It is midnight in Malaysia, and the tingle-inducing tones of Hollywood actor James Spader’s voice are snaking their way through the phone line. Depending on one’s pop culture diet, it is impossible not to imagine that it could be Red Reddington, Alan Shore or even Ultron on the other end.
But despite his association with some decidedly unsavoury characters, Spader is painstakingly polite and pleasant – if he were indeed like many of his characters, this would be exactly the kind of deceptive charm to precede some particularly nefarious doing.
To hear 57-year-old Spader tell it, it is this very disparity between his own personality and his roles that draws him to them.
“Ever since I was a kid just sort of playing around, I’ve always liked stepping outside of myself and playing characters. And then when I first started actually earning a living as an actor, I found that to play character roles, and the opportunities that were presented to me, they were most prevalent as the bad guy. Or, very often, I would be drawn towards a world that was very unfamiliar to me. So I think that’s probably what led me to pursue some of the stranger things I’ve done in my career; it is just to sort of pursue or explore things that were completely unfamiliar to me,” he said.
Spader’s current television incarnation, Raymond “Red” Reddington in The Blacklist, brings that touch of the strange and unfamiliar to what could otherwise have become a run-of-the-mill crime procedural. Now in its fourth season, the TV show revolves around Reddington, a high-profile criminal who voluntarily surrenders to the FBI after being wanted for decades.
Armed with a list of the most dangerous criminals in the world, he offers to inform on them in exchange for immunity. His only caveat is that he works exclusively with a rookie FBI agent named Elizabeth Keen (played by Megan Boone).
Three seasons on, the mystery of Reddington’s relationship with Elizabeth has become a fan favourite, spawning theories both tantalising (is Red her father?) and outlandish (is Red her… mother?!).
Spader remained tight-lipped about these speculations: “You know, it’s a very funny thing. The first season of this show, everybody seemed so obsessed about this notion of, what is the relationship between Reddington and Elizabeth. And I said, I know that we will have succeeded on this show when the question isn’t that anymore, but instead, what is the nature of their relationship right now? And the second season, that’s what started to happen. The questions of, oh, is Reddington Elizabeth’s father and all the rest, tended to disappear, and instead, the curiosity was more about how the relationship evolved on a week to week basis. Ultimately, that’s what the show is about.”
The Blacklist, Spader asserted, works best when it makes an abrupt change of direction.
“When Reddington is all of a sudden taken to a surprising place, or there is an unexpected turn of events, that for me is when the show is most satisfying, and probably as a viewer too. And I think the show has been successful at that.”
Certainly, Spader’s treading of the line between villainy and likeability plays a big part in the show’s success. It is the sort of delicate balance he managed so well in his other defining TV role, as the lawyer-with-questionable-ethics Alan Shore in the mid-2000s dramedy Boston Legal.
In 2015, he elicited chills with his voice-over work for Ultron in Marvel’s blockbuster Avengers: Age Of Ultron. And then there was his hilarious turn as the unpredictable Robert California in the TV show The Office.
But reach further back into his career, and you’ll continue to find examples of Spader’s ability to bring bad guys – or not-quite-good guys – to life, from the despicably hot teenager Steff in Pretty In Pink to the outrightly creepy Graham Dalton in Sex, Lies And Videotape.
Villainy is entertaining, said Spader. “It represents the extremes of society, but there’s a morbid curiosity one has about that sort of thing. So yes, I think I’ve always been compelled by that, and more than just pure villainy, I’m very drawn to antihero characters. I was very lucky in that I’ve had two diferent antiheroes I’ve played on television, and because they came along at a time when there wasn’t a lot of them. And of course, villainy mixed with humour and irreverence can be great fun,” he offered.
As distinctive as his characters are, though, he disagrees that they seem tailor-made for him. “I really think that’s just the job of an actor. When an actor’s successful at their job, then you should feel like they are the one person to play that character.”
One can’t quite escape the sneaking suspicion though, that there is a bit of him in many of the roles he plays. Particularly when he is asked what skill he excels at.
“I’m a very good kisser, you know,” he said, his voice taking on that familiar, self-satisfied tone which somehow sounds both playful and mocking at once. “I think that’s something I’m fairly sure of, something I don’t make mistakes in very often.”
Now that is certainly an answer worthy of a James Spader character.
The Blacklist S4 airs every Friday at 10pm on AXN (Astro Ch 701).