James Spader is made uneasy when the talk turns to his personal go-go years. He purses his lips and casts a disapproving, prep-school look over the top of his horn-rims. He drops long pauses into the stream of patter that flows like water from his lips. Hesitantly, Spader says, "It was a strange period in my life. And I...I...indulged the strangeness to great lengths." Spader skirts the talk of past excess because that period has been superseded by a new, domesticated-model James Spader.
At 30, he is a husband and a father now, a man of the land who just bought his first house-in the state where he grew up, Massachusetts-next door to his parents'. Spader's friends complain that he never goes out anymore, that he'd prefer that all his films be shot in his living room. It feels like a significant achievement to have coaxed him out to this bar south of Boston, not far from his home.
The place is warm and wood-paneled in the tradition of an English club, with framed racehorse prints on the wall. But the luxe atmosphere is mocked by the silence in the nearly empty room. The place ought to be crowded with homeward-bound yuppies from the high-tech belt around Boston. Instead, the barkeeper leans over to confide, "Tonight is horrendous. Business stinks, to be honest with you. Everywhere." The Massachusetts Miracle is over. The days of high-rolling, debt-financed expansion are done. Trump is on an allowance from his bankers, and Jack Kemp calls himself a bleeding-heart conservative. Caring is in, and greed is out.
There was a time in James Spader's career when he portrayed the excesses of yuppie scum more regularly and with more bravado than did any other actor in the movies. In Baby Boom, he was a smarmy young exec who stole Diane Keaton's job. In Wall Street, he was a corporate lawyer who succumbed to insier trading. Even when he wasn't wearing a yellow tie, Spader managed, in Less Than Zero, to suggest the eerie parallels between a Machiavellian yuppie and a predatory coke dealer. His roled were a catalogue of the worst sins of the 1980's. More or less coincidentally, Spader experiences his own years of excess during the mid-Eighties. "I think I was trying to test the limits of what can connote a good time," he says. "It manifested itself in self-destructiveness, or whatever." Then, hearing his words, he grows self-conscious. "I don't really want to go into this because I get sick of people traipsing out their tough times. Everybody goes through strange periods where they're experimenting in their dark corners. I guess I get sick of people talking about their olden days and then the reforming periods." He lights a cigarette. Times change. People change.
Like someone with a hangover after a decade-long party, the 1990s have begun in the slow lane. In his new movie, White Palace, Spader is playing another yuppie, an advertising man, but this time he's a yuppie chastened and made human. He falls for a waitress at a fast-food restaurent played by Susan Sarandon. At first, Spader's character is ashamed to be seen with his uneducated, must older girlfriend; he hides her from his friends and office mates. Then she shocks him by walking out. Desperate, he turns his back on his yup-scale world in order to win her back. With its successful executive and unlikely, lower-class Cinderella, the movie is similar in theme to this year's biggest hit, Pretty Woman. After years of playing a steady stream of supporting characters, and following his insinuating, breakthrough performance as the sexually blocked Graham in Sex, Lies & Videotape, Spader has achieved a new profile for a new decade. "He's going to be perceived in a completely different way after this," says Sarandon. "I think he's really a leading man."
On location in St. Louis for White Palace (adapted from the Glenn Savan novel), Spader was a thoroughly settled man. He came with his wife, Victoria, and their 1-year-old son, Sebastian. No wonder this paragon of domesticity fidgets at the mention of his bad old days. Yet Spader was never as corrupt as any of the rats he played. He's always been a combination of innocence and perversity. At one point, drinking heavily, he believed self-destruction was imminent and so attended some AA meetings. But according to a longtime friend, Gerry Harrington, a Hollywood talent mangaer, Spader was never a drunk. "If Jimmy goes out and drinks for three days in a row, he'll think that makes him an alcoholic, and then he goes two years without drinking," says Harrington. "He tends to glamorize and hyperbolize everything." Spader's new house, which is on a body of water called Buzzards Bay, once belonged to his grandparents. Spaders have lived in the same small town for four or five generations. By all accounts, they are like a family out of a Cheever novel, a clan with many harmless Yankee eccentricities. On the Fourth of July, Spaders of all ages dress in funny costumes and march in a procession known as the Horribles Parade. "The stranger the better," says Jimmy. "But it's never really gotten strange enough for me."
