This Is How You Build a TV Career, According to NBC Star Megan Boone

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Photo Source: Matt Doyle

Over the course of her acting career, Megan Boone’s goal has been to play women with something to say. As Deputy District Attorney Lauren Stanton on NBC’s short-lived “Law & Order: LA,” Boone played a character fighting for justice. In “Leave Me Like You Found Me,” the independent film that won her a Gen Art Film Festival award, Boone delivered an intimate performance that spoke to how relationships impact personality. And now, seven seasons into NBC’s “The Blacklist,” Boone is taking on a federal agent looking to understand both the world and herself.

The show follows Red Reddington (James Spader), a wanted fugitive who voluntarily surrenders after eluding capture for decades. Armed with a list of the world’s most dangerous criminals, he demands to work solely with FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Boone). It’s a high-stakes drama that leans into plot twists and a maze of character secrets that have kept viewers tuning in.

Boone’s character is a female agent of change on a major network series during a time when these sorts of roles are finally increasing—and it’s not by accident. “I have hated being a cipher, being a nonhuman entity,” Boone explains, pausing to mull over her words. “I once had a man on set say to me, ‘You’re just here to look pretty and stand next to me.’ And while that is a jerk thing to say, he wasn’t wrong.”

In a conversation at 61 Local, a rustic bar and café set in a former carriage house in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, Boone sips a latte as she muses about the ups and downs she’s faced over the years. For her, acting is all about learning and growing, and Boone is happy to open up about everything from her approach to character to exacting agency in your career.

Take us back to the first time you really fell in love with acting and performance.

When we came to New York when I was about 7 or 8, it was my first time ever being exposed to theater. I had watched movies; I was pretty devoted to entertainment and movies. My aunt had a cover band and she sang “Walk Like an Egyptian” and all those playful songs from the ’80s. I loved watching her. These were the times I was in awe. I had already played around with dance class and performance, but when I was in the theater and the lights went down, my heart came alive. I felt a ping, sort of an elated energy and feeling. I was just taken away, and the theater has never put me down. I’ve definitely been [working on] a TV show for seven years, but it really is the theater where I come alive.

What is it about theater that captured your attention so strongly?

I think it’s that shared experience that’s happening now and only now. I think it’s a special social experience where you’re in a group of people as an audience member. I’ve heard that your heart rate can end up matching the heart rate of the whole audience when you’re together, so there is a connection that’s happening that transcends normal human social relationships. I really want to transcend those relationships, because I think our species has to continue to evolve in order to be healthy. I think a really good place to do that is in the theater and in the storytelling tradition.

So, then, what was it about the “The Blacklist” that made you want to be a part of it?

I was really ready at that moment in my life to move on from being an unknown actor who was having a hard time getting access to the kinds of roles I want to play. I was really looking for something that was going to put me in the game. And when I read this pilot, I would say that it was more of an instinct that I had that it was going to be popular. This sort of logical side of my brain needed to find something to be involved in that was popular in order to get out of my current circumstance. Being an actress in your 20s—before #MeToo, before Time’s Up, before there was any awareness that women were basically being portrayed as ciphers—being an ingenue is really, really mind-numbing. It’s not why I got into this work. I wanted to explore big ideas, and I wanted to get into storytelling that would transform me and the audience at the same time.

During your time on “The Blacklist,” you’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of influential stars, not least of which is your co-star James Spader. Has working with these actors affected your own acting at all?

I was easily intimidated as a young woman by people who I admired. Now, the mystique has lifted, and I’m very comfortable, no matter who I meet, seeing that person as another human being who I’m interested in and I’m open to. I think that part of adoration shuts you down from actually relating to a person, and now I can be much more capable as a performer when I’m working with someone I’ve encountered throughout my life, just really relating to that person and not being intimidated.
On “The Blacklist” (Photo Source: Will Hart/NBC)

I remember in the first season, Dianne Wiest came up to me. Usually [the celebrities] break the ice, because you’re young, and if they’re as famous as Dianne was, they know you’re feeling a little uncomfortable. She said something like, “Oh, honey, I watched the pilot and I came to do this show because of you. You’re so good.” They say stuff like that, and you know it’s not true—they’re there because James Spader’s a genius—but you’re like, “OK, you’re making me feel more comfortable.”

Were you able to take that comfort and dive deep into your character?

Our show is really plot-driven, not so much character-driven. I’ve had to stop clinging to character choices and cling more to “How do I continue to be a container for the story they’re trying to tell?”

