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THE BLACKLIST:and EP Jon Bokenkamp Preview the Episode and What’s Next for Red, Liz and Tom Keen
After springing the revelation that Red Reddington (James Spader) and Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) do in fact have a shared history just before its Season 2 winter hiatus, returns with even more twists and turns to keep their fans scratching their heads and clutching at their hearts. Having secured the plum broadcast slot of being featured directly after this year’s , returns with a two-part story introducing its new villain Luther Braxton (Ron Perlman) and jumps in fully into the thorny backstory of Tom Keen and how he and Red have previously known each other — a connection that is sure to get Elizabeth Keen’s attention now that she has given her devious and duplicitous husband his freedom, when he so justly should have died by now.
In a recent press call, star and executive producer Jon Bokenkamp talked about what trouble Ron Perlman’s character wreaks in the Super Bowl episode and the difficult and increasingly labyrinthine journey of Liz Keen and the two men who are shaping her life: Tom Keen and Red Reddington, for better or worse.
What can you share about Ron Perlman’s character, Luther Braxton? And why is he so dangerous that he requires two episodes?
JON: Luther Braxton is a thief who goes about stealing things through incredibly complex methods. He sort of disguises his heist in big events. So there might be a massive snow storm or there might be a political uprising in some corner of the world where he’s looking for something. So he’s constantly moving amid this sort of chaos and creating chaos wherever he goes. We thought that it was a great sort of big, fun character that would fit really well with the Super Bowl and be a little bit of a different sort of black-lister in scope and size, and in terms of what he’s after — and how important it is to Red.
MEGAN: I can speak from being on set with Ron Perlman. He brought that imposing presence and just this incredible voice — this deep, gravelly voice to the character. But then in some ways he played a serene, calm that seemed almost creepy, like as if he were the eye of the storm. So it was really interesting to watch him come do his thing on our show.
JON: When we meet his character, Luther is a prisoner in a black site prison which supposedly does not exist and he’s sort of laying in wait when the episode opens, and yet he’s sort of pulled away in an interrogation facility that nobody is supposed to be able to escape from — however, things go awry.
What does it mean to you getting to be showcased after the Super Bowl?
JON: It’s a huge opportunity. It’s a lot of potential new eyeballs watching the show and I suppose on one hand that can be intimidating. I think we see it as a great opportunity to let people see what the show is. I also think that the episode — it’s a two-parter — it’s a very easy access point. I think somebody who’s never seen the show before will be able to drop in very quickly and get a real sense of what the show is: how it feels, smells, tastes — all of that. So as much as we do have some sort of serialized elements, I think that’s one of the most exciting things about it. But it’s also a huge vote of confidence from the network. It’s incredibly flattering, quite frankly.
MEGAN: The really fun thing about it happening is that I think that Jon Bokenkamp and his team of writers have really started to understand what works with the show and has started to have a lot of fun with that. Not just what works with the actors on the show and our dynamics, but also what are the elements of the show that are indispensable. Like what kind of villains do you want to write that really work for the show? What is the format? And these things started to really coalesce in Season 1. As they say, we really grow a beard. I think that the fact that we’re getting this opportunity to sort of showcase the show to a larger audience is just really exciting at this time in our creative process.
Liz Keen has been showing some darker shades of her character this season. Have you been surprised by the directions that the characters have been going this season? Do the producers have this all planned out, or is this something that’s just coming as the scripts are coming along?
MEGAN: I certainly have had a reaction to it, but it wasn’t a surprise. I was delighted and intrigued by the new direction, as well as sort of anticipated it as it was coming, because there was no way — especially with Liz being sort of the protagonist in the sense that Red is a catalyst for her change — there was no way that she could stagnate and stay where she was, especially with all that was happening with her. So her evolution was essential to the show’s growth. And I was definitely glad to see that start to happen toward the end of Season 1, and really intensely into Season 2.
JON: That’s right. It’s definitely something that was baked into the cake of the series. In Season 1, Elizabeth Keen is somebody that we meet who is very new on her first day on the job. But she has this very sort of idyllic life — the house and the husband and the dog and all of that — and by the end of the first season it’s completely ripped away from her. And she’s in a place in the second season where she’s sort of having to confront the question of: “Who am I? Everything that I believed I knew about myself — the whole world that I’ve sort of created around me — is now gone.” So looking ahead, having Red be in her life and sort of influencing the way that she thinks and reacts, has certainly shaped the direction of the character. I think that’s one of the big questions about the second season is: How far is she willing to go? How dark is the character willing to go? And can she sort of hold on to a bit of light rather than completely going down the rabbit hole?