He grew up during the school year on the campus of Brooks School, the Massachusetts boarding school where his father, Todd Spader, taught English. His mother, Jean, was also a teacher. Jimmy went to Phillips Academy, in Andover, one of the country's most prestigious prep schools, where he virtually ignored academic subjects in favor of the theater. During his first semester, he was cast in an absurdist one-act play by fellow student Peter Sellars, the future boy-wonder theater director. At the end of eleventh grade, Spader resolved to drop out and move to New York. "He was not like some big star at Andover," says his ex-classmate Christian Clemenson, who played Spader's brother in this year's Bad Influence. "But he was obsessed with being a professional actor." To Spader's friends, the move seemed rash and even dangerous. "I was scared for him," admits Clemenson, who followed Spader's progress through the lower depths. "One day I arrived at college and my roommates described this wild person from New York with long hair and fringed leather jacket who had sat in the bathtub waiting for me, drinking a six-pack. Of course I knew it was Spader."
Despite the family's academic tradition-Spader's two older sisters both became teachers-his parents backed their son's decision to drop out. "I think the wonderful thing about his parents is they really allow the children to become individuals and choose their own course," says actor Eric Stoltz, one of James' oldest friends in the business. "It's a very loving and supportive family. And loud. I was there at Christmas one time, and you have to fight for conversation time, and it has to be loud. Jimmy's the worst; he's always trying to upstage everyone."
When he first came to New York, Spader took acting classes and worked a series of grunt jobs. He bused tables, was a messenger and shoveled manure at the Claremont Riding Academy. One day he went with his sister to a health club and ended up conning his way into a position as a yoga instuctor there. The extent of his training was to buy a book about yoga from a supermarket checkout stand. It was at the club that he met Victoria, his future wife, who taught the class that followed him. "I used to fall asleep in my class," Spader remembers. "I kept telling her I'd love to make her dinner sometime. We kept sort of meaning to see each other outside of work and just sort of get laid, you know? One day she said, "You want to smoke a joint after work?" I said, 'Sure.' We went and did that and I walked her home. It got to be that every night I'd walk her home and we'd talk and sometimes smoke a joint or just wander the streets of New York. I'd stop off at a grocery store and make her dinner and clean up afterward and go home. And, um, then we started living together. We got laid somewhere in there, in the middle of all that." The two have a most un-Hollywood relationship. They have been together eleven years, through they only married in 1987. He seems devoted. He's been known to call her hourly when they're on opposite coasts. Those who know them say they are a union of complementary opposites: Victoria, who works as a Hollywood set decorator, is stable, quiet and down-to-earth, while Jimmy is prone to flights of fancy and can be maddeningly self-absorbed. "Jimmy's got a huge heart, but when it comes to small things he can be completely unmovable and petty," says Gerry Harrington with a laugh. Once, Spader was on the phone to Victoria long-distance from Eric Stoltz's apartment, while Stoltz was downstairs with some friends anticipating a call that would let him know whether he'd been cast in Some Kind of Wonderful, a big break. As an experiment, Stoltz had the operator do an emergency interrupt claiming to have Stoltz's agent on the line; Spader refused to yield. Then Stoltz called with an emergency interrupt from Spader's agent-and Spader immediately took the call. Spader's friends howled with laughter. "You bastards!" he shouted.
Before there was a Jimmy Spader ensconced in domestic bliss, there was a guy who sought out live music in blues dumps from Greenwich Village to West Los Angeles; who dragged friends to a strip joint called the Seventh Veil, on Hollywood Boulevard; who, at the drop of a hat, would hop into his vintage Porsche and tear off on road trips lasting for weeks. Sometimes the trunk would contain items from his extensive collection of knives and crossbows. "One time we were in Flordia making a picture together," says Stoltz, "I remember a couple of us were extremely nervous because Jim was speeding, the music was blasting, and he was doing eighty-five in a fifty-five zone with a trunkful of weapons. He was like the Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now - somehow he knows he'll never get hit by a bomb, so he never wasted the energy thinking about it. Meanwhile, all his friends were sweating up a storm."
