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Spader has a new look for drama series ‘The Blacklist’

James Spader, pictured in July 2013. Getty Images

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – In real life, James Spader doesn’t seem all that menacing.

He’s downright cheerful as he arrives for an interview, playfully doffing his summer-ish fedora and placing it on a table on top of a reporter’s digital recorder.

Hatless, however, the newly shorn Spader has a decidedly different look.

The Pretty in Pink actor wanted to mix it up for his role as a criminal mastermind who cuts a shocking deal with the FBI in the fall’s most promising new network thriller, The Blacklist.

The three-time Emmy-winner plays the notorious Raymond (Red) Reddington who, for decades, has given the FBI fits as one of their most wanted fugitives. In Monday’s pilot (10 p.m. on NBC and Global), he takes off a darker wide-brimmed fedora, gets down on his knees in the foyer of FBI headquarters in Washington and surrenders.

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He does so, however, on his own terms: he will help the agency catch a long-thought-dead terrorist provided he speaks only to a rookie agent, Elizabeth (Liz) Keen (Megan Boone of Law & Order: Los Angeles).

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As they work through Reddington’s long “blacklist” of enemies, the two are forced together into a cat-and-mouse relationship reminiscent of the main players in Silence of the Lambs.

Spader says the Silence of the Lambs impression disappears after the pilot.

It’s not the first time the Boston-born actor has played creepy or sinister. In his early films, such as Pretty in Pink, he had the bored swagger of an Ivy League lout. In Sex, Lies and Videotape and Crash, danger and perversity lurked right below an icy calm exterior.

Now 53, Spader has worked hard to broaden his persona through a diverse series of film, TV and stage roles, including his recent stint on The Office.

Showing up for The Blacklist with closely cropped hair was all Spader’s idea. Part of it was his eagerness to cut any past impressions with the audience.

“Actors are burdened with everything else they’ve done before in any role they’re playing,” he told a room full of critics at this summer’s press tour, “and I thought it would be nice to take off my hat and it’s an entirely different person.”

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When he read the script for The Blacklist, his gut reaction was that Reddington was the kind of guy who “moves around a lot and moves swiftly,” he reasoned, “and I just thought he seemed like someone who would be streamlined.”

Spader says he “made the mistake” of discussing the idea with the producers, who were probably hoping to market the suave Spader fans loved on The Practice, not some bald-looking baddie. Eventually, Spader’s vision of the character’s look prevailed.

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