Perfect Witness: James Spader
Emmy Magazine Features: Keen-eyed and very private star James Spader leads The Blacklist, a huge hit for NBC and Sony Pictures Television buyers in 175 territories around the globe. Full story.
James Spader has so immersed himself in the role of criminal–turned–FBI asset Raymond “Red” Reddington that shadowy figures and intrigue literally follow him off set.
Take, for example, a March breakfast at Sant Ambroeus in Manhattan’s West Village. While sipping mint tea, the actor notices something odd outside the bistro. This reporter, with an obscured view of the window, is oblivious.
“Slide over here for a second,” he instructs from his half of our shared wooden booth. “This guy has been standing in that doorway. Can you see across the street? Come over here. That guy has been standing in that doorway ever since I’ve sat down.”
Sure enough, Spader is on to something. The short, compact man, wearing a fedora not unlike the one Red dons on the hit NBC series, has tucked himself behind a vestibule wall where he is patiently surveying a nearby building, trying to look inconspicuous. He’s a pro.
Has The Blacklist come to life in the middle of a Spader interview? Is the man FBI, CIA, NSA, KGB? Or perhaps the private eye of a well-heeled New Yorker looking for proof of marital infidelity? Like a labyrinthine Blacklist plotline, the possibilities are endless.
“He’s gonna be there for a while,” Spader guesses correctly. “So we’ll see how it unfolds. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Actors are not typically known for their observational skills. After all, the stereotype of the self-absorbed star perpetuates for good reason. But Spader shatters that profile with a Sherlockian awareness of his surroundings.
Blacklist creator–executive producer Jon Bokenkamp recalls one of his first meetings with the actor shortly before they shot the pilot in May 2013. Mulling wardrobe options at New York’s posh department store Bergdorf Goodman, Spader and Bokenkamp were trying to refine Red’s look — a mix of debonair and ruthless.
“He didn’t like the way the vest was puckering because it looked sloppy,” says Bokenkamp, who shares executive producing duties with John Eisendrath, John Davis, John Fox and Michael Watkins. “It just comes down to that kind of detail. He’s very specific. I never really worked closely with an actor like this before.”
Spader’s costar Megan Boone, who plays rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen and shares the most screen time with the actor, echoes that assessment.
“He knows when he’s in a room and there are extras moving around him — even if they’re off camera sometimes — if they don’t do the exact movement the way that it was done in the rehearsal, he’ll turn around and say, ‘You were supposed to remove that to keep the paper from that desk two lines back. We have to go back,’” Boone explains with what sounds like a mix of exasperation and awe.
“That just shows how conscious he is. He knows what every fly in the room is doing.”
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Spader, operating on minimal sleep thanks to a grueling week shooting the 17th episode of season 1, is the one at the table who notices the spook.
Though Spader’s perfectionist streak might leave the cast and crew breathless, no one is complaining.
“There’s no denying a big fat hit, and The Blacklist is a big fat hit,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, singling out Spader as the key to the success of the series, which is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Davis Entertainment.
“I think he brings such an unpredictability, humor and intelligence to whatever role he’s tackling that it elevates it, and it’s just a delight to watch him. We really needed [a big hit], and it couldn’t have come too soon.”
Since its launch last September, The Blacklist has been the number 1 new show on the broadcast networks among adults 18 to 49 and total viewers.
In that first demographic, the series ran neck-and-neck through the season with ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy for the number 1 ranking among all dramas on the Big 4 networks and was consistently a top 10 performer among all primetime series on the broadcast networks.
The Blacklist also stands as NBC’s most-watched new series in 10 years — since The Apprentice in 2004 — and its most-watched new drama in 19 years, since ER in 1994.
There’s little debate among critics about whom to credit. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman writes: “Spader devours the script and steals every scene, basking in the power he has.”
Similarly Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen gushes: “[Spader] creates a larger-than-life persona with effortless charisma; if the writers haven’t figured out Red’s endgame, then damn if Spader doesn’t ace the faking.”
Spader’s return to small-screen drama also has helped buoy red-hot Sony Pictures Television, becoming the crown jewel of the studio’s post–Breaking Bad lineup.