Though he was in several teen movies with such Brat Packers as Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr., Spader never ran with them, never haunted Hollywood parties or clubs where young actors go to be recognized. "I think he kind of has an aversion to actors and actresses in general," says his friend Harley Peyton, who wrote the screenplay for Less Than Zero. For years, Spader's social life revolved around a big colonial house on Hollywood Boulevard, where he rented an apartment when he was in L.A. The house was owned by director Damian Harris and his wife, Annabel. "One never knew exactly who else would be living there," says Stoltz, another tenant. "In this environment we formed a very tight group of friends." They'd make dinner together, talk all night or venture out to hear music, one of Spader's major pastimes. He has a record collection numbering about 1,000 albums. He professes to be a great blues afieronado, but his friends have their doubts. They say his taste is more in the album cover: He'll buy twenty records because he loves their covers, then throw them into a pile with the shrink-wrap still on. Once, after a blues show in Hollywood, Harrington recalls, "We were out in the parking lot and Jimmy was relieving himself against a car. A guy comes up and says, 'Hey, you, that's my car.' Jimmy turned around, still relieving himself, and the guy says, 'Wait, aren't you that guy from Pretty in Pink?' Jimmy says, "Why, yes I am.' The guy says, 'I know a great party that's going on.' So we drive up to this party. We got up to a great house in Beverly Hills and spent till six in the morning drinking and listening to music. Jimmy kept telling the host he needed better records, he only had Roxy Music and David Bowie. Then he started to get angry because the more he listened the more he liked it, and he was worried he was going to have to go out and buy all the David Bowie albums all the Roxy Music records. Then he started getting really depressed."
Spader's ventures into the night ended abruptly a little over a year ago, with the birth of his son. Sensing that things would change, he called Harley Peyton from the hospital after the delivery. "He was ecstatic and deliriously happy and clearly wanted to go out and talk a mile a minute and get things sorted out about being a family man," says Peyton. They ended up at the Seventh Veil, closing the place down at 2 A.M. Since then, Spader's life has turned inward. He dr ives a Volvo family wagon now, and rents a house in the Hollywood Hills surrounded by trees, which gives him the illusion of living in the country. He is cocooned. Along with his record collection, novels fill the house. The walls are covered with photographs; in the kitchen, pictures of his very close family; on big mirrored doors in the bedroom, scores of snapshots of friends. These days, this is as close as he gets to many of his friends. "It's like pulling teeth trying to get him to leave his house," says Stoltz. Harrington adds, "He'll go down the hill in the daytime sometimes, but usually you get these very feeble invitations, like 'Victoria and I are going for a walk tomorrow and we'd like you to come with us.' That's the shabbiest red carpet that's ever been rolled out for me. But that's the way it is these days."
Back in Massachusetts, Spader has issued another of his feeble invitations to go for a walk not far from his new house, along the Cape Cod Canal. The canal is a big ditch that seperated the Cape from the mainland. A paved path follows its bank, with a view of the fast green water and of the boats motoring between Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay. Spader, in an Oakland A's cap and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt (one of a reportedly vast collection), sips from a huge take-out cup of iced coffee, which he calls his "vat o' coffee." "You know, when you choose to make your living as an actor, it's all fine and good to look at it as some kind of artistic endeavor," he says. "At its best, it is that. But the fact is, most of the actors out there don't earn $3 million a picture and can't afford to take two years off between films and look for the right thing. Most of us are tradesmen. Acting for me, is a passion, but it's also a job, and I've always approached it as such. I have a certain manual-laborist view of acting. There's no shame in taking a film because you need some money. No shame in taking a film because you have always wanted to visit China. I was thinking about this last night as I was driving home. I started to go back through the different films I've done, and the television movies I've done and I started to think about why I chose tham at that time. And I realized, every single film I've ever done I've taken because of the money. Every single one. I'm nost ashamed to say that." This is not to say that Spader will take just anything, but if he's in financial straits, he'll say yes to a part he might ordinarily have passed on. In the cast of True Colors, due out this month, he liked the script and admired his costar, John Cusack. But that alone wouldn't have gotten him to the set. "Bottom line," he says, "I took True Colors because it enabled me to buy my grandparents' house. And that was more important to me. I didn't want to see a place that had all the ghosts that had disappear. I knew what I had to do, and that was go out and find a job. If I don't need the money, I don't work," he continues. "I'm going to spend time with my family and friends, and I'm going to travel and read and listen to music and try to learn a little bit more about how to be a human being, as op pose d to learning how to be somebody else."