James Spader has created such a unique character in Red. Is he fun to work with both as an actor and also from the production side, knowing that you can do so many things with him?
JON: Yes. I mean, James always has great ideas. He’s incredibly intuitive. He has a great sense of the character and he’s an incredible collaborator. Megan, you have far more experience with sort of on set and in the day-to-day grind of that, I look at him more from a sort of story perspective, but maybe you can speak to that.
MEGAN: James is definitely the master of the ship over here and this is not his first rodeo, as they say down South where I’m from. That’s just an example, particularly of how different he and I are and why this is working so well. He’s from Boston and I’m from rural Central Florida. His parents were professors and mine dealt in real estate. I mean, we come from different sides of the earth, not literally, but figuratively, and it’s just sort of interesting to put the two of us together and see what happens. He’s has 30 years’ experience in the business, one successful television show, and I this is essentially my first go at it. So it’s been invaluable having him here to help acclimate me to this new environment and this new task at hand. I feel that we’ve been extraordinarily successful beyond my wildest dreams and I definitely think that it’s his wisdom and experience that has helped me to rise to that occasion.
JON: I was just going to add to that it is interesting how there’s sort of a mentor/student sort of relationship, certainly in the script but as Megan says, James having done this a long time and her being new, it is interesting how — I don’t know how much you guys feel that when you’re shooting — but just in terms of the characters and who they are, it does not go without notice that that’s part of the show. I mean that’s part of one of the things that makes it great.
MEGAN: But on the surface — certainly out relationship is sort of mentor/mentee dynamic — but I think that once you get into the complexity of the dynamic starts to get much richer, and I think James and I are really starting to just work as peers and work together and influence one another. I would hate to think that I come to work and don’t have an effect on the people around me in any way just because this is my first show — and I think I do. So it’s become a very important relationship — certainly in my life and I would hope in both of our lives.
Harry Lennix’s character is sort of hobbled by the attack at the end of last season and he’s been sort of musing on hanging it all up. Do you think that a character like Cooper could ever sort of give it all up and let it go? And what’s Harry like to work with?
JON: I don’t know that Harold Cooper could give it all up. I would say that there are a lot questions in his storyline. As we move forward, we were introduced in first episode of this season to the idea that Red knew of some sort of diagnosis that he had been given. So there’s something brewing there that Cooper has certainly not let anybody in on, and I think that’s going to come to the surface quite quickly.
David Strathairn, Janel Maloney, and Gloria Reuben will be guest staring in the first couple of return episodes. What are they doing and who are some of the other guests we can expect as the season continues?
MEGAN: Working with Gloria, that was an exciting thing. We had a really fun episode together. Jon, you’ve seen footage on that episode. Wasn’t she fantastic?
JON: Yes, she’s great. I just saw the cut two days ago for the first time, and it’s great. It’s really going to be a great episode. Gloria is incredible in the show. And with David Strathairn and Janel, they enter the story in a rather cloak-and-dagger sort of way. David Strathairn plays a character known as the Director who in real life, the Director of the National Clandestine Services’ identity, as least to the general public is not known. That is who he plays. I suppose that may raise a couple of questions. But with him and most of the cast, the thing is always interesting to me is the people, as far as guest stars. It’s one of the most exciting things about the show is to be able to sort of dream up a character and you start kind of hearing a voice or thinking about who might be fun to play. It always blows my mind, the variety and the caliber of actors we’re able to work with. It really makes the job a blast.
MEGAN: Yes, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’m not going to say any more. That was it.
Do James Spader or Megan Boone or any of the amazing actors on the show change the way you write for their characters?
JON: Yes, absolutely. II think one of the things that Megan had mentioned before, in terms of the show starting to kind of find its footing and what it is, is in part to that. I mean, I speak to them. Any time there’s sort of a concern or something feels wrong, Megan will give me a call and like Episode 210 that we were just talking about, she called and said, “Look, I think this isn’t quite right here.” And we’re always open to that and we’re always collaborating as much as we can. John Eisendrath has said (and I’m starting to think this is true) that at a certain point in the television show, the more you get to know the character and the more you get to know the people playing the character, the line between them becomes a little more blurred, as time goes on. I do think that whether it’s something that you just know like would be natural, as far as the language or something, that’s a real strength in terms of what that performer is able to do. I think you start writing that and I think they start feeling more comfortable for it. So it absolutely does. The actors themselves certainly do influence the characters to an extent. It’s part of the collaboration.