In the lucrative international market, The Blacklist has been sold in more than 175 territories worldwide, including the U.K., Canada, Australia, Germany, India, South Africa and China.
“It speaks to his international appeal,” says Jamie Erlicht, Sony Pictures Television co-president of U.S. programming and production. “He was always one of these well‑respected American actors who traveled well overseas, but we were pleasantly surprised to see how well he traveled. He truly is a global actor. And his brand and his style of acting and what he brings to the show translate throughout the world.”
But with the series’ success come a magnified spotlight aimed at Spader and its requisite press obligations — something he laments. The intensely private actor doesn’t mind the interview process itself, just the finished product.
“I’m perfectly comfortable with sitting and talking to somebody about my work or myself,” explains Spader, looking at ease in a red flannel shirt, gray corduroys and heavy olive parka — a look so understated that it might prompt Red to hop on his private jet to find a Savile Row tailor stat.
“But I hate reading it. I have never once read an interview where I’ve been comfortable and verbose and I haven’t regretted saying anything.
“I lead a very private life,” he continues. “So I probably operate with this delusion that we’re just sitting here having a conversation, and you happen to be an inquisitive coffee-mate or tea-mate — and you just happen to be incredibly conversational. I’m perfectly fine engaging and having a nice time talking — and then that f—king [magazine] shows up and [I think], ‘Wait a minute — that wasn’t part of the plan.’ But it was part of the plan. So I wrestle with that.”
Despite his reservations about fame and publicity, Spader also has joined one of the highest-profile film franchises of all time as the titular villain in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He began shooting in London at the end of April before heading back to New York to gear up for season 2 of The Blacklist.
The Avengers gig guarantees that the spotlight will only intensify.
But after more than 3 decades in the film and TV business, Spader at least knows what to expect.
At 17, the Boston native dropped out of the elite Phillips Academy Andover (which spawned such alumni as Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush) to move to New York and pursue acting. Though educated in the most hallowed of American halls, he never returned to a classroom (he did receive a general equivalency diploma years later).
“It’s actually the only school I got into,” Spader says of his Andover days, suggesting that his parents — with connections in both the prep school world as well as the Boston Symphony Orchestra — were able to pull the right strings to get him accepted. “I was a troublemaker and didn’t really have discipline.”
At 21, he landed his first major film role as Brooke Shields’s brother in 1981’s Endless Love. A series of bad-boy parts (and frequent Andrew McCarthy foil) in mid-’80s films, including Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero, solidified his status as the Brat Pack’s go-to antagonist.
But he busted out of the pretty-boy trappings with his performance as a sexual voyeur in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where Spader also won best actor, making him a European darling.
But rather than taking the easy paycheck route, Spader continued to tackle less mainstream, sometimes kinky roles like the car accident fetishist in 1996’s Crash and the sadistic boss in 2002’s Secretary.
Spader admits he is professionally attracted to dark themes and anti-heroes, from Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest to James Garner in The Rockford Files, and that tangent naturally leads to Red, whom Spader dubs “a bad man.” Then, upon reflection, he adds, “I’m not so sure whether he’s a good guy who does very bad things or whether he’s a bad guy who does good things.”
In 2013, ICM Partners’ Dar Rollins, who steers Spader’s TV career, sent over the Blacklist pilot script along with several others.
“I liked this one,” remembers Spader, who had just finished shooting Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, playing Republican Party operative William N. Bilbo.
“I had an idea of what I might be able to bring to it, but I liked that you didn’t know very much, and it seemed like a story that could last some time and would continue to be surprising. The darker side of the show was very obvious, but I saw a genuine sense of humor in it and a way to be able to push that further and explore that.”
The series finds Spader traipsing all over New York — from a nightclub in the Meatpacking District doubling for a restaurant in Minsk, Belarus, to a frozen-in-time Staten Island neighborhood that stood in for Havana, Cuba.
The pace of a 1 hour network drama is relentless. Working 7 days a week, Spader says the series has “swallowed me, chewed me up and refused to spit me out.” He has a house southeast of Boston, but he only managed to visit it once during the past year.
At this point in the season, Spader is running on adrenaline, but there are still 6 episodes to go. When he’s not shooting, he’s working on the script or on the phone with the writers in Los Angeles or someone in production or the director of the episode.
