NBC’s hit drama THE BLACKLIST, master criminal and spy Red Reddington turned himself in to the FBI so that he could aid them in tracking the world’s most notorious criminals. Whether out of altruism or self-interested motivations, Red’s information turned out to be dead-on and it helped capture numerous evil-doers from the global theater. But in the mid-season finale, Red’s personal enemies sought to capture him and after a deadly standoff, he surrendered and then escaped. When THE BLACKLIST returned, we saw how Red methodically enacted his retribution in tracking down all those who enabled the trap sprung on him. Red is not exactly comfortable with the FBI right now after having been betrayed once and it nearly cost him and Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) their lives. So with a tenuous alliance in place, Red’s adventures in tracking down everyone down that he has on his personal “blacklist” continues. Aiding in that endeavor is fellow FBI agent Meera Malik (Parminder Nagra).
In a recent press call, star Parminder Nagra and executive producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath talked about attaining the perfect recipe of blending co-star James Spader with the character Red Reddington and then weaving in a rich array of characters to bring THE BLACKLIST mysteries to life on television screens.
What do you think it is about THE BLACKLIST that’s made it such a fan-favorite program?
PARMINDER: I think it’s the mixture between a serialized drama between the procedural and the characters, more importantly. I think you can often have so many shows that do the serialized part and just do that bit particularly well, and you never really get to find out about the characters, and I think that’s what an audience craves. Certainly, what I crave when I watch a show is like I want to know who these people are — what makes them tick. The fact that Red Reddington (James Spader) and Liz Keen (Megan Boone) are such a mystery and people want to know the answers and it keeps them guessing. I think they want to know. They want to find out and they’re hanging in week after week to find out who these characters are, and people care about these characters as well. You want to have something to care about and something to relate to, and of course you’ve got all the action. It’s thrilling to watch all the mayhem that occurs week-after-week. And these amazing bad guys are they’re such interesting characters in and of themselves. It’s character and story and the action. I think it’s just one great package and I think people love that. I love watching that myself.
What was the determining factor in the Red reveal so early in the season [that he is not Elizabeth Keene’s father]?
JON: We do have the answers to these to many of these questions and don’t want to tease too much. And we felt like it was a sort of bold move to do that and to lay out some answers. So what we don’t want is continually be teasing the audience and not answering the questions that we’re raising. So we’re doing that as best we can. Hopefully, that’s satisfying and we’ll continue to hopefully surprise ourselves in how-and-when we answer those questions.
As to the question of what the relationship is between Red and Liz? And are we likely to find that out this season or down the road?
JOHN: Yes and no.
JON: Yes and no.
JON: Yeah. There is absolutely a definitive answer and it is something that we’ll take hopefully many years to answer. But it will certainly not be something that we will lay out right upfront here.
JOHN: But we will, as I feel like we’ve done the first ten episodes, we’ll continue this year to give concrete answers to that and other big questions. They may not just be the final answer.
What would you guys say James Spader has brought to the project?
JON: I think he’s brought the sort of strange sense of humor that the character has. That’s something that he tells me he saw that in the original pilot script and I didn’t see it as much. But I do think Spader himself has a very strange perspective on the world and is a very funny guy. So in speaking with him and getting to know him and starting to get to know his voice sort of allows us to think in terms of: what would this guy say? What would he do? What would he think is moral or not moral? And so I do think that that sense of humor and that voice is something that he’s been helpful in sort of filling out.
JOHN: I would just add: morality. We have a lot of conversations, John and I and then with James as well, about where would Red draw the line? What is his view about good and evil, right and wrong? And I think he’s very determined that the characters is not a psychopath. He’s not someone who has no sense of right and wrong. I think in viewing him with a sense of right and wrong really protects his character from just becoming evil. And I think he’s very aware of that and that is another thing I think that perspective is something I think he has helped to bring.
With the announcement of Season 2, how is the writing or the direction going to change over the seasons to fit more for Spader?