Have you always had the show ending in mind or has that changed since the first season?
JON: There is certainly an ending in mind and one that we’re constantly writing to and around. I mean, at times, it makes it quite difficult because it sort of restrains us in the stories that we’re telling in some ways. But I think it’s also working that way — whether that’s the end we arrive at or not — whether anybody lets us do what I have in mind and what we talk about so often in the writer’s room, it does shape the show and it helps. It’s like building a house: What furniture you like, what kind of architecture you like, and then you kind of feel what doesn’t fit, what doesn’t belong — and by process of elimination it sort of starts feeling like its own special thing. I think that’s helped influence the show. That said, we always have ideas and things that we think we’re going to land at. Sometimes we get to them sooner. Sometimes we take a different path. It’s a little like knowing our destination and having looked at a map a couple of times and then throwing out the map and sort of using our gut to get there. So it’s quite a process, but we do have a strong sense of direction.
When we last left THE BLACKLIST last fall, there was a bit of a moment there between Tom and Red. Will that be too mythology-heavy to visit in the Super Bowl episode because you’re getting a lot of new eyeballs? And if so, is that something that will be explored in the back half of Season 2?
JON: It’s definitely something we’re exploring in the back half of the season. We don’t dive right into it in the Super Bowl episode. The Super Bowl two-parter, I like to think of it was sort of an event movie. It’s large in scope and if it had a movie poster it would be the summer action movie. Because of that, the timeframe is very compressed and it all happens almost in real time as you’re watching the episode. So there is no time to drift away and see that story of Tom. However, Tom and Red, the nature of their relationship and what Elizabeth Keen does or does not know or is in the process of discovering about that relationship, is certainly something that we’re going leaning into in the back half of the season there.
With Liz and Tom and how they left things, is Liz still conflicted about what’s going on and what her feelings are with him, because she let him go?
MEGAN: Strangely enough, I think Jon and I might have different opinions on this one. I want to hear Jon’s thoughts. I think that it’s an oversimplification to say that she’s in love with him, as has been implicated by some of the other characters like Red and Ressler. I think she’s got really strong feelings for him, but it’s a very complicated dynamic at this point. I think once a relationship goes past the line and becomes abusive or sadistic in any way, there’s just no going back to pure true love. There just isn’t. It already has violence in it. It already has mistrust. So I always felt like it was just an oversimplification to say, “Oh, she still loves him.” What do you think, Jon?
JON: (Laughs) Oh, you’re madly in love with him. No, look, I work with a bunch of writers who are strange and dark and have very complex lives. I think Megan’s right. I think it’s probably an oversimplification to say that “Yes, she’s in love with Tom.” I feel this way about the show in general, that I think everything is much more complex than it appears on the show because I think whether it’s the suburban housewife dropping her kids off at school, or it’s the guy showing up to punch the clock to work at the steel factory, I don’t think any of those people are really quite what they appear to be on the surface. And I think you never say never, and I think anything can change. So that doesn’t mean that’s where that relationship is going. But I do think that like any breakup, like any sort of marriage that falls apart, it’s messy and the feelings I think are really — and by the way, this is speaking from somebody who’s never gone through a divorce — but I think, from what I’ve heard, is it is incredibly complex. That with feelings and emotions, sometimes people do things that is not in their best interest and sometimes logic does not prevail. So I think the best answer I could give to that is that I think it’s incredibly complex, and that I would say that the story of the two of them, whether it’s a love story or not, is not over. There’s still a lot of mileage in that and there’s still a lot of mileage in that story, I think.
MEGAN: See, we didn’t disagree at all. We completely agree.
JON: We didn’t? Did we find a middle ground?
MEGAN: No, I think we actually completely agree. We haven’t had a really open discussion about this recently because Tom’s been kind of like on the back burner while we Super Bowl it. But I think that what makes me excited about being on this show is that we have writers who believe that about the mom dropping the kid off at the carpool line, that there’s always this very much more layered psyche than you would first initially assume to be there. So it’s just exciting. And also the fact that he has a bunch of freaks and weirdoes writing for him is cool.