“I got a phone call from him this morning about a script that I sent to him last night at 2:30 in the morning [Pacific time],” Bokenkamp marvels. “And he’s already read it, and of course he has some notes.”
Spader is a self-described insomniac. He smokes, which he says ramps him up, but he avoids caffeine (thus the mint tea). The father of 3 (he has a 5-year-old son with girlfriend Leslie Stefanson as well as 2 adult sons with ex-wife Victoria Kheel) works a daily nap into his schedule to recharge. The Blacklist producers make an effort to avoid early calls.
“I don’t sleep very well,” he says. “It takes about 9 or 10 hours for me to get like 5, 6 hours of sleep. When other people might be rising, at least for my line of work, I’m just getting back to sleep.”
Ironically, Alan Shore — the character Spader played first on ABC’s The Practice and then on spinoff Boston Legal — also endured sleep challenges, namely night terrors. Spader was Emmy-nominated 4 times — and won 3 times, as outstanding lead actor in a drama series — for the role of the unorthodox attorney who never takes himself too seriously. That’s another characteristic Spader shares with Shore.
“I was very spoiled on [Boston Legal] because it was tonally very fluid,” he says. “It could be very dramatic and emotional, then very funny and strange. It often mixed the 2 of those things at the same time, which was always fun.”
The same could be said for Spader. After spending time with the actor, one starts to see shades of his alter egos refracted by his real-life persona, particularly the lighter sides of Shore and Red.
On The Blacklist, Spader drolly fires off lines like, “Hakim, remember me to your wives. All of them.” He’s a deadpan devil with a melding of manners and mockery. Off camera, Spader busts out similar bons mots.
During an April Television Academy panel in New York with the Blacklist cast and executive producer John Fox, Spader spoke little, but when he did, he displayed an impressive wit.
When Fox was explaining how costar Ryan Eggold’s character has crossed a point of no return into a ruthless killer, Spader piped in with his Boston Brahmin drawl: “Some of my best friends are ruthless killers.”
On a stage where everyone was trying hard to be relaxed and funny, Spader drew the biggest laughs of the night without even trying.
Before the panel, Boone, Eggold and Diego Klattenhoff were working the room, posing for pictures with Academy members. Spader was nowhere to be seen. The actor also can’t be found on social media, engaging with fans or building his brand. Fox lovingly calls him a Luddite.
Never mind Twitter, Spader doesn’t even own a TV. And speaking of anti-heroes, he has never seen a single episode of Breaking Bad. He’s caught about 15 minutes of The Sopranos. Once.
“Growing up, our TVs were always so pathetic,” he says. “We got two stations and even then you had to be holding the antenna, squeezing the Reynolds Wrap on the antenna, to make it work. It just didn’t become part of my ritual.”
Hollywood networking is not high on Spader’s priority list. “Most of my friends don’t have anything to do with the industry,” he says. “I don’t go to [industry] parties. That’s not my social life at all.”
Instead, he spends what little downtime he has cooking with his sculptress girlfriend and young son, finding the ingredients for his globe-spanning culinary tastes at the Union Square farmers’ market. Like many New Yorkers, he loves the spontaneity of the city, strolling aimlessly before popping into a museum or gallery. “One of my greatest pleasures is just walking around the city,” he says.
And the boy who once summered in Tanglewood, Massachusetts — second home of the Boston Symphony — continues to feed his lifelong obsession with music, hitting as many live performances as possible, from jazz to opera to world sounds.
His English-teacher father, who read to the family aloud, fostered a love of literature that has never waned. Typically, 3 or 4 books grace Spader’s bedside table.
He recently read Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, which visits “all the dark corners and recesses of New York,” and was floored by Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. He also devoured Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence as well as a compilation of essays by the late New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett.
“My predominant entertainment for my whole life has been music and literature,” he says.
Somehow our breakfast has flown by. About 20 minutes have passed since I last checked in on our spy/private eye. Is he still doing surveillance? Spader wakes up from his literary reverie.
“Oh, no. I missed it when he left,” Spader apologizes. “As soon as you got me started talking about books, I got lost.”
And like one of Red’s underworld compatriots, the man has slipped away into the New York cityscape.