 100% authentic and effortless. It probably is to him at this point in his journey as a craftsman.
James is very active in the whole process. He will go page by page with these scripts — not just his material but the other actors as well — and make sure the story tracks. He is very, very active as a producer. We talked about that scene. He talked about exactly what he needed.
But when I watch something like that, this exquisite performance, and everyone’s watching it – hearing this horrendous story of how Red found Dembe — and I’m sure there are people that are tearing up in the audience when they are hearing this. When I see the dailies and I’m tearing up — it’s having the same effect on me. The crew was probably sniffling.
James is a force of nature. That’s all there is to it.
PC: I loved an interview you had, where you talked about James calling you up about wanting you to change a word in a particular sentence.
DK: (Laughs) ‘Boggles the imagination’ it was and I was saying, ‘No, actually I think ‘staggers’.’ And James said, ‘No, I like ‘boggles’.’ And I replied, ‘Said the actor to the writer.’ And he just laughed and laughed. Of course we went with ‘boggles’ because… it’s James. If James wants ‘boggles’, it’s going to be ‘boggles’.
PC: Does it ever get to a point where you say, ‘I’m keeping that word in!’ How do you reach a compromise?
DK: James understands his instrument. He understands his instrument like Dizzy Gillespie understood his trumpet. And James knows that he’s going to play ‘boggled’ better than ‘stagger’ and I’d be a very foolish writer indeed to say, ‘No! It has to be ‘staggered, James.’
PC: And he has said himself in interviews that he does it because there is a reason for it, not just because it takes his fancy.
DK: Yes there is always a reason for it and at the end of the day he’s the guy who’s walking point; he’s the guy who’s on the screen. He is the guy who is out there and so, as a writer, I have to respect that.
It’s like I’m one of those guys in the white coats who design Porsches, James is the guy who gets behind the wheel and test drives it. If something malfunctions or it doesn’t perform, James is the guy who is going to end up in the fiery crash. Like, who’s got more skin in that game? I’m sorry, fellow members of the WGA, but the fucking actor does. And so I’m not precious with my words. It’s like, ‘Okay, if that doesn’t work for you, what would?’”
(Excerpt from interview with Dave Metzger by Paula Courtney originally published April 20, 2017)
“PC: How do the writers and show runners on The Blacklist ensure that the scripts presented to the actors translates onto our TV screens in the way they were intended, since the writers’ room is in Los Angeles and filming takes place in New York?
DM: I think since you posed this question, Brandon Sonnier has done a great job of answering it in his own interview. But here’s a little more information: the first lines of defence are James Spader and our producing director, Michael Watkins, and the department heads in the crew. Spader is not just the lead actor on the show, he’s also an Executive Producer, a role he takes incredibly seriously. He’s meticulous about understanding every line of the script – whether Reddington is in the scene or not. He’s great at what I’d describe as ‘stress-testing’ a script – asking careful, smart questions about anything and everything that might be unclear. That’s a tremendous help for us as writers; it also ensures that he’s discussed everything extensively with us for weeks before the episode is shot, and everyone is on the same page on every detail.
PC: It seems obvious to conclude that James Spader draws on his own personal life to influence Red’s dialogue, for example: we know James is a massive music fan and is a regular to the Village Vanguard in New York. It is mentioned in one of Red’s most revered monologues in the line ‘One more night of jazz in the Vanguard’ from the “Anslo Garrick” episode. How much freedom and opportunity is James allowed to suggest that a certain venue or a particular restaurant be mentioned?
DM: Spader is an Executive Producer on the show, and takes an enormous amount of ownership over the content of the episodes. This includes Red’s dialogue, and also the show as a whole. The phrasing of your question, how much freedom does he have to make suggestions, is a little misleading. Spader, along with everyone on the writing staff, has unlimited freedom and opportunity to make suggestions. However, the focus is never on, ‘what would be a fun shout-out to something that I like?’ But instead, ‘what is the right choice for this scene, this character, this moment?’ I will say that Spader’s instincts are incredible in this regard, and his feedback is always considered with the utmost respect.
PC: Many fans think James ad libs on those monologues, is this the case or is it more of the result of great writing, direction and his fantastic ability to deliver them in such a way, that just makes it seem like that?