JON: (Laughs) Well, that is certainly true.
Chemistry is a word that is used a lot and often over used, but Megan, your relationship on screen with your cast mates is really pretty special. To what do you attribute that? How does that come about?
MEGAN: I think that I work differently with each actor based on who they are as an individual. That’s something that I think seeds a relationship on screen. I’ve also worked really hard to develop skills of listening and presence that really can stoke the fire of a relationship on screen. And I love them. I mean, I’ve grown to really love them all. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to cast an entire ensemble of actors who are all actually really wonderful, lovely people. And thank god, because this is such an ambitious production that we’re really in the trenches together on this show. And you just build a bond, and we have. So I’d say, all those things combined, that’s my responsibility. I think that they also bring their own special something to the screen that adds to that chemistry, and that can only be accredited to the casting of the show which is obviously really superior to a lot of productions. The actors that come on the show are incredible. Also I have more experience than most of the actors in the world, now that I’ve done this show. If I like could count up all the hours I’ve acted over the last two years, it’s probably more than 99% of working actors have in a lifetime.
JON: It’s weird when we go back and look at it — Megan is in damn near every scene. You go through and look at the show, it is pretty impressive.
What’s the most fun or challenging part about playing Elizabeth Keen?
MEGAN: I think it’s how different she is from myself. I’m a real pacifist. I could show you guys a picture — in fact, I’ll post it today on my Twitter — of me initially holding a gun, right before I was cast for the role. It’s pretty funny. I’ve had to develop a part of myself that was not even there. People say, “Oh, you’re such a tough girl. You’re so badass,” or whatever, however they label her. And it’s like, “No, I’m not at all.” So that’s the most fun for me is having to step up and adopt that kind of personality.
What kind of development are we going to see in this ambiguous father-daughter relationship between Red and Liz?
MEGAN: I think that’s a Jon question.
JON: How do I answer that? I think that is the tightrope that Liz is walking. Red clearly has an agenda of his own. He almost always does and there are clearly things he’s withholding from her. We don’t know if that’s for good or bad reasons, and I think the extent to which she trusts him — the extent to which she becomes like him — is sort of the territory that we’re in right now. That’s sort of the larger question and the thing that Liz is probably struggling with: what is the best way to handle this situation? What is the best way to confront this person or solve this crime? Is it the buy-the-book way which she was taught at Quantico, or is there another side of the coin that perhaps is just as good, if not better? So I think the dynamic there is sort of the reflection in herself that she might — and so the reflection of him in herself she might see — and whether that’s good or bad is a very messy sort of complex journey that’s she’s on. Things become heightened in the back half of the season, and certainly with the Super Bowl episode, the dynamic of what’s happening just plot wise within the series, sort of ratchets up. So that also is going to sort of put everything under a bit more of a microscope. But I do think there is a fine line that Liz is walking and the sort of guidance that Red is trying to give her is — and whether that’s good or bad advice that he’s giving — is sort of the crux of where we are right now.
Will we get any more kind of reveal about Tom and Red’s past together this season?
JON: We do. We certainly do even in this two-parter coming up. We dip back into the past and we answer some questions about how they’re connected. It’s interesting to me how I hear a lot that we’re spinning a lot of plays on the show and there are a lot of unanswered questions. But we sometimes answer big ones and it feels like because it’s an answer it raises more questions. I think that’s the nature of the beast. But like with Tom knowing Red — we learned at the end of our fall cliffhanger that Tom and Red know each other — and that there’s some sort of relationship that Liz doesn’t know about which to me I think is a huge answer. That is confirmation of something that we’ve been wondering about. It certainly is a big, new clue and it’s interesting to me how that yet raises another question. So we will absolutely be getting some concrete answers about their relationship. Perhaps not the entire picture, but absolutely a more clarification and more coloring on the relationship.
To find out just whose side Red and Tom are now on and what that means for Liz, be sure to tune in for an all new episode of THE BLACKLIST, which airs directly after the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 1. That episode is part 1 of the two-part story introducing Ron Perlman’s character. Then be sure to tune in for all new episodes in THE BLACKLIST’s new timeslot, Thursday nights at 9:00 p.m. on NBC, starting February 5th.
To see what Ryan Eggold had to say about the Tom Keen/Red Reddington connection, be sure to watch our exclusive interview from the Golden Globes red carpet.