Earlier this month Megan Boone, female lead on NBC’s The Blacklist, entertained questions from the Hollywood press alongside Executive Producer John Eisendrath and Press Pass L.A. was there. As a fan of action-oriented shows involving intrigue and espionage this reporter can’t recommend The Blacklist highly enough. It’s the most compelling series pilot I’ve seen since J.J. Abrams’ Alias which, coincidentally, John Eisendrath also executively produced from its beginning.
Graciously offering in-depth answers about Fall’s best new drama, Megan (a.k.a. Profiler Elizabeth Keen) began by relaying how she became the first actor cast on the show. “I had kind of resigned to not participating very aggressively in pursuing network TV pilots, but I continued to ask the people that I work with to send me scripts this year while they were casting. Once I read The Blacklist, I was immediately drawn to the character of Elizabeth Keen and worked ardently on it for about a week before meeting Eisendrath, Bokenkamp and Joe Carnahan (who directed it). In that meeting I put it all out on the table, I probably gave one of the better auditions of my career because it was one of the more important ones to me. They continued their search, but always kept me in the mix. I kept going back in, kind of rediscovering or discovering new things about who she was in the rooms with them, because you can’t ever really repeat the same thing you did last time. The audition process actually drew me much closer to the piece. By the time they decided to cast me, I was already really in this world and it was an amazing collaboration at that point because I felt so involved. I then read with Diego Klattenhoff (Agent Donald Ressler) and Ryan Eggold (Liz’s husband Tom), then they brought in James Spader. It just kept getting better and better and all of the little pieces came together to create that sort of magic in a bottle that you need to have a successful show.
Elaborating on the character of Keen, Megan shared, “Elizabeth Keen is a psychological profiler who is new to the FBI and it’s her first day at work when James Spader’s character, Red Reddington, requests to speak with her, and only her, in order to provide intel for catching some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. She’s not entirely prepared to be a field agent but she’s now required to go out and seek out these criminals in some of the most dangerous situations a field agent would ever encounter. What you ultimately discover about her is that she’s very brave and capable despite her novice, but there’s always that question of whether or not she can handle herself. Sometimes she does, but a lot of the times the mistakes that she makes are the things that move the drama forward because there are just so many overwhelming circumstances that she has to face that she inevitably falls short sometimes causing people like Agent Ressler and Harry Lennix’s character, Harold Cooper, to have to come in and be a supportive team around her while at the same time questioning her presence in their department. It’s almost as if she has both an incredible force of support around her and almost no one to turn to. She’s in a very precarious situation throughout the initial part of the series.”
On the subject of Spader’s manipulative Reddington, cast only three days before shooting began, one wonders how villainous the master criminal really is? John divulged, “He is capable of pretty much anything but he has a moral compass. He’s not Hannibal Lecter or Whitey Bulger. There’s a great deal of goodness in him. He isn’t someone who commits crimes of passion. He’s controlled, thoughtful, smart and shrewd. His capacity for doing any crime, including killing someone, exists but in his own mind he always has a justification for the crime he’s committing as part of a larger arc of his life and his career. He definitely has a point of view about the world he’s come to occupy, the criminal world that he’s a part of, and why he went there and what his goal was. There’s a great desire to do good mixed in with something that’s self-serving, but he has turned himself into the FBI and while we don’t know ultimately what his plan is for Liz or why he’s actually doing the things he’s doing – one thing we do know is that a lot of bad guys are being caught with his help. He does have very dark shades but his actions, if you just look at them episodically, have very good results.”
So, how long will it be before audiences learn why Red’s so interested in Liz? Eisendrath answered, “I think like with any great series question, the audience deserves periodic answers along the way. It’s not as if you have to wait very long to get some initial answers that all build towards a final reveal. We have no interest in just letting that question go unanswered. It’s obviously foremost in Liz’s mind. She will be insistent on asking. I think that in a relationship like that, it’s incumbent on Red to offer up some concrete footholds. In the first twelve episodes there will be two or three answers that are sort of incremental, but with any good question like that, you’ll get an answer that might open up a different series of questions that you might not have thought of. We’re going to give answers early on and throughout the first season. Hopefully by the end of the first season it will give the audience some confidence that they understand most of why he did it.”
