"The Trouble With Jimmy"

He says he first acting role was in a fencing epic. He was eight. When it came time for the dueling scene, his costar pulled out a plastic toy sword. Jimmy Spader pulled out a pocketknife with a six-inch blade. The costar's mother screamed in terror. The other kids screamed. Suddenly the play was over, and Spader was dragged home.

At thirty, he's still armed and dangerous. "I had real trouble, actually, for a long time, getting people to hire me," he says one day in his publicist's office in L.A. "My anxiety used to manifest itself in strange ways. I'd go in to read for some innocent, vulnerable character, and the feedback would be, 'Well, we met Jimmy...and he scaredus.'" He fires up another cigarette with a chrome Zippo and crosses his faux-crocodile brogues. Sun-bleached hair falls in a cresent over his high forehead. The round tortoiseshell glasses lend a certain prep-school air, and the Cape Cod lockjaw cojures up the sockless trust funder turned yuppie from hell, a persona Spader has spent years perfecting. On the fringe of the brat pack, Spader's staying power has proved formidable; he is now cascading toward serious stardom as a leading man in two films, "White Palace" and the forthcoming "True Colors". The time seems right for his taut sexuality, high-wired anxiety, and vulnerable, fair-haired eccentricity. That and the undercurrent of danger and aura of elusiveness.

Private to the point of paranoia, Spader is known to change his unlisted number every few weeks. Even close friends are reluctant to discuss him without checking with the actor first, which is often impossible. "Everyone's afraid of Jimmy," one friend says. He is fond of weapons and strip joints and once paraded in a hotel courtyard in his underwear, armed with a crossbow. Famous for short-lived obsessions and long-winded phone conversations, he has a penchant for driving cross-country at top spedds accompanied by piles of Grateful Dead tapes. "He's a lunatic," says actor friend Andrew McCarthy. Even his mother seems at a loss for words to describe him. "He's always been an actor," she says. Directors who have worked with Spader praise his professionalism but have a difficult time getting under the radar. "He is very private," says director Herbert Ross, who recently completed True Colors with Spader and John Cusack, set to open early next year. "But all artists have their quirks. That's an easy one to live with." Mystery, Ross adds, "makes for good actors."

Tall and lanky, Spader is easygoing, if a bit aloof. When asked about his phobias, though, he perks up. "Do you know what vertigo is?" he says, leaning forward. "People who have vertigo don't like to talk about it, but it is the fear that you're going to somehow uncontrollably hurl yourself off the precipice." He became well acquainted with vertigo during the filming of "True Colors" at a Montana ski resort, where he was called upon to hang several hundred feet above the earth on a chair lift. "They started shooting. I thought, 'The ground has fallen out beneath us.' If you watch the scene, you will see me staring straight at John [Cusack]. I do not look down once. I have a slightly green complexion. I am also gripping the side of the chair lift. Believe me, I was gripping with all my life. All of a sudden, this voice comes booming over the megaphone: 'It looks stilly with you holding on to the sides.'" Unbeknownst to Spader, Herbert Ross was shooting the scene with a long lens. "We could actually see his knuckles," says Ross. "They were white." But the final scene will likely appear as effortless as all Spader's work. He loosened his grip and rode the lift as if it were a front-porch glider. After all, he says, that's what acting is all about. Putting yourself to the test, Ross calls him "a brave actor. I didn't know how good he really was."

Currently starring in White Palace opposite Susan Sarandon, Spader unveils a newly likable persona in the role of Max, the lovesick Jewish widower who falls for a working calss waitress. The work was emotionally draining, and Spader says the part was difficult to walk away from. He and Sarandon became close friends. Director Luis Mandoki (Gaby: A True Story) says the chemistry between the two actors was better than he could have hoped. "They fell for each other's characters," Mandoki says. Spader was initially critical of the White Palace script, especially of the ending. (Spader's instincts proved right. Months after filming wrapped, the crew was called back to shoot a new ending, the same one Spader had suggested from the start.) But he says he's pleased with the way things turned out. "This is a love story," says Spader. "The right things have to be running through the people. The right sort of blood has to be coursing through their veins, and I feel confident that it worked." Spader hadn't been the first choice for the plum role. Physically, he was all wrong for the part of the short, dark-haired protagonist described in Glenn Savan's novel, on which the film was based. But after he won the 1989 Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his work in Sex, Lies and Videotape, Spader got a second chance.