DM: I don’t want to speak on Spader’s behalf or put words into anyone else’s mouth. I will say that ad libbing or improvisation is very rare on The Blacklist. Conversations and suggestions about dialogue (or anything else) are extensive, and nearly always done in advance. If Spader or anyone else in the cast’s performance makes you think they are just coming up with the words spontaneously as they speak, it’s a testament to their performance and ability as actors. Chances are they are delivering the lines as written.”
(Excerpt from interview with Clark Middleton by Paula Courtney originally published April 19, 2017)
“PC: Everyone I’ve interviewed who has worked with James Spader has said he is a fantastic actor and such a nice man.
CM: He is a wonderful actor! I’ve been lucky, I’ve worked with a lot of great actors, but James’ efficiency, and attention to detail is inspiring. I deeply appreciate that in any actor. Anything the camera photographs will not have an ounce of untruth because James will have caught it. I try to be very meticulous when I work and I really love actors who do the same. James takes it to a whole new level. I’m grateful for that and love every minute of it.
PC: Obviously your character and his, Glen and Red, have such great chemistry: is that the same with you and James? Hisham said he and James had that chemistry. Do you feel the same about how you and James’ work together?
CM: Oh, yes, absolutely! That’s what I’m always looking for in another actor when I work. The ability to connect my own humanity to the other person’s humanity within the framework of, what I like to call, ‘the fictional reality’. So yes, from day one I felt that chemistry with James.
PC: When you are doing your scenes together (because they are so funny) are you able to get it down in as few takes as possible or are there moments where you are both dissolving into laughter? (Because Glen is so dead pan and Red is so grrrr, and then you deliver one of your lines and he rolls his eyes and starts acting outraged).
CM: We work in a very focused way and move through it rather quickly. I do a lot of homework so I can show up on the set and be ready to go. You have one run through just for the director, and then they bring in the crew and the DP and you run it once for them. By then you’ve ironed out the details and it never takes more than 15 minutes. Then you sit for 10-15 minutes while they light the scene and then you come back and shoot it. Yes, sometimes there is a bit of levity, and we’re enjoying our work, but for the most part it’s a group of professionals that are focused and bringing their A game because we all care about the show.”
(Excerpt of Interview with Hisham Tawfiq by Paula Courtney originally published February 18, 2017)
“PC: As your character works very closely with James Spader’s character, Raymond Reddington, how well did you and James get to know each other before filming began? Since, obviously, you need to have some sort of connection to make it work.
HT: Well usually they do a screen test; you have to work with the person to see if you have chemistry, I never did any of that. Like I said originally, I wasn’t supposed to be on The Blacklist for that long, I was only meant to be on one episode.
On my first day on the set, James really went out of his way to introduce himself and we basically had a conversation, like we are having now, about my father, about my religion about politics, about where I grew up; you know we learned so much, before we even shot the first scene, which I really think helped with the chemistry for both of us. So that was the genesis of us working together.
PC: Did that work both ways? Did James share details about his life with you, to enable you to gel with him?
HT: No he didn’t. I have to say, throughout the seasons I’ve come to learn more about him, but I think in the initial introduction it was mostly me sharing my history but later on, through conversations with him, I learned about him, what he likes, what he does; so him sharing details about his life, with me, came much later.
PC: I’ve watched interviews with some of the other cast members talking about James Spader as an actor and they all seem a little in awe of him, or actually a lot in awe of him. Can you describe, or convey, what it is that makes him so special as an actor?
HT: I think James is the first person I’ve come across who- and this is another thing that they teach you in acting class, but there are very few people who put the time into it- and that is being specific in detail. He puts a lot of energy into being extremely detailed with his choices, with his mannerisms, and you have to be in awe of that because, as an actor, we know hard it is to take on another character, especially based on life experiences we have had.
PC: But isn’t that what every actor does? I mean, I can see it on screen as a fan because it is very easy to recognise that James is a phenomenal actor, but for you as an actor, who’s doing things that presumably the rest of the cast does, what does he do that makes him stand out for you? Everybody from the writers, to Jon Bokenkamp, to the guests on the show are always like, ‘Oh, James is … woah!’
HT: You know what I think it is? It’s the little things that we don’t see. When we see his performance we are in awe of it but then, it is what is he doing that is making me in awe.
PC: Yes, yes exactly.
