The Blacklist star James Spader is thrilled by the unexpected

Reprising his role as a criminal mastermind in the fifth season of The Blacklist, James Spader loves the series' lack of predictability

NEW YORK • With just three days until The Blacklist was scheduled to break for the holidays, James Spader was sounding, well, a little out of this world.

"I'm terribly, terribly sorry," the actor said, trying to untangle the plot machinations leading up to the NBC drama's 100th episode on Wednesday - a testament to the show's longevity in an age of distracted attention spans and its loyal audience, which averages 8.7 million weekly viewers who either watch the show live or record it.

"I keep a lot of episodes in my head at the same time, and you might as well have plucked me up and dropped me on a different planet."

The 57-year-old's befuddlement is hardly surprising given a series known for its Byzantine storylines and frenetic shooting schedule.

When Season 5 resumed this month, criminal mastermind Raymond Reddington (Spader) was giving FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), now confirmed to be his daughter, some space after the attack that left her comatose for nearly a year and killed her husband, Tom (Ryan Eggold).

This week introduces Nathan Lane into the lair as Abraham Stern, a cunning manipulator out to recover, at whatever cost, the fortune that is his birthright.

In a telephone call during a break from shooting, the delightfully voluble Spader, whose partner is actress Leslie Stefanson, 46, talked about the pleasures of playing the provocateur and why now is the time for men to keep quiet and listen.

Actor James Spader (above, in a 2015 photograph) says the protagonists he has played tend to be people who are disruptors.
Actor James Spader (above, in a 2015 photograph) says the protagonists he has played tend to be people who are disruptors. PHOTO: NYTIMES

What is required to keep a show going for that long?

As many twists and turns as one can provide. When I first read the script, at the end, I realised I knew less about the character than when I started reading.

And I thought, "What a great trick that is" - to retain a certain enigmatic aspect. The premise was perfectly suited to go in any direction and somehow find its way back on track again.

How did Nathan Lane end up on the show?

I'm a great fan of his and he's been a lovely, faithful fan of mine. I had seen him in The Iceman Cometh (on Broadway in 2015) and Nathan mentioned that he'd love to do the show.

Is there a turn you would like to see Reddington take?

A surprising one. I'll tell you something funny.

I didn't watch much television growing up and, before I did Boston Legal, I had no understanding of what it was like for a viewer to look forward to finding out what was going to happen the next week.

There will be an episode of The Blacklist that is just fun and another that is very intense and then another that is rather ruthless and brutal. I still love the element of surprise, even for myself.

You often play the provocateur and people tend to assume you are your characters.

My career had been split pretty evenly between good and bad guys until I finally grew into myself enough to play a decent antihero, where you can combine the two.

The protagonists I've played tend to be people who make trouble. Or even if they don't make it, they certainly disrupt things.

It's fun to do that in life as well. But I don't think I ever played myself.

Were you surprised to read that television host Charlie Rose was accused of asking a female employee to watch Secretary, your 2002 movie of a sadomasochistic relationship, with him?

Somebody sent me that and I don't know whether they thought it was strange and funny or something, but I am not finding anything funny about any of it.

What is your opinion on sexual harassment in Hollywood?

It's a little like asking someone his perspective when he is in the middle of a flood, you know what I mean?

I feel like the floodwaters are rising. And I'm a little bit ashamed to say that I'm finding that the most important things being said on this subject are being said by females, not by males.

I think that men should think hard and listen carefully and perhaps we'll learn a thing or two.

Any upcoming projects of note?

Oh, my gosh, no. I don't have a moment. I've been very lucky to work in every capacity as an actor and I have loved it.

But working on an hour-long television show is certainly a job that swallows one whole and refuses to spit you out.

So you are gurgling somewhere in the intestinal tract of this thing?

I'm not even in the lower intestines yet. I'm still being consumed by the stomach acid.

If someone could just drop a few Tums down here, it would be much appreciated.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Thrilled by the unexpected'. Print Edition | Subscribe