One of the most idiosyncratic movie stars of the 1980s and 1990s has done one of the most difficult things of all: Reinvented himself. First on Boston Legal and The Office and then on The Blacklist, his drama about a criminal trying to catch his former underworld allies, James Spader has less banished memories of his creepy Sex, Lies and Videotape persona as built upon it. Onscreen, he's still oddly insinuating, with an oily sort of charm, but it's now seen by more people than ever watched his independent films.
The Blacklist was one of last season's breakout hits, and it's about to get the prized post-Super Bowl timeslot on NBC Feb. 1 before moving to the network's Thursday night schedule. We spoke to Spader about how the show has forced him to change his look, his favorite onscreen robot (in advance of his A.I. role in The Avengers' 2015 sequel) and — of course — hats.
TIME: Your show is airing its winter premiere after the Super Bowl. Are you a big sports fan?
James Spader: I’ve watched baseball over the years, and I really don’t watch a great deal of TV. I don’t have one here in New York. When I’ve landed on a football game, I like to watch that, but it’s never destination viewing for me. If I land on a game, I like to watch it, and my six-year-old likes to watch. Baseball is the sport for me — I found the games a lot, growing up. That was something I followed for a while. I was a Red Sox fan, my father was a devoted Red Sox fan, and when they finally won the World Series, I retired from baseball. When we were in London shooting The Avengers, we got very caught up in international football and watched the world cup, we love doing that. We became very good friends with a man in London — he was a football player and a devoted fan, and we got very into it — it’s infectious.
If you don’t have a television, how do you keep up with the competition?
No. I’ve never seen any of our competition. I don’t know what our competition is, to be honest. I don’t really need any help to keep focused on the job at hand — it’s so all-consuming.
People say broadcast television allows less freedom than cable, and has a more punishing schedule. What was the calculus of taking this job on broadcast TV?
I think both of those are true. But this show happened to be on a broadcast network, and I have a very real need to work. A financial need to work, and on a broadcast network, the curse is that it's 22 episodes as opposed to 12 or 13. It’s a living in the first year.
Has moving to New York been a big adjustment?
No, not at all! It was one of the compelling aspects of the series, and another reason why I ended up on broadcast besides the material and the character. The show is shooting in New York and that was an important part of the equation for me. I’d been looking to move back to New York. I’ve lived there a lot and was ready to move back.
Do you consider your character’s hat an influence on Pharrell?
He’s a popular singer.
Uh, no. I wouldn’t have any perspective about that. I’ve worn hats for many, many years. It just is an — an eminently practical piece of clothing. Especially for this character who doesn’t have any hair. It’s eminently practical if it’s too cold, too hot, raining, or snowing. He’s a character who moves rather swiftly over a broad spectrum of geography and climate. And so I think it’s very practical.
Did they give your character a hat because you wear one in real life?
It was more coincidence than anything else. The hat is just a small part of the whole costume. His clothing is all extremely practical. He has to have a life and wear clothing that is — where he can go from the jungle to the boardroom, maybe in a single day. We also wanted his clothing to be not of a specific time, place, or fashion — because he has acquired his clothing from all different places. Everything goes with everything else.
On another aesthetic note, has having a close-cropped haircut for your character changed your life?
I think the most significant change in my life is the decision to do a series. An hourlong dramatic television series on a broadcast network swallows you and chews you up and refuses to spit you out. You’re making a decision that’s going to be a profound and significant impact on the practical aspects of your life. Therefore, the fact that my hair is now short — I don’t even remember it. When I’m not working, I don’t get my hair cut. I don’t know what the next character looks like. I hadn’t cut my hair in a long time, and I didn’t know if, for my next role, longer hair would be more appropriate for that. My hair was very long before I started this. It was perfect for the one photograph they have. The hope was the photograph would appear anachronistic, not contemporary. I must say the hair is also for very practical reasons. It can take him ten minutes to get a haircut. He can be taken care of in any setting and any time.
Do you think you’d be a good criminal?
I never reflect on that. I never had that as a thought. I’m playing the character. I don’t relate it to my life in any way.
I don’t think if you’re playing a bank robber... No matter what the process is, I don’t relate it to my own life.
Can new viewers jump into the storyline easily?
The storyline is one that allows a new audience access immediately. It’s not a story of the episode itself that requires any previous knowledge — that works, by design. There’s a certain amount of an introduction quality.
You play a robot in the new Avengers sequel. Any favorite robots from pop culture past?
HAL. I certainly was very aware of HAL. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ian Holm played a robot in Alien. But you didn’t know he was a robot until near the end. I don’t know if I can think of any others. Oh! Lost in Space!
Has The Blacklist changed the way fans view you?
I don’t know if there’s a way you can measure that. I know that one’s visibility is very high on television, even with an unsuccessful show! With a successful role, it’s even higher. People have been coming up to me for all different sorts of things. Very often it’s for something entirely different. It could be the most obscure movie you’ve made!
What sort of shout-outs particularly surprise you?
I’ve gotten used to the fact I will be surprised. That’s unpredictable! I’ve made a lot of very small movies that may not have had a large initial audience. Then it shows up on cable. Sometimes someone will come up and the one thing that they will want to talk about is 30 years ago or more. I don’t think there’s any one film or anything I’ve done where I’m particularly taken aback by the fact that it’s their frame of reference.