HT: It’s not like he’s doing this big thing, like in sports you see somebody do a triple flip, as an actor it’s the subtleties, it’s the details; it’s the way he moves his fingers, it’s the way he turns his head and if you look at this you will see. One of the things I do is, I study everybody. I watch the show, and other shows and I’m always studying actors to see what separates them from someone else. What separates a good actor from a great actor, are those subtleties, are those details, so that you start to really, truly invest in believing what they are doing; you believe in what they say and what they are doing. You are just drawn in. So it’s not that I can say, ‘Oh, you know James does 500 push ups before he does his scene.’
One of the things I’ve seen him do, which I’m going to incorporate into my own actions is…I have never seen before…usually an actor comes to the set, they have their lines and the first thing you do is, you see the person and the director’s there and you say, ‘Okay, let’s run the lines and create this.’ James will come in, and one the first things he does is he takes in the surroundings of the set, and he will be like, ‘Okay, that lamp would be over here,’ or, ‘that shade should be a different colour,’ or, ‘you know what…the sun would have set,’ or, ‘my hat would have been over there’. So, before he even gets into the dialogue of it, he is solely looking at the surroundings of the set that’s also going to help tell the story, and he is making sure that everything is in place to help facilitate the storytelling; which I’ve never seen an actor do before.
An actor comes in and they accept whatever’s there before them; whatever the set is, whatever it is, they go in and they create in that space without challenging it; James challenges the space to make sure it’s authentic to the scene.
PC: Final question about James. What three words would you use to describe James Spader, not as an actor but as the man he is? I ask you this because I know you are a fan of TV show ‘Westworld’. I recently interviewed Louis Herthum, who portrays Peter Abernathy. He had that fantastic scene with Anthony Hopkins where he does his, ‘I shall have such revenges on you’ speech. Louis told me Anthony Hopkins is so very humble, a kind, giving and warm man and he is all of those things, even though he is held in such high-esteem and is Sir Anthony Hopkins and a fantastic actor, he does not see himself as being special.
HT: I’m so upset I didn’t say those things about James before you brought it up because that’s what separates him, and that goes back to our first initial meeting. I have been on set where the main actor doesn’t introduce themselves, doesn’t ask me anything, doesn’t want to know anything. Some of them won’t even introduce themselves, they do their scenes and when they are leaving they say, ‘Okay, have a good day.’ What speaks volumes as to who James is as a person, is that we had this hour-long conversation on our first meeting, a real in-depth conversation, about who I was as a person and what my make up was, where I come from. I’ve never had anybody do that before in my life, especially the main person on the show.
PC: So that there is what makes him special straight away, isn’t it?
HT: Absolutely, and the funny thing is, I would never have compared him to anyone else but Anthony Hopkins and, as far as going by what Louis Herthum said Anthony’s spirit is made of, I would say James Spader is cut from the same cloth in that way.
PC: I’d have been surprised and disappointed even, if you had of said he was anything other than caring, giving and a genuine, nice man. Getting back to you, your character Dembe has had some really powerful scenes and probably my favourite is the one in the ‘Anslo Garrick’ episode, where you and Red are reciting the prayer, when you are about to be killed. Did the writers seek your advice on the authenticity in the way it was delivered, since you speak Arabic?
HT: No, the interesting thing is, I used that same prayer in my audition.
PC: Oh, really!
HT: Yes, in improv I used that same prayer. So, when I got the script, it said that Dembe was reciting a prayer with Red but it didn’t say what prayer, so I took it upon myself and I approached the director and I said, ‘Hey, I know a prayer that works perfectly for this, I speak Arabic, I think Dembe would speak Arabic.’ And he said, ‘Hey, go for it!’ So I sent the prayer over to the producers and executive producers and creators of The Blacklist, I sent them the meaning in English, I sent them it in Arabic, I told them what it meant and I have to give them a pat on the back for going with it. They were like, ‘Okay!’ I think that was a huge turning point for Red and Dembe’s relationship; I believe it was a turning point for the show also. And to this day I’m still approached by the largely African and Muslim community, because it is very rare that you see a character speaking Arabic that’s not blowing up something, or being the evil guy, or the bad guy and we don’t see many characters speaking Arabic in an intimate moment, or an honest moment.
I think it connected to a lot of people so to this day, like I said, I still have African Americans, Muslims, a lot of a lot of people from the continents of Africa coming up to me and thanking me, and some people walk up to me reciting the Surah, so it was definitely a great moment, I believe, in the show.
PC: There have been some extraordinary episodes, but I do think that is my favourite because it is so emotional and intense and heartbreaking.