Megan added, “I’ve decided to stay in the dark about what it is he wants from Liz and just discover it through the scene work with James, that’s what keeps it exciting for me. It has been a really wonderful way to work because I’m always trying to read him through his performance and my response to him has grown out of that overriding question of what it is he wants from her. If I knew any more about it than I know now, I think it would ultimately dull my performance a little bit, it would dull my experience creatively in the show. Elizabeth, however, definitely wants to understand Red’s connection and interest in her, so my ultimate goal and agenda with him is to uncover that mystery. His agenda is a true mystery to me.”
Red’s overtly paternal affection for Liz raises suspicion that he might be her long absent father. Boone granted, “I think my relationship with my father is the key to why I find an interest in the criminal mind, in justice, and the whole course of my life was altered by my experience with my father at a young age. The question of the relationship with Red and how that could be drawn into my relationship with my father is obviously one that we can’t really expound upon right now. We’re exploring that as the series progresses, there are obviously some paternal feelings that Red has towards me that will need to be explained, but in my experience in life, maternal and paternal dynamics happen in all kinds of relationships, not necessarily just with your actual parents. I’ve talked a lot with the writers about the course of this story line and where it might be going and from those discussions I’ve developed a history for my character that I’m open to altering as the series progresses and evolves and new information comes along.”
In discussing her research and physical preparation for The Blacklist, Megan declared, “I’m still doing research for the role. I don’t think that will ever end. I have the DSM5 (American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) and I’ve read some interviews with prominent psych profilers for the FBI that have interviewed criminals and so forth. It’s always helpful to stay curious and keep an inquisitive mind about these kinds of things. There’s just an endless amount of information that comes along as you’re developing a series like this. Every script that comes across the table introduces new elements of her character and personality, she’s always evolving and changing.” As to the action-driven, physical side of her role she confided, “I frequently leave set with blood all over my hair and face – not my blood, but fake blood. Every week I leave set having to get rid of some kind of fake wound. I’ve been doing Krav Maga and weight training and I’m in the best physical shape of my life just to prepare to do this because it is very visceral and very physical. For me, though, the most rewarding things come from challenge. You get through a very difficult week and then you see a scene cut together from that week and it’s really good – that is a very satisfying and rewarding feeling.”
John spoke on the task of creating suitable villains with which to populate Red’s nefarious list, “I think it’s one of the hardest things to do every episode. It’s incredibly difficult to try and find that kind of character you haven’t seen before. We have to walk a fine line because we want to be grounded and real, and yet have bad guys who are big enough to merit being on the blacklist but not so big that you expect them to wear capes and spandex. We don’t want it to be like a cartoon but we also don’t want it to be a bad guy that could be on Law and Order. It’s hard.” Megan affirmed, “They’re doing an incredible job, though. Every villain is so unique. Imagine trying to create a Bond-like villain 22 episodes a year. I can’t imagine the challenge myself, but every time I get a new script, I’m just like, “Oh this is so cool!” And one of the really interesting things about the villains is that they sort of dictate the genre and tone of each episode. Red and Liz are able to move through these different genres to find these different villains, and the villains themselves bring a new flavor to each episode which keeps it very interesting.”