From an early age, James Todd Spader was drawn to make-believe. "There was a period in my life when I wore a cape all the time and any piece of furniture was the jumping-off point, just to get the cape to lift up a little bit. I played pirates to an embarrassing age. Thirty, apparently," There's a strong theatical tradition in New England, and Spader soaked it up at the Brooks School, a North Andover, Massachusetts, prep school whre his father, Stoodard Greenwood Spader (known as Todd), an English teacher, served as the headmaster. His mother, Jeanne, a gregarious, effervescent woman, taught kindergarten at the nearby Pike School, which Jimmy--the only boy in a family that included two older sisters--attended. Spader was a discipline problem from the start. "I used to have to sit outside the door of the classroom if I couldn't finish my carton of milk." Having his mother for a teacher must have been difficult. "It wasn't really confusing," he says. "I spent years in therapy, but we never discussed that. That's interesting. Maybe I should go back to therapy and mention it." His mother, he says, "was and still is extremely eccentric, interesting, and curious." His father was more reserved. His two sisters became teachers. No one encouraged Jimmy to pursue a teaching career. "They could tell from a very early age that the classroom environment was not for me." As the youngest member of a creative family, he was indulged. Recalls longtime friend Timothy Regan, "He always seemed to have more freedoms that the rest of us." He appeared in numerous school plays (in one summer-stock production, Equus, he starred opposite his mother) and later attended Phillips Academy at Andover on partial scholarship. "There was an understanding, because teachers know what other teachers make," says Spader. "We never had any money." But Spader was a gifted mimic, and the scions of rich eastern families were a source of inspiration. The superior persona would haunt Spader's early screen performances. "That's what he grew up with. Those were his role models," says a family friend. In the fall of his senior year, saddled with a lack of self-discipline and resentment of authority, he dropped out. "We looked around one day, and he was gone," says Regan.

Spader had fled to Manhattan to sleep on his sister's couch, doing various blue-collar jobs while trying out for acting parts. Spader: "When I first moved to New York, I was very young, I needed to work badly to earn money, so I used to go up on all these commercial auditions. I hated them!" He crosses his legs and leans forward. "I finally met this casting director, Shirley Rich, who was one of about two angels that I had when I moved to New York. I said, 'Shirley, I'm having such a hard time.' She said, 'Jimmy, at the very beginning of your career there's nothing wrong, even when you've never done anything, there's nothing wrong with saying, I'm in this for this, but I'm not in for that.'" Shirley Rich now says she's amazed Spader remembered that lesson. She spotted him at seventeen and thought he has "a sophistication that other boys his age did not have. It was extraordinary. He would go into readings with this snide quality. He had that as a kid! It was a superior kind of thing. Not in his own attitude but in his acting. I remeber saying, 'You gotta go easy on that superior thing, kiddo.'"

