Is James Spader the oddest man in showbusiness?

From Boston Legal and The Blacklist to Avengers: Age of Ultron, he's made a name for himself with unusual characters – but the real man might be stranger than all of them put together

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James Spader is a little strange. Of course he has made a career playing oddballs and weirdos – from the dysfunctional Graham Dalton in Sex, Llies, and Videotape through eccentric attorney Edward Grey in Secretary to unpredictable and clown-fearing lawyer Alan Shore in Boston Legal. But actors are usually disappointing – sexy heroes turn out to be grumpy and dumb; lovable goofs turn out to be hard-nosed schemers – so there’s something beautiful about finding that, underneath it all, James Spader really is a bit odd.

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We meet on the set of The Blacklist, the complex crime thriller where he plays the FBI’s most wanted crook, Raymond “Red” Reddington, who turns himself in after 20 years and starts singing like a canary for reasons still not entirely explained after two full series. 

On screen, Red wears a hat in almost every scene. It’s easy to think that’s a character affectation. In fact, it’s quite the other way. Long before Pharrell Williams’s hat became famous, Spader has insisted on sporting a variety of dapper headpieces – most frequently a fedora or, in summer, a straw hat. He says he owns around 30 hats, divided between New York and his home in Los Angeles.

One of Spader’s early roles in Pretty in Pink

“I have obsessive compulsive issues,” he explains with a shrug, seated in a New York patisserie in shades and, yes, a hat. “I rely on routine. And if I’m given a question where the answer is an absolute it’s very, very difficult for me. I could spend for ever trying to arrive at a list of my top ten directors, for instance.”

As a result, he says mildly, he chooses roles where he can find “a dichotomy in the material. I remember the first time I read Secretary and I thought, what a great idea to have this sweet love story in an incredibly sadomasochistic relationship. It was really the sweetest love story I thought – and I love that.” 

This strategy, it’s safe to say, has delivered. The son of two bohemian teachers, he grew up in a liberal Massachusetts household and drifted for a while before deciding on acting. After leaving drama school, his breakout role as mean kid Steff in Pretty in Pink began a career that’s seen him rarely out of work. Even now, he switches happily between big and small screen, including roles in Lincoln and The Office, and as the supervillain in the Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Blacklist has become one of NBC’s battering rams. Loosely based around the idea of a blacklist of hidden criminals that Reddington hands over one by one, slowly revealing a vast international conspiracy, the network chose the show to follow its record-breaking Super Bowl back in February, for instance. When the show premiered in the UK in October 2013, it was Sky Living’s highest-rated new series for 20 years and the top rated non-terrestrial show that day.

Spader (Ultron) with Paul Bettany (The Vision) in Avengers: Age of Ultron

It’s not simply a crime thriller; it’s a human drama with the complex nature of Red’s reappearance and his murky relationship with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) at its heart. Blacklist creator Jon Bokenkamp has a cute twist on the will they/won’t they plot staple: is Red/isn’t Red Liz’s father?

Bokenkamp insists that a large part of the plot – and the show’s success – rests with Spader. “Look, he’s a weird dude,” Bokenkamp explains, “but he’s brilliant. He has an incredibly unique sense of humour, he can be incredibly menacing and he’s not afraid to take risks. He has brought the character to life in ways I didn’t imagine. 

“He’s funnier and a little weirder than I’d originally imagined – I was going for more straight- 70s-thriller dark bad guy. Certain lines he adjusts. Red’s voice is a combination of the writer’s room and his own special source. You can write a line but when you hear him say it you think, ‘Wow, that sounds cooler than it did when we wrote it.’”

“I try and inject humour when I can within the script,” Spader nods when we put this to him. “I’m trying to do something that’s appropriate for the story and the character. I don’t know whether Reddington has the same sense of humour as I have. I don’t really think about myself when I’m working. I couldn’t really care less how it relates to me or doesn’t relate to me, you know? I have a very full and vital life outside of work. It’s surprising that I’m on a television show, frankly, because I don’t really need fulfilment in my life from work. My work is just what I do to earn a living.”

His home life is certainly busy. He has a seven-year-old son, Nathaneal, with Leslie Stefanson – his co-star on 2003 film Alien Hunter – and two 20-something boys, Sebastian and Elijah, from his previous marriage to set decorator Victoria Kheel. He doesn’t want any more kids because he believes in negative population growth.

But isn’t there something in Red’s chaotic criminal mastermind life – as season three opens, Reddington is on the run with Keen after she shot the US Attorney General for his role in a shadowy global organisation called The Cabal – that fulfils him by offering the chance to play against his OCD? “Maybe… That’s a nice idea. But I wouldn’t want to be Red. I don’t want put my life in terrible danger, you know?”

So why choose the role? “I’m not really interested in anything that’s familiar,” he says thoughtfully. “In work, I mean. I like to see things that are difficult or that I’m curious about, because I don’t know a great deal about it. I think that Reddington satisfies that to a certain degree.”

Spader in 2002’s Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal

He continues cheerfully: “I have a tremendous capacity to delude myself. When I started on Boston Legal, [creator] David E Kelley said, ‘I’ll guarantee you a year but you don’t have to sign for longer than that and if you hate it, I promise I’ll let you out.’ How could you refuse that? The Office did the same thing. So when The Blacklist came along I was under this delusion that I could get out without losing my house…”

All of which leads to a spiral of questions – so he helps write some of Red’s quips and likes him most for saying the things that people are afraid to say? But he isn’t Red? He’s obsessive compulsive but searches out the unfamiliar? 

But we’re out of time and he has to go, drifting through the crowded restaurant with hat firmly on head, coat billowing behind and the long trail of an enduring sense that James Spader really is a weird dude…

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The Blacklist is on Sky Living tonight (Friday 6th November) at 9.00pm