Spader Made Easy"
I've asked to see the key ring because of a memorable scene in sex, lies and videotape. In that movie, Spader plays the role of Graham, the unsettled and unsettling force behind the story, who brags that he only has one key-to his car. "The car's important," he says. "You got to be mobile."
There's a tinge of exasperation as Spader brings out HIS keys. Of course, there was a tinge of exasperation when I asked to watch him work, visit his home or find some way of seeing him in action. "I don't invite journalists to go grocery shopping with me," he says. "My personal life is not for public consumption." Spader won't even meet me for lunch at a restaurant; meals, it seems, are meant for pleasure; and interviews are business. If I want to spend time with James Spader, my only option is to join him on one of his occasional hikes at dusk through the Hollywood hills. There's a catch, of course. I must promise not to revel the location of the trail, keeping it private for the 30-year-old actor and his friends.
Later, I would talk to people who would tell me stories about a completely different Spader-one who talks openly, perhaps even excessively. Among his close-knit group of friends, he is known as an eccentric raconteur, a habitue of strip joints, a collector of off-beat weapons and a fan of loud music. They love Spader, the outrageous character, and they'll gladly talk about him. But not Spader. He grants interviews guardedly and avoids late-night talk shows. Even high in the Hollywood hills - on his own terms - he's more than amiable but less than loquacious.
He does show me his key ring, however: a tiny suitcase key, keys for his Porsche and his new Volvo station wagon, a garage key, a gate key, three house keys and a miniature black Swiss Army knife, all dangling from a simple round key ring. "See," he says, "nothing special."
With some prodding, he also admits that he recently bought a video camera of his own, a slight irony, perhaps, given the role video cameras play in both sex, lies and videotape(Graham uses the camera for sexual release)and Bad Influence(in which his character finds his life changed when an acquaintance - played by Rob Lowe, no less -secretly tapes him having sex). Of course Spader bought his camera for a more prosaic reason to chronicle the early life and times of his infant son, Sebastian.
"Sebastian doesn't move very much yet, so the camera is collecting dust, "Spader says dismissively. "Besides, I don't even know how to use it. I'm not very good with mechanical things. "No, the salesman hadn't recognized him. "I must say, it's very amusing to me to see you trying to tie this together. None of this crossed my mind when I went to buy the camera. When I finish doing a film, it's behind me."
our hike, me with my tape recorder and questions, Spader with his
minimalist answers. The shaggy locks he wore as Graham are gone in
favor of a haircut more appropriate to the clean-cut financial analyst
he has just played in Bad Influence. It's the style he has worn in
most of his pictures, whether he has played a preppie twit or a sinister
creep in such movies as Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, Less Than Zero
and Wall Street. As we trudge up a steep incline, Spader ruminates
on his new-found success. For the first time, he says, he is able
to make career decisions based not only on his interest in portraying
a character but also on whether or not the film itself stands a chance
of being any good. "Half the movies I did, I don't know if I'd
see them if I wasn't in them," he admits. He rather liked his
work as the insufferable Mr. Richards in Mannequin, for example, but
adds, "It's like some medieval torture sitting through the film."
Spader even had doubts about sex, lies and videotape - the low-budget
feature written and directed by first-timer Steven Soderbergh - but
he loved the idea of playing Graham. Before going on location in Baton
Rouge, he gleefully told friends he was off to play an impotent guy
who masturbates watching tapes. "The thing I was most surprised
by was the entertainment factor of the film," he says. "I
knew while we were making it that we were presenting the material
in a fairly honest and intelligent fashion. I felt the performances
were fine. And I felt that the personality of the film was provocative
and curious. But the film's humor was very hard to gauge while we
were doing it. If it didn't work, I thought the film would be extremely
self-indulgent and a huge bore. I think the humor DOES work and that's
why people have responded to it." The movie was more than a hit;
it won the Golden Palm at Cannes and Spader was named best actor.
However, he wasn't there to receive the award. He had arrived in Cannes,
gotten bored and left.
"At the motel," Stoltz continues, "our rooms were across the courtyard from each other, and he drew a huge target on my window with soap. I woke up in the middle of the night to these pinging sounds. Jimmy had bought a new BB gun and he was making indentations in the glass. It's a little frightening when one of your best friends does that."
"One morning, Jimmy was running around with a crossbow, trying to get the arrows to stick to a palm tree in the motel courtyard. He was wearing a fringed leather jacket and underwear, with a cigarette and shades. The leading actress had brought her mother with her, and when the mother walked out of her room to get the morning paper, she saw Jimmy and almost had a heart attack."
"Jimmy's a very peaceful man," says Stoltz. "He's the sweetest, nicest man in the world. He's just a tad eccentric."
