‘The Blacklist’ Star James Spader On His Obsessive-Compulsive Ways: ‘It’s Very Hard For Me’

After seven years of playing a criminal mastermind on NBC’s The Blacklist, James Spader has no signs of slowing down. The veteran actor who has played a CGI robot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a lawyer in TV legal dramas — and everything in between — has the acting thing down. However, his meticulous preparation and execution come by way of his “obsessive-compulsive” ways.

James Spader gives ‘The Blacklist’ a ‘strange’ portrayal — and he’s OK with that

The Blacklist
James Spader as Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington | Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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When James Spader takes on a role, it’s typically because the character fascinates him on a personal level. As proven in The Blacklist, the so-called “Concierge of Crime” is as mysterious in person as he is in the context of fiction. In fact, one publication referred to Spader as “the strangest man on TV,” and he concurs.

“An NBC publicist who handles The Blacklist didn’t like it at all. I had no problem with it,” he told Playboy. “Funnily enough, my agent, whom I’ve been with for decades and who knows me well, had no problem with it either. I’m a great fan of all things strange, eccentric, and idiosyncratic. Things never get strange enough for me.”

That uniqueness has allowed the actor to take on projects others might only dream of. The “strange” qualities of Spader have resulted in memorable roles [seemingly] only he can play.

“When I started out in movies I seemed older than my years. Because you don’t seem vulnerable, you can play someone who is confident and comfortable in ways actors who look younger can’t,” he explained.

“In the right context that can be somewhat startling, so you learn to play with it. I think in some of my earlier work I was sort of hiding, and that’s why I played so many bad guys,” he said.

He continued: “I liked being hired to play somebody who was so different from me. If you’re not actually a bad guy, just the fact that you’re comfortable with certain things — such as, say, sexuality — means you can tap into things that others can’t.”

Spader’s father displayed obsessive tendencies

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The Blacklist star has stated in several interviews the fun he’s throughout his career. Likewise, Spader’s co-stars bragged about the level of professionalism he brings every moment of every working day.

Still, Spader is very aware of his idiosyncrasies, attributing some of that to his father.

“He was incredibly shy and in many ways inaccessible, spending a lot of time in the cellar working on carpentry and taking a lot of long walks by himself,” he said in the same Playboy interview.

Spader elaborated on his father’s fatal flaw, stating [Spader’s] is something he struggles with, too.

“He’d spend every cent he ever had. For instance, he loved fishing, but he had more fishing rods than he ever needed, even if he used every one of them,” he said.

“He also clearly had certain obsessive-compulsive issues. He was always on task and had to finish one task before he could get to the next. I have a lot of similarities with him.”

Those similarities Spader refers to are some of the very same things shown in a few of the actor’s characters — such as Raymond “Red” Reddington in The Blacklist.

Spader recounts his ritualistic behavior and how it affects his career

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It’s not lost on Spader that he shares some of his father’s compulsions, albeit in different ways.

“I’m ritualistic and habitual. I have an addictive personality. I love cooking, which I’ve done since I was a kid. That’s very methodical. It requires focus and yet allows for extrapolation or improvisation and spontaneity,” he told Playboy.

“It’s also calming for me. I don’t sleep particularly well. If I wake up at night, everything inside turns on instantly and won’t stop. There’s a compulsion to address things. I just can’t let them fester or get pushed under the rug. I have to tie it up tightly in a box, throw it right out the f*cking window into a river and let it sink to the bottom.”

The behaviors, he said, give him an advantage in Hollywood because “acting demands focus and concentration.” However, he admitted he’s not a “multi-tasker,” adding that working in a “freelance business” can be tricky.

“It is part of my job to demand all the respect and all the parameters and boundaries I need. Because you’re getting together with people who don’t know you and have never worked with you, you have to establish that upfront and be very forthright and forthcoming about it,” he said.

“That way, you’re not throwing something unexpected at anybody later.”

Why ‘The Blacklist’ star says his obsessive-compulsive ‘issues’ are ‘hard’

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In an interview with Rolling Stone (the one which gave Spader the title of “strangest man on TV”), Spader re-iterated why he’ll never be “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” type of actor.

“I have very, very strong obsessive-compulsive issues. I’m very particular. I rely on a certain routine,” he said.

“It’s very hard for me, you know? It makes you very addictive in behavior because routine and ritual become entrenched. But in work, it manifests in obsessive attention to detail, and fixation. It serves my work very well: Things don’t slip by. But I’m not very easygoing.”

You’d think Spader’s level of particularity might come across as “diva-like,” but the actor is aware of how he’s perceived — careful not to cross that line.

“Television shows do not suffer fools or a**holes. They get weeded out quickly. Bad behavior is when you’re way down the road and all of a sudden somebody sets the ground rules for who they are and how they work. That’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

He continued: “Everyone else’s job is just as important as yours. I work well with everyone. I’m not a believer that good work comes out of antagonism, fear, and punishment, but I think it can come out of discourse and argument, so long as you’re open, communicative, honest, and able to listen to what others’ needs are.”