LOS ANGELES — Raymond “Red” Reddington’s life has taken a turn for the worse on “The Blacklist,” and James Spader says both he and his character are delighted.
As the NBC drama opens its fifth season Wednesday (8 p.m. EDT), the once high-flying Red, his lucrative criminal network in shreds, is reduced to living in a motor lodge and spending his leisure time there poolside. And how’s this for mundane: He’s wearing a baseball cap.
“The cap is nothing compared to the bathing suit,” Spader said, dryly, of the character whose good-life perks included a private jet and sharply tailored suits usually topped by a fedora, wool or straw. But the lawless mastermind is down, not out, as he adjusts to his new circumstances and engineers a comeback.
Red always “greeted life with great gusto, for good or ill. So I think that’s how he’s living life right now,” Spader said. In a series that revels in changing up the action and the outcome, Red’s fall from power has opened up more “opportunity for fun,” he said.
That’s a welcome shift from last season, dominated by dark events including the death of Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert), a loyalist who betrayed Red and put in motion the unraveling of his unsavory empire. It also settled the question of FBI agent Elizabeth Keen’s (Megan Boone) paternity (no spoilers here, even dated ones), a key plot driver for four seasons.
In his initial offer to the FBI to help track down the world’s most dangerous criminals, aka the blacklist, Reddington insisted, without explanation, that he work with Keen.
Spader was equally mum about new-season specifics and NBC kept episodes under wraps, but a promotional clip includes a scene in which Red and Keen, so often at angry odds, take a lighthearted dance spin poolside. There are, of course, also car chases and bullets flying.
Sardonic humor has been a constant in “The Blacklist,” despite the parade of brutal killings committed by Red, his hirelings and enemies. It works because of Spader’s finesse at creating the hate-him, love-him Reddington, shades of the heroic antiheroes he’s so skillfully crafted before.
Among recent examples: W.N. Bilbo, President Abraham Lincoln’s wheeler-dealer for Congressional anti-slavery votes in the 2012 film “Lincoln,” and, in Spader’s last extended series run before “Blacklist,” the brilliant but flawed lawyer Alan Shore on five seasons of “Boston Legal.”
An element of danger often colored Spader’s youthful handsomeness (see the film “Secretary,” for one), and maturity has only made him more adroit at leavening ruthlessness with charm. The intelligence he brings on-screen also is a constant in his conversation.
“I like playing bad guys you’d like to spend time with, or good guys that are complicated enough to keep your attention,” he said. The veteran actor, who’s an executive producer on “Blacklist,” gives a thumbnail analysis of the two dramas and why he thinks his current vehicle has more miles left.
“Boston Legal” had a formula in which the “numbers kept changing, but it had an equation,” he said. And while it had a “volume of material, it wasn’t particularly difficult to film, although you have to figure out a way to make a courtroom entertaining.”
“But this show has never had an equation. … Episode to episode, the tone is very different. Even within an episode the tone can change, jarringly,” he said. But he’s protective of “The Blacklist” and his character.
“When I see something that I feel is inappropriate or not right for him … I certainly speak up,” he said. “But I tend to speak up about everything and anything.”
The story is corrected to show the broadcast network is NBC.