Spader is famous among his friends for his succession of short-lived passions. When the actor toyed with the idea of writing scripts, says another friend, Less Than Zero screenwriter Harley Peyton, "I went with him when he bought his typewriter. It was in the closet a week later." Adds Harrington, "Jimmy will decide he wants to buy a saxophone 'Gerald, I bought every Charlie Parker album the other day, and I just realized I had to play the saxophone' - so he'll go buy the best saxophone and be completely passionate about it for two weeks. Then there's the piano that he and Vickey, his wife, were going to learn. Then riding English was huge for about a month. Then there was the bicycle phase..."
Then there was Louie, the bluetick coonhound. "You could never get Jimmy and Vickey out of the house," remembers Peyton, "because if they left Louie behind, he would bay and go crazy and tear up the house. He was so neurotic and so insane. And they tried dog trainers and everything. They could leave the house only if Louie had a human baby sitter. They were so devoted to that dog. But he got bigger and bigger and nuttier and nuttier. They finally realized they couldn't keep him."
Spader is so distraught about Louie he can barely bring himself to talk about him. "He's leading a very good life on a farm up in Lake Arrowhead," he says. "We're just sorry he's not living with us anymore. He was not a dog that was going to be happy with us on the road, and leaving him behind became a real problem in that no one would take care of him more than once - except for one friend, and only if I thanked him publicly on the Today show. Which I did."
"We have pictures of Louie all over the house, like he's gone away to camp or something," he says. "We're hoping that if Sebastian starts baying, we'll all move up to Lake Arrowhead and be reunited with Louie."
Before our hike, I notice that Spader's 1969 Porsche Targa bore a Grateful Dead bumper sticker.
"One of my biggest hobbies was going to concerts," says Spader. He also owns hundreds of albums, which he insists are superior in sound quality to CD's.
"We'll go to Tower Records and spend all our salaries," says Peyton. "Jimmy will be in the blues bin, buying armloads of every obscure album he can find, some of which are terrible. And we'll bicker endlessly. I'll say, 'I started listening to the blues when you were in nursery school. 'And he'll insist that he's the one who has the rare blues records, and that all I have is those bullshit greatest-hits collections."
Spader's current audio system, Peyton tells me, "costs huge amounts of money and will never be advertised in any magazine and you can't buy it except by appointment. In the whole LA area, there are only two dealers for this stuff."
"It's designed by a couple of hippies in Canada who do nothing with their days but listen to music," explains Spader. "It's archaic by today's standards - all tubes, not solid state. It's not the equipment that should be admired, though, it's the music. My preamp doesn't have bass and treble and tone dials - it plays the music the way it was recorded. It's there to serve the music. If you're listening to Coltrane, he should sound the way he sounded in the studio the day he recorded it."
Harrington scoffs at this. "He plays these weird old blues records or reggae albums that were recorded with the most primitive equipment. No matter what you play them on, they sound terrible. They sound like they were recorded underwater through a megaphone."
"He's completely anal about his tape selection in the car," says Harrington. "he has an aluminum briefcase and he'll put a hundred and ten cassettes - 'OK, we're going to drive north, so these are good tapes for the North. 'He plans the music like some people plan the menu for an estate dinner. And he won't let me get one song in. He plays things that he knows I won't like so he can try to convince me how good they are."
When Spader was sent the script for sex, lies and videotape, he was on one of those infamous road trips. "Our negotiations took place from pay phones at gas stations," he says. The US map on Graham's wall is marked with Spader's favorite routes.
He likes to leave the driving to himself. Andrew McCarthy, who starred in three of Spader's films and who once drove with him to Las Vegas, complains, "I drove for twelve minutes, he drove for five hours."
Spader doesn't feel there's much point in extolling the joys of road-tripping to the uninitiated. "The first time I took a long road trip," he says, "someone told me, 'You'll arrive in New York and feel like you've never accomplished anything in life that compares with this. But no one you speak to will be able to understand or relate. 'And it was absolutely true. Driving across the salt flats, listening to Hendrix full blast, nothing but you and maybe an elk in the middle of the road - you want to grab people by the lapels and say, 'This is a fucking speedball! It blew my mind!' But people who haven't gone through that experience don't get it. You feel like slapping them silly."
Spader and his wife have been virtually inseparable for nearly a decade - his entire adult life. Naturally, talking about her makes Spader fidgety, but she is his most frequent companion on his long car trips and travels with him on location. She served as the set decorator on sex, lies and videotape and understands both his career needs and his eccentricities. According to Harley Peyton, "Jimmy had his wild years in New York when he was much younger, but now Jimmy and Vickey are this incredibly close couple; they really don't do much without each other. They're one of those couples who are completely joined at the heart and the hip. It's not one of those relationships that are based on a kind of odd dependence; I think they just prefer it that way. They nurture each other."
"Jimmy and I used to love to go out and get drunk together and terrorize things and rip things apart," adds Harrington. But now, having entered his 30's - and especially with the arrival of Sebastian - Spader increasingly spends his nonworking hours at home.
