Nearly five years into playing Raymond “Red” Reddington on NBC’s quirky thriller The Blacklist, James Spader still relishes his role as the devious criminal and FBI snitch. “We just wrapped a scene where Red is driving and opens the door of his car into a blacklister who was trying to run away,” he says with a delighted laugh.
But it’s not only the literal ducking and weaving that keeps Spader happy. In the current fifth season, with Reddington’s nefarious empire in ruins, his defiantly droll character just keeps rolling with the punches. “I just love how the show—and Red, too—can change direction so quickly,” he says. “That certainly maintains my interest.”
As with Red, Spader can be a difficult person to read. He claims to know real-life criminals, but becomes theatrically circumspect when asked to elaborate. “I cannot tell you an anecdote about them,” he responds gravely. “You see what happens to people when they talk about Reddington. It’s not good.”
Over the years, the 57-year-old star has gone from high-school dropout to movie heartthrob (Pretty in Pink), indie-flick prince (he took Cannes’ best actor prize for 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape) and Emmy-winning oddball (twice, for Boston Legal, and once for The Practice). His role as Red has brought his career into a late bloom, despite the fact that, as he happily puts it, “I’ve got an extra 15 pounds on me, and I’m losing my hair.”
As for his future ambitions, Spader has one more curveball: “I am not a workaholic at all,” he says. “It would be lovely to be in retirement. If I were able to win the lottery—which won’t happen because I don’t play—I’d fill every moment.”
Happy 100 episodes! How’d you get this far?
I have no idea. Hollywood is sort of controlled chaos, so there’s no predictor. I just know I’m blessed to find a show that allows for, even in moments of intensity and drama, an irreverence. My own taste runs in that vein. I just love dramas that can be funny. And I like comedy that can also be dramatic and emotional.
What do you love about Red?
His appreciation for his life, his curiosity in people around him.
The antihero holds a lot of mystery—is that a key quality in real life?
I do like the idea of having someone I’m interested in for the rest of my life, but I’m not so sure I’d want that level of intrigue. Ha! Maybe you’re better off spending an afternoon or evening with them!
The Blacklist comes with loads of lore, especially when it comes to Red’s sneaky past. Do you keep a big bulletin board in your office with a bunch of index cards pinned to it to keep track of it all?
Ha! I have neither an office nor a bulletin board and I have no need for either. When I walk into the door of the house there are piles and piles of scripts everywhere. That’s my way of pay keeping up with what’s going on.
What's the latest Blacklist scoop?
I have to be fairly oblique regarding spoilers. But there’s a character that has appeared in a recent episode who somehow becomes involved in the story in a way that I never imagined.
How has Red has changed over the years?
Certainly, his circumstances have changed drastically. But his life has changed dramatically too. He’s lost people who were very close to him, while he’s gained people who have become close to him. And he’s finally had to take responsibility for his past.
Reddington has faced a reversal of fortune. Have you ever faced a similar downturn?
Oh, yes. I didn’t grow with a tremendous amount of money, at all. Both of my parents were teachers, so any spending money that I wanted I had to find or earn. When I dropped out of high school and moved to New York to become an actor, I started working different manual labor jobs. I drove a truck at a meat packing plant for some time. And then I unloaded and loaded railroad cars and trucks at a warehouse. I mopped floors. I shoveled manure and cleaned stalls at the Claremont Riding Academy in Manhattan. The list goes on and on!
Have you ever used Airbnb?
I’ve booked overseas places through a similar company — an apartment or a house where the owner has vacated and put their stuff away in closets for a week.
It’s like assuming a new identity! Red seems to like to escape to far-flung places that can’t be found. Do you have a place like that?
I think once you have been to a place like that, it’s no longer that place. So my imagination drifts to the places I haven’t been yet. Listing all the places I aspire to visit for you would go on all night. But I’ve spent my life traveling. When I was growing up, we had cousins who lived in Italy. So the Volkswagen bus that we had in the U.S. was the Volkswagen bus that we drove around Europe!
Have you ever seen any of your movies in-flight?
Yes, a couple of times. It tends to make one stay in your seat through most of the flight. You don’t wander around the plane.