HT: Yes, and again James jumped on it, learned it, learned it, until it sounded authentic.
PC: Oh yes of course I never even thought about him reciting it also. Did you help him with that?
HT: Yes but they also brought in a dialect coach, so all three of us actually sat together and worked on it. I started out working with James but then they brought in the dialect coach also.”
(Excerpt from interview with Brandon Sonnier by Paula Courtney originally published January 4, 2017)
“PC: In a recent interview James Spader was asked if he thought the writers minded his endless phone calls about script changes. He responded with, ‘I wouldn’t know’, but suggested there is probably much eye–rolling and cursing that he’s unaware of in the writers’ room.
How do you find his meticulous eye for detail? I expect you really value his input, in the way that he knows more than anyone the nuances of the character he plays. Who has the final say? How much change is he allowed to make?
BS: James Spader is an excellent partner and he definitely makes lots of suggestions; he definitely has a take on every script that comes through. He does read every script before we begin shooting; he is very involved in the process and we very much value his notes and his opinions on the way the scripts are coming out. I do say, ‘partner’ because he works with our show runners, and the decisions really come down from the show runners about the direction of the show, and what we are doing script-to-script, with regards to the storyline, but we do all work together to make sure we put out the best show possible on TV.
At the end of the day everyone’s goal is the same: we value everyone’s opinions, those that come from our cast and crew and those that come out of the writers’ room. It’s definitely a collaborative process but the show is really guided by our incredible show runners.
The first episode I wrote along with Margolis, my partner, ‘The Good Samaritan’ definitely has a special place in my heart- just as the first episode of television that I wrote, self-produced and watched on television with millions of other people. And within that episode there’s a specific scene, where Aram is being forced to hack something by Reddington. As he is on the keyboard, Reddington is assembling a gun. It was something that Brandon and I had pitched in the room and we were kind of like, ‘Alright, let’s just think about this…’ and seeing, from the beginning to end of that pitch, and the writing process and production process, had been made as we had envisaged it. So that was the big scene. It’s something that I always look at and I just think, ‘Wow! We were really doing it. We did that.’
PC: They both played that so well. Amir Arison was all, ‘Oh, my God!’ and James Spader playing it so cool. Is assembling that gun, something James was trained to do as an actor?
BS: Yes, and he did. James learnt how to do it, he practised and practised. He got proficient with it and he is just a complete professional. He really put in the time and effort to make that seem real, by really knowing how to do it.
PC: Some of the place names that effortlessly roll off Red’s tongue and I’m thinking of the Vanguard which we all know is a famous Jazz club in New York and since we know James Spader is a Jazz and Blues fan (amongst other genres) and is a frequent visitor to the club, are the foreign restaurants and other places mentioned in the script included because he is familiar with them and wants to have them as part of his lines? Or is it just a case of him being a great actor and turning his hand to whatever is required of him?
BS: James is an actor who is very good at just being consistent. I know that James does love lots of those things, lots of those places, but they are on the page when he gets it. And he will take a look and go, ‘Oh, I know that place.’ Even if he doesn’t, he is convincing in that he has been there or done those things, but for the most part those names are already in the script, either from the writer’s room or Jon, and yes, it’s just a case of very good acting.”
(Excerpt from interview with Zee Hatley by Paula Courtney originally published November 12, 2016)
“PC: Fans – well okay, usually females who own the Blue Ray of series 3 – have mentioned a lot, in various forums, how much they like the scene that was cut showing James Spader pulling on his trousers. Is there a huge stockpile of scenes that haven’t made the cut?
ZH:There’s a good amount. I don’t know how much of it would be compelling. It’s not that common for us to lose an entire scene. Usually it’s bits from this one and that one. I don’t think there’s any missing Spader nudity though, if that’s what you’re after.”
(Excerpt from interview with Brandon Margolis by Paula Courtney originally published October 17, 2016)
“PC: You couldn’t have possibly imagined that James Spader would bring such a force of character in Raymond Reddington in the way that he has, do you agree?
BM: I was aware of The Blacklist as an NBC project before he had been cast. I got to read the script and knew right away it was going to be a show I would love to watch. The first 5 pages of the script had me hooked. But when I heard James Spader had been cast, I knew the show was going to be a hit. I couldn’t predict how James was going to elevate the character, or what creative choices he would make, but I knew he was bringing a major league talent to a wonderfully written character. It was going to be undeniable.”
Edited by Davina Baynes
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.