"He's the last person in the world to go to a screening or an opening or a party," says Peyton. "I couldn't drag him."
A night out usually involves "great, huge, decadent dinners at the Ivy or Dan Tana's," according to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. "They last five hours and you leave feeling sick. Jimmy's great at hanging out - not always having to be on the move. He can sit five hours and just talk, and I admire that."
Spader claims that he went through the formality of marrying Victoria - as he always calls her - mainly to start a family. Nothing has altered his life more than the birth of Sebastian last summer. While his wife slept at the hospital, he says, "I called up Harley and we headed to Dan Tana's - I hadn't eaten in forty-eight hours. Then we decided it was a good idea to go to the Seventh Veil for the last time. Then we showed up at Gerald's at three a.m. and sat and talked to him for a bit. I had been working on Bad Influence for six weeks and hadn't seen anybody; it was my first night off. Then I dropped Harley off and popped in on my neighbor at four a.m., told him I had a baby boy, and then I went to the Valley and showed up at a friend's house at dawn."
"One of the criteria for picking friends," he concludes, "is that the hour of the day is not of great importance."
parents are retired teachers. His two older sisters became teachers.
He grew up on a prep school campus. Unsurprisingly, Spader found classrooms
boring and when he went to Phillip's Academy in Andover, Massachusetts,
he left his mark not as a student but as an actor.
Spader developed a reputation as a fearless actor. His first public exposure, so to speak, was as a Chinaman in a school production of Anything Goes. "I lose my clothes in a poker match, and I have to run through the audience in boxer shorts," he says. "I hadn't learned the trick of pinning my fly shut; so I found myself halfway up the aisle with my dick hanging out."
With his parents' blessings, Spader dropped out of prep school and moved to New York when he was 17."He has the healthiest relationship with his parents, "says his former classmate(and fellow actor) Chris Clemenson, who plays his brother in Bad Influence. "When he left school, whatever qualms they felt, they kept to themselves. They said, 'Jimmy, you have to do what makes you happy'. Since then, he has done more to educate himself than anyone I know. I think he's one of the few people for whom not going to school was a great idea."
"When Jimmy left Andover and moved to New York," remembers Timothy Regan, who now studies film production at Boston University, "we asked one of the theater teachers, 'Will he make it? 'And the teacher closed his eyes, shook his head and said, 'No, not a chance,' "Who was that teacher, I ask Spader, and where is he now?"
"Exactly," Spader replies.
We hike at a steady pace, the sky gradually purpling in anticipation of sunset. A couple of approaching female hikers greet Spader with a smile. I ask him if he gets recognized more since the release of sex, lies and videotape. He claims that the hikers recognize him not as an actor but as a familiar face on the trail. "I see those two all the time," he says. Then - at last! - he tells me a story.
"I was driving to a rock concert in Virginia," he begins." I hadn't shaved in a week; I was looking real grungy and road-weary. And I stopped in a diner in this teeny town. I was sitting there, having a cup of coffee and a smoke, and I noticed that this family at another table was looking at me. I figured it was because I looked real derelict, you know? I was walking out of the place and the mother grabbed me and said, 'We know you! We just rented one of your movies last night! 'And I thought, What a weird fucking thing to have happen. Rent some slob's movie, and the next day the slob shows up in your diner."
We walk along in silence. Later, after I've tracked down his friends and gathered odd anecdotes to ask him about, Spader will open up a bit more. For now, unfortunately, he's reserved.
Eric Stoltz laughs at the mere concept of a taciturn Spader. "He's the kind of roommate who uses the phone more than anyone else. One time, he was on the phone for hours, and I decided to do a little experiment. I called the operator to do an emergency breakthrough from CAA - my agent - and he would not release the line. Then I tried again, saying it was William Morris - his agent. He immediately got off the phone."
His friends tell me he spends hours perched on his front porch with a post-prandial Marlboro - and a remote phone.
"One morning, my phone rang as I was getting into the shower," says Andrew McCarthy, "and he started talking to the answering machine: 'Andrew? Jimmy! You won't believe what just happened!' It was too early in the morning to deal with him, so I got into the shower, figuring I'd call him back later. I got out of the shower and he's still talking on the machine."
But today Spader is playing a role he doesn't much like: He's having to play the publicity game like a movie star and make nice to the media. Since sex, lies and videotape and the Cannes award, he has been forced to meet the press more often. With two big movies - Bad Influence and White Palace with Susan Sarandon - coming out this year, he'll be answering even more questions. He deflects questions graciously, but on this hike, at least, his discomfort is palpable. And yet, when we trudge back to our cars, James Spader - who volunteered little and evaded much - seems slightly disappointed that the interview is over.
for a moment. "You know," he says, "I feel like we've
barely scratched the surface."
© Playboy magazine, April 1990 by Jerry Lazar (Thank you, Gloria)