JOHN: I think shows that succeed in large part, they unfold in a way so the show tells us where to go as much as we tell the the stories. There’s an organic sort of unpacking of a TV show that’s working. So we’ve got the luxury of now a second season and 22 more episodes. I think, partly, the thing to do in trying to figure out the direction of the show is just to be open to sort of where it takes you. There’s no version where John and I could have anticipated half or a quarter of the stories and the directions that we have gone if you’d asked us that question four months ago. The show sort of takes a direction. It has a life of its own, and we try and sort of ride it in the direction we feel like it’s going. I think that that — if you’re open to that — you’ll be able to find the stories that are best for the show rather than saying, “Okay, here’s where we’re going. This is the roadmap and we’re sticking to this because.” You just can’t do that. You have to be open-minded and let the show sort of speak to you. And Spader, his character is going to take him and us in directions that none of us can anticipate.
Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to write a mystery show like this? How do you determine when and how to do your major reveals and what characters in the show actually know what is going on?
JON: It’s difficult. It’s hard to know and we’re constantly asking ourselves that question about: when is too soon? Are we giving away too much? Are we burning through story too much? It’s also sort of a difficult balance of the show is a sort of strange of hybrid-serialized and stand-alone episodes. We have a case of the week, each week. So we want to service that and we want to have cool, different, unusual black-listers. But at the same time, we want to come back to our central characters and the larger questions that are raised by the show. So we just try to gut-check each other in the writer’s room and try to slow down as much as we can because the instinct is to move quickly.
Is there a story behind how you got this great part as Meera and is it really empowering to you to play such a badass character?
PARMINDER: I sort of feel like it came out of a little out of left field for me. I was asked to go in and audition for this part and didn’t know too much about the character and just sort of proceeded to find out what was going to happen with as as we’re going along now. And playing a badass character I have to say I’m enjoying it, probably a bit too much sometimes. It’s like now I’m just, “Can you just give me a gun and kind of let me run around with it? I’d be really happy.” But it’s very empowering. I love it. I really do enjoy playing such a strong female character. It’s nice. And you don’t get a lot of those. You don’t get a lot of those parts, especially on TV for women that are so strong. So it’s nice to be able to be able to do that and to be part of something like this.
JON: I think Parminder has an ability to be sort of both warm, but also formidable. I think the formidable part is what’s sort of unexpected about the character and what is fun to explore. In the second episode she was torturing some poor black-lister by pulling the femur bone up out of his leg. It’s not the kind of thing that you would expect her to do and yet she does it quite well. So I think that’s really the answer is: it’s a little bit unexpected and yet still somehow believable. So that’s really what we saw.
What is it about you character Meera that you find the most fascinating?
PARMINDER: For me, what I find most fascinating? I feel like there’s this whole side to her because she’s in CIA, the things that she’s seen or has been through, and the time that because initially when the character was described that she stepped away for a little bit of time and then came back onto this specific case. But it interests me to sort of like go, “Well, having been in the CIA she’s thoroughly seen and experienced quite a lot and clearly there’s this hard side to her.” I find I like that strong sort of like she can get down and dirty if she needs to and that really appeals to me. I love it when those moments are written and there’s that whole new serious side to her. I find that really, really appealing.
What has been the most difficult scene to shoot and why?
JON: The one that comes to mind for us is the bridge sequence in the pilot where there’s a car crash and lots of gunfire. The thing that made it the most difficult was simply that we were on a bridge in New York and it was absolutely freezing and we had people in the water and crazy winds blowing. It was just physically a very challenging shoot to days. But Parminder probably has far more stories about miserable shooting conditions and difficulties of that than we do because we’re sitting in Los Angeles and it’s 80 degrees today. So I shouldn’t complain.
JOHN: I would say that that was the very difficult one. But, again, we are in Los Angeles now. So many of them are incredibly difficult on our end to write. But it’s easier to write them than have to actually do them.
PARMINDER: I suppose the most difficult scene just in terms of the scenes, they themselves haven’t been too [difficult]. I think, for me, if I have a lot of information and things to give that can sometimes be a little difficult just in terms of that. But I suppose what Jon’s talking about weather-wise. I think there was one night, it was too damn cold and too late in the evening. So there’s moments like that just this weather-wise. But I suppose the challenges for me is probably more like when you have those big chunks of information and just seeing James Spader do it is just amazing. I mean he’s amazing at it. Those are my own personal challenges of when I have to do the scenes and make it look like that I’m that I’m not just giving information; that there’s something else to it rather than just sort of staying at the basin. So actually that’s sort of my own personal challenge.