I asked Eisendrath how Liz and Red’s partnership compares, if at all, to that of Sydney Bristow and dastardly spymaster Arvin Sloane from his genre-bending former hit series Alias. John clarified, “It’s interesting, I would say her relationship to Red is sort of a hybrid of Sydney’s relationship to Arvin and Jack (Victor Garber’s character). You’re kind of never quite certain with Red whereas with Sloane, he may have needed Sydney and may have been obsessed with her like Red is with Liz, but he was so demonstrably on a quest for things that were evil that I feel like it’s a bit of hybrid. There definitely is a Chosen One element to this story like there was to the Alias story in that there’s this young woman who initially has no idea why she’s been selected. On Alias it was tethered to something mystical – the fourteenth century genius Rambaldi. The distinction that’s clear between a show like Alias and this is that this will live in a more grounded, real space. We always liked to say Alias was a good version of a B-genre. We’re trying not to live quite as far out in the hyperreal world here, so Liz Keen’s picture is never going to appear in the drawings of a fourteenth century mystic. But like in any Chosen One story she has a real journey of awakening, self-revelation, and coming to learn more about who she is and things that she may have a sort of sense about herself but couldn’t possibly fathom the details of. That journey, and having a sort of an older guy manipulating it, is something that the writers talk a lot about – so there is in the most basic DNA of the show, a comparable Chosen One story with a young woman and a morally and ethically challenged adult sort of pulling the levers.”
And what of Liz’s relationships to the other key characters of The Blacklist? “What’s really interesting and what they’re writing toward is a very dynamic relationship with each character involved, such as Ressler, Liz’s husband Tom, and Parminder Nagra’s character, Agent Malick. There is an affinity for one another and a rich relationship that develops and then there’s the professional world and the question of trust, whether you can trust the people around you and the question of identity, whether you really know anyone. It’s an incredible problem for a protagonist to have, where they love the people in their lives, they care for everyone around them, but they question whether they actually know anyone. I think that that really draws an audience in. It helps people relate to a character and you sort of want to see that character reach out and find someone in that crowd that they can actually feel comfortable with and trust and rely on. As the series progresses, I think someone will emerge as a reliable friend and ally for Elizabeth Keen, that’s what I’m hoping for anyway,” said Boone.
I invited Megan to describe working with Harry Lennix (Dollhouse, The Matrix Trilogy) and what his character brings to the mix. “My experience with Harry Lennix himself is that he’s obviously an incredible actor and an incredible man. He’s very, very kind and a wonderful presence to have on set. The way that he plays Cooper, as opposed to the way Cooper was written, brings a wonderful quality to the show because Cooper was written as a hardened veteran of the FBI. In my first scene with Harry, I sat across from him – it’s the scene where he asks me to profile myself – and I had expected to be very intimidated by his character, but sitting across from me was this very warm and open man. That’s what he brought to the character. I think that adds a new dynamic and a new dimension to the show because if you have someone that you think you can really trust in a show about identity and whether or not you really know the people around you, than there are so many places you can go with this man because he can draw you in and make you feel comfortable. He’s in an authoritative position and has a lot of power, so you can also bring in darker elements that can create a very dynamic kind of problem that you have to solve. I think his character is going to go through some different incarnations on the show, but he draws you in and makes you want to trust him.” John jumped in to emphasize, “His role is one that often gets relegated to just sort of giving out exposition while everybody else gets to do all of the fun stuff, but I think we’re going to find ways for his character to do both.”
I wondered if Megan and James share the kind of fun working relationship that Spader famously shared with former co-star William Shatner, she assured, “Yes. When we were shooting the pilot – it was the day we were diffusing the bomb – I was having a difficult time, kind of spiraling down this very serious mindset because it’s a drama, so you think you should be very serious about your work. He came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me for a good beat. It made me feel like he was going to say something very serious so I leaned in, and he said, “Just have fun. It’s the most important part.” [laughs] Ever since that point, his presence is kind of a reminder to enjoy myself and the process. I think that no matter what genre you’re working in, even if it’s a high stakes drama or thriller, that if you’re not enjoying yourself and you’re not having fun then the curiosity dies – that is one thing that James has an abundance of. He’s always working further into the story and there’s just so much I can glean from working with him. So, yeah, the joy and the fun and the levity really is present. He brings that to the work. On the other hand, this is one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had and without that difficulty and level of challenge I don’t think that the colors would be there to play Elizabeth Keen, because she is entirely overwhelmed. It’s about funneling all of it and dumping all of it into the work as much as I can – the fatigue, the exhaustion, and the feeling of being overwhelmed while maintaining that inquisitive, joyful feeling for the work – that is what keeps me going and it’s a huge lesson that I learned from James.”
