Over the past three and a half seasons, Tom Keen, Ryan Eggold’s character on NBC's hit FBI drama The Blacklist, has evolved from a boring elementary school teacher to a deadly covert operative to a father searching for answers about his own past. Along the way, Eggold has had the opportunity to explore every aspect of the character as he shifted from on undercover identity to another.
With the premiere of The Blacklist: Redemption, Eggold takes Tom into uncharted territory, teaming up with the mysterious Scottie Hargrave (Famke Janssen) and her team of former Blacklisters. Ahead of the spinoff’s February 23 premiere, TVInsider spoke with Eggold about his character’s search for answers, finding he’d be at the center of the new show, and what it’s like to dodge bullets on the job.
What’s going on with Tom and how does he make the leap from The Blacklist to The Blacklist: Redemption?
Ryan Eggold: Basically, he’s sort of discovering clues and learning things about his childhood and what happened to his parents and why he was orphaned and how he ended up where he is. When we start Redemption, he basically wants to know the truth about Scottie and about his own origin. He’s sort of going undercover in her company to figure her out, and by figuring her out, sort of figuring himself out.
So what was it like finding out that the spin-off would be about Tom?
I remember Jon Bokenkamp, who is the creator of The Blacklist and Redemption, telling me that they were thinking about doing a show kind of based on—at least as a starting point—on Tom Keen. And I remember thinking how cool that would be. Tom Keen—removing myself from the equation—is an interesting character. They have written and created this character who was orphaned and who was trained methodically to become a killer and an assassin and a spy and a master of disguise. And his whole life he has been pretending to be other people, and now he’s in a relationship with [Megan Boone’s character, Elizabeth Keen], and having a child with her and discovering himself for the first time really. So, I just thought it was a great character to build a show around. But, I didn’t think it would ever happen. I thought it was like so many things in the entertainment industry and nothing more.
Ok, but be honest. You’re allowed to be psyched, to be proud of the fact that your character was chosen to star in his own show.
[Laughing] There’s no way to answer that without me sounding like a total jackass. But, I’ll tell you what’s exciting about it. The idea of having an ounce of creative input, of being more of an integral part of the show to the point that I might have say in what that show could be—and the writers, don’t get me wrong, do the massive amount of work, 99 percent—to give me one percent input is really exciting and really cool. And I love the idea of eventually being a producer or perhaps directing an episode. I love the idea of being able to contribute more than just the performance.
Tom Keen is a fascinating character, and I imagine he’s a really exciting character to play. Like you said, he’s a master of disguise, a bit of a chameleon. As an actor, is that fun to play?
Yeah, it’s something that I really hope we do more of on Redemption. And it’s definitely one of the most fun aspects in playing the character because you’re essentially playing an actor who is taking on certain parts. So, to be a guy who is pretending to be Russian or pretending to be a neo-Nazi or pretending to be a New York hustler, or whatever it is, is great. You get to play different characters within the same role and then you also, at the end of the day, have to come back to this guy. Who is he without these different masks? I love that aspect of the character.
When you’re playing Tom in disguise or when he’s adopting another persona, do you find yourself playing that persona or do you find yourself playing Tom playing that persona. Or is that even a useful distinction?
No, it is a useful distinction and it depends on the moment and on the scene. If he’s just really in full performance mode and putting on a show for somebody and trying to charm a woman to get to a hard drive—I know that’s not a sexual pun but it should be [Laughs]—then yeah, you are primarily playing the character. But then there are other scenes where if you’re trying to figure out if somebody’s onto you or if Tom’s feeling insecure that the performance isn’t working, then you have to play both those layers of the performance, the self-awareness that exists underneath that performance.
Tom has already turned down Scottie’s offer of a job. Why has he decided to work with her now?
It really has to do with a new character that we’re introducing that they—I’m not supposed to reveal the nature of the character or who he is—but, I think I can say that it’s Terry O’Quinn’s character, and he basically presents my character with new information that changes everything for him.
What’s it like working with Famke Janssen?
It’s the easiest thing in the world because she is so lovely. She is a professional and she’s a great actress. And she’s really fun, and very obviously beautiful. She has a great sense of humor. We laugh when we’re working, which doesn’t always happen on every job. And she’s collaborative. If she has an idea or if I have an idea, it’s just very easy in the best way.
Obviously, "redemption" is in the title of the show. Do you think Tom needs to be redeemed?
…Yes. I think that he has certainly committed many crimes. He’s probably assassinated people and lied to people and all these things. I think having a genuine love for Megan’s character—for Liz—and especially now having a child, and having to become a father, it develops a certain humanity in someone, something that maybe wasn’t entirely there before because he never had the family or any of that stuff. So, I think for the first time in his life, he’s developing a conscience. It’s fun because it really complicates his job. It make him less able to do his job effectively if he’s trying to look out for people. And I also think, potentially, he has forgiveness to offer. Like potentially for Scottie. We don’t know the nature of their relationship. Red says that she’s his mother. And that’s what the story is now, and with The Blacklist, things are always shifting and changing. If she’s his mother, why was he abandoned?
Your job involves filming a lot of action scenes. What is it like to get shot at and to run for your life and getting into physical fights on a pretty regular basis?
Unless you’re a soldier or doing something like this in real life—and my hat’s way off to the people who have to deal with this kind of danger in real life, whether it’s law enforcement or soldiers—but as a civilian like myself, you don’t get to do this in real life. You don’t get to run, and you don’t get to do it with a happy ending at the end of the story. You’re doing a lot of crazy stunts, but it’s always made safe and it just becomes tremendously fun. But the best thing that I love about it is that it turns your brain off in a great way. I mean, when you’re doing a scene with a lot of dialogue, you either have to follow some kind of emotional journey or some kind of intellectual discussion. But when you’re doing action it’s much more physical, it’s much more athletic, it’s much more in your body. So, it’s really fun to be more instinctual with it. And when bullets are going off near your head, you react like any human being would react. And when you get into a car crash you react how you would. It’s tied into human instincts that are basic in the best way, which is what I love about it.
You’re much more present when you’re actually reacting.
Totally! You’re very present. And there’s a weird thing that happens where, when you are truly present in the scene, when it’s over you can’t really recall what happened. And that happens a lot with action.
I assume lots of people have stress dreams about their jobs. I can’t imagine what yours are like.
[Laughs] Yeah sometimes there’s residual worlds that you will dream in, with fight scenes and gunfire. And the other thing about action is you get banged up, you know? And obviously, I’ve been lucky enough to not sustain any serious injuries. But, if you do it you always come home with, like, a cut on your knee and a bruise on your elbow and like a scrape here and your finger’s bleeding. You know, that’s par for the course. There’s that physical residue, as well, on your body for days after.
The Blacklist: Redemption, Thursdays beginning Feb. 23, 10/9c, NBC