NEW YORK - They set "The Blacklist" in Washington, but in truth it inhabits a Manhattan studio where "Law & Order" lived for two decades. Judging from its out-of-the-gate robust ratings, good reviews and swift full-season pickup, this new NBC crime thriller could be settling in for a long stay of its own.
One day last week, filming dwelled in the FBI's cavernous, mood-lit War Room, where world-class criminal "Red" Reddington has held forth since, for reasons unknown, he surrendered to authorities to help them catch the high-profile outlaws he used to assist. Even more puzzling, he has agreed to switch sides on the strict condition that he only deals with rookie FBI profiler Liz Keen.
These unlikely partners are played by James Spader and Megan Boone, and an all-important chemistry between them clicked right away, like the rest of the series, which arrived last month with remarkable sure-footedness, spared any hint of new-show confusion and doubt.
"Oh," laughs Spader on hearing this assessment, "there's a LOT of confusion and doubt! We don't know WHAT we're doing yet! But we're getting it done. By Monday night at 10 o'clock" - Eastern time, he means - "we're getting it done!"
Spader, a veteran of dozens of films as well as TV series that include "Boston Legal" and "The Office," has fastened on a short break from filming to step into the afternoon sunshine, light a cigarette and talk with a reporter over the roar of 12th Avenue traffic.
"I might have been looking for him," Spader muses when asked how he came to play Reddington. "I wanted someone who was irreverent, and, even at the most difficult times, saw the irony in the world around him. And he's really not afraid of the unknown. I don't think he's afraid of much."
Reddington - glib, charismatic but beneath it all, a bad guy - finds his ideal counterpoint in Liz, a good guy plagued by doubts about her husband's true identity, her own unsettled career and, most of all, why Reddington has chosen her as his information conduit.
"I fought for that role," Boone says during an interview later in the studio's lunchroom, where she leaves no doubt she is dining out on Liz.
"It's a good fit," Boone declares. "She's got a lion's heart and feet made of clay. She's kind of a loner. There's something inside her that's always hidden from everyone in her life. I have those elements in my personality."
Boone made her film debut in the cult hit "My Bloody Valentine" and had a supporting role in "Sex and the City 2." On TV, she starred in the short-lived "Law & Order: LA."
She says her "Blacklist" co-star has been "really supportive. He believes in me more than I believe in myself sometime." Even so, does she feel intimidated going head-to-head with a veteran actor like Spader?
"Of COURSE!" she chortles. "But the intimidation is helpful: If you're playing my part and you're not intimidated by Red Reddington, there's something wrong. So I incorporate every feeling I have into my scenes with him. That's what makes it honest and alive."
Spader agrees they're in sync.
"Megan is incredibly eager and game, and with very little experience - and very open about that," he says. "Our relationship is a function of the relationship of the characters in the show. So it works pretty well for both of us."
And like the characters, the actors who play them remain in the dark about mysteries "The Blacklist" is spinning.
"The things that I'm sure about have to do with Liz's character," says Boone, "and not the circumstances of her life. Those seem really ambiguous and up for grabs right now."
"I know enough for me to be able to do my job," says Spader. "If I have a question because I can't wrap my head around something, I get an answer to it. That's all I want to know."
It's a show that trades on secrets, as does its stars, one of whom, despite her breakout role in a breakout series, continues to live largely incognito.
Boone reports that friends ask if, after "The Blacklist" hit the air, anyone began recognizing her on the street.
"I say, `WHAT street?!' I get into the production van in the morning, I go to set, I go home at night. I don't GO on the streets."
But maybe there's another reason no one picks her out.
"After work, I take my hair off," she confides, giving her long, brown tresses a tug. "This is a wig. Underneath it, I have short hair."