How far ahead do you know what’s going to happen and how important is it for you to know the direction of the story?
PARMINDER: I don’t know anything too far ahead at all. I had an instance recently where I was like: this is going where? And then the Johns said, “We can either explain this to you now or you can wait and find out in the next episode. ” And I actually, in that instance, made the decision that I didn’t want to find out actually. I wanted to find out when the next draft of the next episode came out. It goes back to what I was saying before, which is like I like being able to pick up the next script like everybody else and open up and see a surprise. It’s thrilling to sort of to open up the scripts and go, “Oh, this is where it’s going,” because that’s the part that makes it exciting. So I mean I like to sort of have a general idea maybe, but it’s also nice not to know. A bit like life really. Sometimes you just don’t want to know.
Was there anything about this character that wasn’t originally scripted for you that you added to the role?
PARMINDER: When I first was going to go in for this part I had actually learned the audition piece with an American accent, and I was pleasantly surprised and when told I could do it in my own accent, which was just liberating on so many levels. I think there have been quite a lot about Meera who has been revealed as we go along. It’s sort of like clashing around some of the stuff that we’ve been doing. I feel like I’m sort of getting a bit more of a better handle on who she is as well. But we’re constantly being surprised with the script, which is really nice because it’s just the reveals happening slowly and also for others actors the reveal was happening slowly. It’s nice to open the script every week and not quite know. Like you sort of feel like you might be going in a particular direction, it makes you play the scenes truthfully in the moment without too much knowledge. I mean, you obviously got to have a basic background knowledge of who this person is. But it’s the nice part of doing the series is you get to really create something that’s original that hopefully lasts for years.
JOHN: I think that Parminder’s being nice in the sense that on a series especially in the beginning there’s a certain amount of patience that all the characters or the actors need to sort of have because the stories do unfold over time. We have some great revelations where Parminder’s character is concerned coming up in upcoming episodes. We weren’t able to find a way to have those for for a while. So I’m sure it is very tough sort of existing on the show waiting for the opportunities that can eventually come when we are given the luxury of episodes, and we have some really great moments for her character in the upcoming episodes that will change people’s perspective about her character dramatically.
Will the series continue in its procedural storytelling of cases of the week or will there be more of an emphasis on serialization in the future kind of like the midseason finale?
JOHN: No, I think the midseason finale is more an exception to the rule where the personal stories just bubble up to the surface and all come together in a way that are unavoidable and take over the episode. But THE BLACKLIST will be where is a name on “the blacklist” every episode. I think that’s part of the fun of the series. It can provide unique and different kinds of bad guys that the team can go after. So that is definitely a big part of the show.
Are there any upcoming guest starts that we should know about and look forward to see?
JON: The only one that we can definitely confirm is Campbell Scott, who is in an episode coming up two episodes from now. I’m trying to think if there’s anyone else we know about, but I think that’s it at the moment.
How many episodes can the show go? Is there a number on THE BLACKLIST that you have in your head right now?
JOHN: The audience gets to decide how many members of THE BLACKLIST there are. They keep watching the show, and there’ll be more. It won’t run out, until the audience runs out of interest.
What is it about THE BLACKLIST that makes you want to just wake up, get out of bed and go to work?
JOHN: I think that one of the answers is — and I think one of the reasons that it’s a success is — that it’s got a great character at the center. And writing for Red (James Spader) is an incredibly fun thing to do. We spend a lot of time crafting the stories and the procedural beats and the bread and butter of the show, but nothing makes us laugh more than when we’re trying to figure out what Red would say in any given situation.
JON: To me, all of my past experience has been in feature films where they take six years to go from an idea or something on the page to an actual movie if they ever do, and here things happen so quickly. Something that we have an idea or something makes us laugh or we have something that surprises us, we put it on paper and very quickly it’s on air. To me, that’s sort of a fascinating and really exciting process.
All new episodes of THE BLACKLIST air Mondays nights at 10:00 p.m. on NBC (Global in Canada)
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