Spader's hard-boiled attitude toward his work echoes that of such personal heroes as John Huston, Charles Laughton and especially Humphrey Bogart. Like Bogie, Spader affects a grand-scale romantic cynicism. He bites off words as he slowly forms his sentences, and he swallows his laughter as if chuckling over his own private jokes. With a flick of his Forties-style Zippo, he lights a cigarette, snapping the lid shut with a dissolute but elegant click. It's hard to know how much of this is a pose. On the one hand, Spader was obsessed enough with making it as an actor to drop out of prep school. On the other hand, he has fled Hollywood and New York to be near his family, in a corner of America where the last thing he's likely to be taken for is a movie star. Safe in the knowledge that he won't be recognized, he shouts a jaunty hello to all who come toward him along the canal. At a trailer park, he waves to an old man in a cap emblazoned with "WARREN CO. HOOK AND LADDER." "Wouldn't it be interesting to live in a trailer park?" Spader muses aloud. "That guy's probably been a fireman for forty years. I bet you could spend a couple of hours sitting there, cooking some steaks and drinking some beer with him."
Spader got his first feature film, Endless Love, while doing manual labor. He was working as a janitor at a rehearsal studio in Times Square, a would-be actor without an agent. One day his boss sneaked Spader's picture into a pile of others on the table of a casting agent using the studio, and Spader got a call to come right away to read. As it happened, his mother was in town; they'd been about to leave for a museum. "My mother was all dressed up in her wool suit and white gloves and ready to go to the Picasso exhibit," says Spader. "But instead we rode down to the studio on the subway. I took her with me. I was the only one to bring my mom." He was offered the small role of Brooke Shields's brother. "The next day after that I met Tom Cruise." Cruise was also making his film debut in a bit part. But whereas Cruise was soon to take off on a jet-fueled cocktail-shaking rider that would make him Hollywood's leading star, Spader's career spluttered. A different flight plan was filed for him. He didn't appear in another feature for four years. When he did begin to work steadily in movies, it was in a string of supporting roles. Despite Spader's common-man aspirations, casting agents picked up on his preppy breeding-his cool detachment, and air of privilege easily worn-and they frequently cast his as a yuppie from hell. He endured a succession of lesser roles while many of his contemporaries leapfrogged over him. It's uncertain whether this situation truly frustrated Spader. Friends joke that, typically, he was too self-involved to measure his career against anyone else's. "Frankly, you had to drag him out to go and see a movie, even if his best friend was in it," says Stoltz. "You had to beg, 'Please, Jim, I'm in a movie and it's really good. ' Eric, I just don't want to leave the house.' He'd much rather sit around and chat than sit through a movie."
Spader worked hard to make his character roles memorable. Here he'd change a bit of dialogue, there he'd bring an intelligent detail to the part. Critics notived and wrote glowingly of him. "The character roles have always been the most intriguing to me," Spader says. "And those actors that have been able to turn those roles into a career and into the leads in films are the ones that hold my admiration and respect." Actors like Bogart, Cagney, Nicholson. Actors who weren't cast for their looks but for their ability to deeply inhabit a part, which comes only after years of marinating in life's juices. In the movies he's seen in the past year, Spader says he most would have liked to play "one of the three guys sitting again the wall in Do the Right Thing."
Luis Mandoki, who directed Spader in White Palace, says, "He has the ability that great actors have that makes you feel there's a character living inside, that they're not just saying the lines and feeling the feelings of the moment, but there's a whole background, the way we all have." Susan Sarandon says that before Spader came along, she'd despaired of finding a costar. "I read with every male actor between 22 and 27. All those people with two first names, everybody. They wanted someone very young, but it's very difficult to find somebody that young who approaches it as a character part, as an acting part. Most men in that age bracket are asked to be charming and sexy and have personality. They're not asked to get weird and complicated and have a sense of humor." Sarandon says the film will establish Spader as a leading man-"if the sex works." The two have some incredibly steamy scenes, including their first encounter, when Spader is sleeping on Sarandon's couch and she virtually attacks him. "It starts where most sex scenes end," says Sarandon. "She forces him to be aroused, she forces his to kiss her, she makes him ask for more." During filing of this scene, Spader, who has rarely been asked to do screen sex, handled the situation with aplomb. "I tink I was more uptight than he was," Sarandon recalls. "He was very protective, actually. It's so funny doing something like that. You kind of figure out where everything is, because everything's not where it really is, you know?" Previously, no studio had been willing to take a chance on Spader as a sympathetic leading man.