Was that easy for you, forgoing that characterization to center your acting around an ever-evolving story?

What I enjoy about acting is the social aspect of it, because there are other things that I could do that would require the same synapses. I love reading prose and I love poetry and I love language, which is a part of it. But the thing that makes me come alive with acting is that I’m with other people learning, and it’s that connection I really crave because growing up in my family, I was always a loner. I didn’t fit in. I’m very different from them. I wanted to find a community, and I think this motley crew, actors and directors and theater people, it excites me!

I also like the surprise that you don’t know what to expect from day to day. Even on a show that’s been running for seven years, when there are so many things I’m comfortable with and I know to expect, there are still surprises. That’s true for life but not all professions.

I’d love to hear about how things started for you on the business side. How did you get your agent?

I produced a play. I borrowed money from my grandfather, and I promised him I’d pay him back. I ended up being $3,000 short—I paid him back $7,000—because theater doesn’t make any money. It was enough to rent a theater space and buy secondhand clothes for the costumes and to get a publicist. So I would send the reviews of my play to agents and managers, and I got some people out to see my play. Some of them I met with, and they were flaky. They said they were going to do things and they didn’t. I quickly moved on. I cut and run, like, “This isn’t working.” I’m a loyal person, but I was at a time in my life when I realized a transition needed to happen; I need to become a working actor and this person is not going to help me. I’m not going to try to placate to them to get them to help me; I just want to find someone who will.

That’s a good point you bring up, that the business people you interact with are just trying to do their job. How do you deal with knowing when it’s time to let go for your own growth?

If you are young and creative, I think the most important thing you need to do is spend time alone figuring out who you are, what you want, and what your voice is as an artist. Make sure that the people you’re working with take an interest in that. What’s going to happen is they’re going to try to make as much money off you as possible—that’s what they’re incentivized to do. You need to hold on to your brain. You have to play the game to a degree to stay in it, but you also have to make sure that you find a good balance that you can maintain your own integrity throughout. Make sure the relationship that you develop with that person starts as an equitable relationship with clear dynamics and good communication about what it is you want.

Starting with a strong foundation will help you build a solid career. Did you learn that lesson before you were on “The Blacklist,” or was there an instance when you knew that you didn’t have that mutual respect you needed?

There are so many assumptions about who you are in the public eye, and I didn’t know how to have resistance to that. I had a photo shoot when I first got “The Blacklist.” It was a week before the shoot and, to put this in context, my life was moving faster than I had ever experienced, I was getting less sleep than I had ever before, and I was being asked more of than I had ever been. They sent me a picture of Emmy Rossum in see-through lingerie and said, “This is the creative for the shoot.” And I said, “No, it’s not!”

I called my manager, I called my publicist, and I said, “I’m not comfortable with this. I’m a more modest person. Is there any way we could find a happy medium?” And no one listened to me. I’ve since moved on from the people I was working with at that time, but I ended up showing up to the shoot and they had all these things I was uncomfortable wearing. I ended up in tears at that shoot, because I was put in an uncomfortable position because there was an assumption that since I was a woman and I was now in the public eye, it was time to take my clothes off. I don’t know how much that happens now—this was over six years ago—but I think that’s an important message for young people: You have to decide what you want to do with your life and stick to it.

Is there any other advice that you would give anyone trying to get their start in the industry?

Since Backstage is for the working actor who is reading breakdowns and who is just starting to get their first and second and third, you know, their first few roles—even some people still trying to find agents and get their foot in the door—I would say, to women and men, being young in this industry is hard not only because of the financial strain and the difficulty finding the roles that you want, but because, for some reason, in storytelling, we have not been able to give personhood to the young. It’s happening politically. We don’t give them the right to vote. It isn’t until you mature that real, human roles become available to you, become available to explore. I would say, if you’re young, if you have an iPhone, make a movie. Start exploring the things that you want to explore right now, and not for the sake of attention. Not so that you have content for Instagram or YouTube, but because you’re an artist and you have something to say.

It’s all about getting that content out there, no matter the platform. Sometimes, all those hoops of the traditional entertainment industry are more limiting than helpful.

You have to be careful, because you can end up well into your adulthood and realize, The career that I wanted didn’t materialize, and it’s because I approached it with a sense of desperation rather than a sense of purpose.

Inspired? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

Photographed by Matt Doyle on Sept. 18 at 61 Local