NBC's 'Blindspot' aims to tattoo its mysteries in your mind

Tattoos are not exactly hard to come by in Brooklyn these days, but they've reached a whole new level of ubiquity on the set of the NBC drama "Blindspot" at Steiner Studios.

On a soundstage transformed into a sterile FBI laboratory, Sullivan Stapleton, in character as Agent Kurt Weller, and his costar Jaimie Alexander, who plays the mysterious, tattoo-covered amnesiac known only as Jane Doe, gazed at a digital screen that flashed with dozens of images of tattoos. The display paused on a side-by-side shot of two Navy SEAL tattoos — one belonging to Jane, the other to the culprit in a jewelry heist.

"There's our break," said Stapleton.

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NBC too is hoping to catch a break when "Blindspot" premieres Sept. 21, in the plum time slot following the hit competition show "The Voice." The initial premise of the series sounds like it could be the aftermath of a particularly debauched bachelorette party: A woman is discovered in Times Square, her naked body covered in freshly inked tattoos. She has no memory of how she got there, or even her own name.

But the action-thriller follows Jane's quest to unlock the mystery of her own identity using the clues etched onto her skin as a kind of treasure map. The most conspicuous piece of body art is Kurt Weller's name, inked between her shoulder blades. As the series progresses, it becomes evident that there's some sort of connection between the two and that both characters are part of a much broader conspiracy.

"Blindspot" was created by Martin Gero, a self-professed puzzle and logic fiend. "I love 'National Treasure' more than an adult male should," said the writer by phone from Los Angeles, where he enjoys taking part in urban scavenger hunts and escape-room games. "'Goonies,' 'The Da Vinci Code,' they really satisfy a giant part of my brain."

When the idea for "Blindspot" occurred to Gero, he immediately brought it to Greg Berlanti, the prolific executive producer behind the CW's "The Flash" and "Arrow" and CBS' upcoming "Supergirl" because, he said, "Greg does pop TV better probably than anybody." Berlanti, for his part, was keen to work with Gero, a versatile writer who created the short-lived but well-reviewed CW drama "The L.A. Complex" and worked on the HBO comedy "Bored to Death."

"He's one of those show runners people will be talking about in 10 or 20 years," Berlanti said.

Gero, Berlanti and executive producer Sarah Schechter began devising the tattoos, and in the process mapping out the blueprint for the series. They enlisted the help of mapmakers, graphic designers and well-known puzzle maker David Kwong.

During a production break, Schechter explained that the tattoos draw from a wide array of historical sources, iconography and conspiracy theories. "There's a richness to the back story but an open-endedness to give our writers the freedom to create great stories," she said.

The intricately designed tattoos are applied using a method pioneered by makeup artist Christien Tinsley that can take anywhere from one to seven hours, depending on the amount of skin Alexander's character is showing. And there are other complications: The tattoos can't stay wet for too long, or be exposed to heat — a problem when you're wearing next to nothing, filming in Times Square in single-digit temperatures and using a heating pad to keep warm, as Alexander was during production of the "Blindspot" pilot.

Alexander, best known for her portrayal of Sif in the "Thor" movies, is relieved when her character is clad in long sleeves, but even the seven-hour-prep days are worth it, at least for the time being.

"I really love how juicy this role is for a female," said the actress as a makeup artist touched up the fake bruises on her cheek. "I'm playing this really tough character but there are so many vulnerable moments. That's really rare."

It's not hard to guess why Alexander, who exudes a plucky, tomboyish spirit, and once started a female wrestling team at her high school, was chosen for the role. The same goes for her costar, Stapleton, a macho Australian who puffs away at cigarettes between takes and seems genetically engineered to play law enforcement agents and special forces, as he did on Cinemax's recently wrapped "Strike Back."

Though the marketing of "Blindspot" has focused on Alexander's character, the series is a "true two-hander," said Berlanti.

The basic components — an action thriller featuring an FBI agent with obscure ties to a shadowy character — may remind viewers of "The Blacklist," the last series NBC successfully launched in the time slot following "The Voice." The James Spader drama was a hit when it debuted two years ago, but has softened in the ratings since a move to Thursday nights.

Katherine Heigl's would-be comeback vehicle, the heavily hyped political thriller "State of Affairs," failed to thrive in the same time period last season and was axed after just 13 episodes.

NBC, which eked out a narrow victory over CBS in the 18 to 49 demo, thanks mostly to the Super Bowl, could certainly use a new hit. Only one freshman series, "The Mysteries of Laura," which is also executive produced by Berlanti, earned a renewal last season.

"Obviously, there's pressure," Schechter acknowledged, "but it feels so nice that NBC believes in the show enough to give us that time slot. That vote of confidence really carries us through."

The drama's conceit has prompted comparisons to other pop culture titles, including the Christopher Nolan film "Memento," about a man with a memory disorder who tattoos evidence related to his wife's murder onto his body, and "Prison Break," the soon-to-be-revived Fox drama about a wrongfully convicted man who escapes from jail using clues hidden in his body art.

"We're fine with that," said Berlanti, who collaborates daily with show runner Gero on "Blindspot" while juggling duties on five other shows currently in production. "We hope people compare it with lots of things that were wonderful that came before us, and that over time we distinguish ourselves."

The show that Gero and his collaborators say they're emulating is actually the ink-and-amnesia-free "The Good Wife," which blends a legal procedural with a heavily serialized character drama. For "Blindspot," this means each tattoo will function as a close-ended case of the week that will also help unravel the larger mystery of Jane's identity.

And in case you're wondering, Alexander's character has more than 100 tattoos on her body, enough to sustain at least a few seasons — and maybe even reach syndication. "I hope we're lucky enough to run to a place where people say, she can't have that many tattoos," said Berlanti.

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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