James Spader, the odd man in, adds ‘The Blacklist’ to his roles

James Spader stars in "The Blacklist."
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

James Spader pauses when asked the question anyone who’s followed his long career has contemplated: Why does he so often play‎ inscrutable oddballs?

“Maybe it’s that I like reading something on the page that allows you to fill in the blanks as an actor,” he said, as he thought it out. “Or maybe it’s something I have an understanding for,” he added, half joking and half, well, inscrutable.

Spader goes deep into enigmatic territory for his role as Raymond “Red” Reddington‎, the criminal mastermind turned sometime government informant on “The Blacklist,” NBC’s freshman hit about criminal conspiracies and the FBI‎. It is an unexpected genre turn for an actor whose television résumé mostly ranges between dramas (“The Practice”) and comedies (“The Office” and his über-enigmatic Robert California character), in addition to a far larger volume of film work, such as 2012’s “Lincoln” and cool cinema classic “sex, lies and videotape.”


Spader has walked into a downtown cafe on this sunny spring afternoon holding a hat not unlike that sometimes worn by Reddington, fashion imitating life. He orders a hot beverage, enjoying a rare down moment in a packed work schedule. The actor, 54, finished shooting the final episode of his debut season the night before‎ and is soon to be off to London to shoot a role as Ultron in “The Avengers 2” for Joss Whedon.

Add to that workload his efforts contributing plots and character touches for Reddington. (Yes, this includes his relationship to Megan Boone’s Elizabeth Keen, and, yes, he remains coy about what it is. “I mean, the minute you learn that, the show ends,” he said, not unreasonably.

Indeed, where “The Blacklist” goes and how it gets there remain open questions. Part of the show’s appeal is how little viewers know about some of the larger arcs. At the same time, dragging out secrets too long can put the show in “Lost” territory. Spader says that made for a careful balance as he devised his Reddington character this past season.

“The viewer’s knowledge of the story,” he said, “is unfolding slower than it’s playing out on the screen.”

Spader said he wasn’t looking for a network show — it was cable executives and producers he was mostly meeting with after he decided a TV series was in the cards. But when “The Blacklist” landed on his desk, he was struck by both the subtle character possibilities as well as the fact that, with procedural elements, it also had the potential for a network hit — which in turn would allow him to develop a character over more screen time than in film or on cable.

Though some of Spader’s personal life is known — he has children with both his ex-wife, Victoria Kheel, and current girlfriend, Leslie Stefanson — he keeps a Reddington-like sense of privacy around him. He has a tendency to turn up in unexpected places — to wit, on screen at the Cannes Film Festival recently, where out of nowhere he appeared, in dandyish suit, as a scamming hotelier who gets what he deserves in Tommy Lee Jones’ new western, “The Homesman.” The character is, here it comes, an inscrutable oddball, and it brings Spader back to the psychological roots for these choices.

“I just always am drawn to that, even on the street. It never quite gets weird enough for me. And when I look at all my friends, they’re weird.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe I have to cop to that. Maybe I’m just that.”