He was turned down for Taps (the part went to Sean Penn) but then in 1981 won the role of Brooke Shields's brother in Endless Love. That led (after "Tuff Turf" and "The New Kids") to John Hughes's Pretty in Pink. He and Andrew McCarthy became friends. "My first impression was, 'Who's this pretentious guy with that laconic way of talking?'" recalls McCarthy. "He was scared. He was shy." They both came from the East, and that was the basis for their friendship, which often involved long telephone conversations. "You don't really talk. You listen." says McCarthy, who would later make "Less Than Zero" with Spader. "Once in a while you say, 'Uh-huh.' Sometimes you get up and get a soda and when you come back, he's still talking." Spader was drawn to the sinister roles. "There's something deceiving about playing jerks in pictures, and that is, you've really a great deal of fun on the set, the people on the set generally love the bad guy. And then you get into the theater and people are silent. No one's laughing. I was expecting everyone to relish what a creep I was. But they were just angry." Spader went on to appear in "Wall Street", "Baby Boom", "Mannequin", and "Bad Influence", a dark thriller overshadowed by costar Rob Lowe's own cinema verite scandal. "I like being around when the action's happening and then not being around when it's not. That's the nice thing about playing bad guys." For Jack's Back, a little-seen Rowdy Herrington thriller, Spader got the delicious oppurtunity to play twins. The characters that are easy skins are the ones that have "great conviction for what they're doign. Lack of conviction is the hardest thing I can play. I don't understand it. I don't understand it in life either."

At one point, Spader's convictions involved the usual excesses. The money was good and he spent it, on food and toys, not out of guilt as might be expected from the son of a teacher but out of "a self-deprecating insecurity." "There's a period of his life he doesn't like to talk about," says Tim Regan. Spader doesn't rationalize his behavior, on or offscreen. "There's nothing wrong with some embarrassment," he says. "Go make an ass of myself. I don't want to fall on my face, but you fall on your face every day." His theory of acting? "Let it explode. It's not sacred." Having played enough silk-blazered snobs, Spader was experiencing a temporary dry spell when he read a script about a young man who videotapes women and then masturbates while viewing them. His agent told him his peers found the part of Graham too controversial. For that reason, it appealed instanly to Spader. From the start there was friction between Spader and Sex, Lies and Videotape director Steven Sonderbergh. Spader was experienced but equally obsessive. "Jimmy was very thorough. And he analyzes all the possibilities and all the choices and wants to discuss them," says Soderbergh. "I don't have a problem with that." The set was cleared more than once so Soderbergh and Spader could have it out. "They were very detailed, passionate discussions," the director recalls. Friends say Spader was awed by the film's success. He had thought it would close in a week. When the award was announced for Best Actor, Spader had already left Cannes. He has to be back in New York for a dentist's appointment. The notion that the attention could be just a fluke may have something to do with Spader's subsequent reluctance to cash in on his good fortune. "There's a lot of baggage that goes along with being recognized," he says. "But the things that really matter to you are satisfaction in your work. Moving forward. Trying to get better. They allow you to take control of your life and make the decisions about what works for you and what doesn't. It doesn't work for me to go to events and be photographed and dress up and talk business and schmooze, so I don't do it."

Jimmy and his wife, Victoria (who met while teaching at the same Manhattan exercise studio), have been together for ten years and have a small son, Sebastian. They spend summers on the East Coast. "You'll go over to their house," says Andrew McCarthy, "and Jimmy will be lying on one couch and Victoria on the other and they just hang out. They're doing nothing together," Says Spader, "There's an unspoken language. Vickey and I don't often misconnect. We've lived together a long, long time, and spent a lot of that time living together. We traveled a lot together in little cars. We know each other very, very well. I love it. For a lot of people, their work is their family. If that satisfies them...The work isn't enough for me." Even the adrenaline rush of dangling in a chair over Big Sky, Montana, is now a memory and not nearly as frightening as hordes of contractors swarming over his house or his recurrent nighmare of returning to Andover only to find himself back in a classroom not having studied for a pop quiz. The good news is, with their kitchen a construction site, he and Vickey now have an excuse to go to restaurents every night. The bad news is, well, it's not exactly another phobia, but there's this nagging neurotic need. "I have to sit with my back against the wall in a restaurent. It must be from my days as a kid, playing cowboy." He takes a long pull cigarette and exhales. "Cowboys never have their backs to the door. You never know when you're gonna catch it in the shoulder blades."

Vogue, November 1990 by Stephanie Mansfield (Thank you, Kristin)