It took a low-budget, independant film to prove how shortsighted the studios had been. After winning the best actor award at Cannnes, in 1989, for his role in Sex, Lies and Videotape, offers of good-guy roles came pouring in: for Bad Influence, with Rob Lowe, White Palace and True Colors, and others passed up. It's a surprise to learn that Spader himself did not have high expectations for Sex, Lies and Videotape. He called one friend while on location in Baton Rouge to say he couldn't wait to bust out of town. To another friend, he said he was certain the film was a mistake. Some of this simply may have been Spader's way of protecting himself; he often bad-mouths his movies in private before they're released. This summer, when Spader was called to L.A. to reshoot the ending of White Palace, Christian Clemenson reported, "He's convinced they're doing reshoots for one reason and one reason only; He sucks." But director Mandoki says the film's ending was rewritten to condense three scenes into one and to punch up the emotions. Spader hadn't blown it at all. "Jimmy's perfectionist, which in one way is great because he challenges himself every day," says Mandoki. "And on the other hand, it makes life miserable sometimes. You feel you never live up to your own expectations. Things are so great for him right now in his life, except he can always find things to worry about," says Clemenson. This is a different Jimmy Spader. Not the hard-boiled ordinary guy who says acting is like manual labor. Not the self-absorbed character who likes to tell his stories over everyone else's. "Jimmy's very egocentric, but he's also very charming," says Gerry Harrington. "The main thing about his is he's got a lot of anxiety, and a lot of fears that offset the ego, and that's what makes him vulnerable and really likable."
It can take a while to get down to this layer of Spader's personality, the level of everyday human anxiety. Only after two or three hours of talking and walking along the canal, walking and talking, does he allow the conversation to come around to what for him is a fairly loaded subject: the pivotal place that Sex, Lies and Videotape occupies in his career. At first he says dismissively that he took it for the paycheck. Then he denies that his previous roles were so similar that he needed to break out of being typecast. "I never clumped any of those roles together," he says. "They all seemed to be very different people to me. I was never worried about getting typecast until I started doing publicity. It wasn't until journalists started saying to me, 'Well, so you've played all these similar roles,' and I started going, 'Geez, I thought I was telling different stories and doing different films here.' But maybe I wasn't." Finally, Spader drops the defensiveness and admits, "a certain amount of what I'm saying is self-protection. Yes, I knew the role I was getting into in Sex, Lies and Videotape was certainly different from what I'd done in the past." And wasn't he eager to show he could play a sympathetic leading man? "To deny that would be lying. I did want to do something that was very different. But I guess the reason I'm fighting agreeing with this is that I did enjoy every one of those pictures. I wouldn't give them back for something else right now. With hindsight, you can say, right, after I did Sex, Lies and Videotape, all of a sudden things opened up in a way that hadn't happened before. But I didn't expect that. I took the film because I was interested in doing that part. Looking at work as stepping-stones is something I don't have any time or energy for. It seems a shame to look at your work as some sort of means to an end, because the end is death, you know? The means is the flesh and blood, so you'd better enjoy it." Does this new status as a leading man make him nervous? "I'm always nervous. I'm nervous when I wake up in the morning. I think you have to be sort of satisfied with a divine dissatisfaction. That's actually a quote, but I've forgotten who said it."
His tone is honest and self-questioning,
absent of any smugness. But at the same time, all the poking behind
his tough exterior has make him uncomfortable. He grows more distant
by the minute and feels the need to look for cover. Seated on the back
of the bench, he follows a bright-red barge floating by. A boy on a
bike stops to wave to the boat from the shore. The tug toots back. Spader
contemplates the meaning of this gentle scene. Abruptly, he turns and
announces, "I want to go home and see my son now."