Describing her favorite scene from tonight’s series premiere, Megan fondly recalled, “The scene in the pilot where I stab Red in the neck was really an incredible day. We were on the 29th floor of the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, which for me was just kind of larger than life and an experience that felt like I’d gone into a different paradigm or something. It was my first scene shooting with James and that was the first time I learned what an incredible co-worker and collaborator he was going to be. I did not know what to expect, I was kind of nervous and kept to myself and just worked as hard as I could that day but he’d pull me aside in between scenes and ask me how I felt the scene was going, what I needed from him, and by the end of the day I was just as open and collaboratively involved and free with him as I could be with anyone. It was so refreshing. That’s a huge testament to him that he made me feel that comfortable. Joe Carnahan was directing us and I absolutely loved working with him. When we finished I rode the elevator down to Park Avenue and just ran for a couple of blocks because I was so excited and happy that this was my new working relationship. It was one of those moments in New York City that you never forget.”
The lineup of notable guest stars appearing this season includes Isabella Rossellini, Tom Noonan, and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Alexander. “The incredible thing about Jane being involved is that she was my teacher and has been my mentor for ten years,” beamed Boone, “and her involvement on the show happened completely independent of our relationship. About ten years ago, I was ready to quit acting and she called me personally on the phone to encourage me to keep going. I really would not be here if it weren’t for her in my life and now she’s on one of the more important shows of my career. It’s one of those serendipitous, synchronicitous sort of things. It’s so nice to have her here.” Adding, “We’ve also been working with Clifton Collins Jr. who is such a great actor. I was so excited to have him on the show. It’s been an incredible experience for me because these guys keep bringing in some of the best actors to do these guest spots. The parts are really meaty and exciting and are written so well that I understand why they’re doing it.”
In light of her all but giving up on pilot season prior to getting The Blacklist, Megan Boone’s advice to young women working to land their first big break in the business is profoundly inspiring. “It’s very easy to become discouraged as an actress in your twenties because the roles that are written for 20yr old girls generally discount the possibility that they could have intelligence or struggles other than boy problems. As part of my career, I would like to find stories that change that and give young women an opportunity to express themselves in different ways. I know I found it very difficult to find a medium for expression as a young woman. I’m entering into a period in my life where, for one reason or another, good female roles are few and far between but there are still female roles that I feel are interesting. The advice that I would give to young women would be to just continue developing themselves and continue to stay true to themselves. Be patient and know that life can change in an instant in this field. You know, coming together with a project like this is a lot like finding a soul mate or falling in love. You wait your whole life and wonder if it’s ever going to happen to you and one day it does and then you’ve got a whole new set of problems, but at least your life is evolving and transforming and you’re being challenged on a new level. I look back at those times when I was ready to quit and I wish that I had known then what I know now because I would not have gotten so discouraged. Fortunately, I had mentors like Jane Alexander and other wonderful men and women in my life that helped me to feel like I should continue to move forward on this path. If a young woman out there doesn’t have that and is reading this, then I would hope that they remember that that role is out there. Those experiences are out there as long as you keep an open mind and understand that life can change in an instant.”
Tune in to NBC tonight @ 10/9c, following the season premiere of The Voice, to see FBI agent Elizabeth Keen’s life instantaneously change when Red Reddington walks into her life and introduces her to the dangerous, action-filled odyssey that is The Blacklist. You won’t be disappointed.
For more information visit The Blacklist on NBC.