|"How James Spader's
Image has Changed"
James Spader has one of Los Angeles's nastier colds, the same one that's felled his wife,Victoria, and his three-and-a-half-year-old son (possibly its instigator). So far, the Spaders' four-month-old baby has been spared; they're hoping it stays that way. Despite Spader's coughs, he's all concentration as we talk over copious cups of tea, speaking with precision, specificity, and a rolling hyperbole. This nice sense of irony is hardly unexpected, nor is Spader's intelligence - that was manifest even when he played mostly cashmere sleaze. Unexpected is the sweetness that lights up his references to his young family or to his sisters and parents, entrenched Yankee academics who were free enough to let an only son quit prep school before graduating to pursue his obsession with acting. In the afternoon sunshine he seems five years younger than thirty-three; onscreen, he appears 10 years younger. It's his look of the angel you don't quite trust, an aura that made his high school drama teacher predict awful frustration if Spader acted: "Because you're so wrong for all the roles you're good at". No one then could have predicted the trejectory of sex, lies and videotape, fueled by Spader's canny interior watchfulness and the delicacy of his interplay with Andie MacDowell, or the primal sexuality he brought to White Palace. With yuppie rotters now safely behind him, Spader still looks toward the secret side of human nature-where all the really rich roles lie. He can be seen next month as a cardsharp who lures Mandy Patankin into the strangest of prisons in Phillip Hass's film of Paul Auster's novel "The Music Of Chance."
JAMES SPADER: I had the funniest experience with Interview magazine. I moved to New York when I was 17 - I'd grown up in Massachusetts-and the city was just magnificient; I was mesmerized by it. But I'll never forget the first time I saw Interview on a newsstand. I thought, 'Oh, my God! Even the MAGAZINES here are huge!'
SHELIA BENSON: You'd worked with Mandy Patankin before "The Music of Chance", hadn't you?
JAMES SPADER: I met him on True Colors and took to him immediately. He's just a tremendous, exciting, lunatic, energized dark knight. He has 2 boys and I'd just had a son. Mandy turned to me and said, 'You know, you're IT. ' I said, 'What are you talking about? 'He said, 'It's all on you, you know. You've got a son, so you're the guy. You can deceive yourself into thinking that it's otherwise, but the eyes are on YOU'. Now we've got another son, so I've got two sets of eyes watching me! The other day we took a walk in the hills, on the fire trail. I was walking along, kicking a stone, and I turned around and there was a little two-and-a-half-foot guy, kicking a little stone along beside me. It gives you pause for thought when you light up a cigarette - one of these days I'm going to have to face up to stopping smoking again.
SHELIA BENSON: What drew you to "The Music of Chance?"
JAMES SPADER: It was originally sent to me to see if I was interested in playing Nashe, the character Mandy plays. I read it, and from the first page, I knew Jack Pozzi. I knew he was in here somewhere, just dying to crawl out.
SHELIA BENSON: You must be proud of your performance.
JAMES SPADER: I am, I am.
SHELIA BENSON: This is your first grunge, certainly.
JAMES SPADER: I guess, although I've found that other characters I've played maybe aren't very grungy on the surface but are really much grungier than Jack on the inside.
SHELIA BENSON: Which ones?
JAMES SPADER: I think the character in "Less Than Zero" was rather cancerous and decrepit. I think the character I played years and years ago, in "Pretty in Pink", was probably the most decrepit character I've ever played. Jack, I think, is rather noble. I love Jack.
SHELIA BENSON: For people who haven't seen the movie, who is Jack?
JAMES SPADER: He's a card player from New Jersey in his late 20's. He likes to look sharp. He's got a tremendous sense of humor and he doesn't know it - the sort of humor only OTHER people are able to appreciate. And he's always just one game away from being flush. Or being homeless.
SHELIA BENSON: Does being homeless hold any fears for him?
JAMES SPADER: Not a bit. He's quite comfortable with that. He's been responsible for himself for an awfully long time. I think he thinks he's got the world cased (laughs sardonically). And he's wrong. His whole life, he's lived in a world that's quite closeted from the bigger world - a world that is timeless, trendless, cultureless, that has a very pure, crystalline, black-and-white sense of existence and survival about it.
SHELIA BENSON: So he had quite a few qualities that you wanted to explore?
JAMES SPADER: I win, and you lose. Or, you win and I lose. That's how his life is. I think this was the easiest role I've played. It just came trippingly. I find the furthest I can distance myself from myself in my work, the more I excell. The roles that I find a horrible stretch are those that I have to display the ordinary parts of my being, as opposed to the secret and weird, shadowy places in me.
SHELIA BENSON: Do you think you've been given your greatest challenge yet?
JAMES SPADER: In some ways, yes. There are a lot of characters that I haven't played that are very different from me that would probably be easier than some of the things I have done. In True Colors, for example, I was cast simply on the basis of who I was when I walked thru the door and met (director) Herbert Ross - where I went to school, the color of my hair, the dialect I speak in when I'm sitting here talking to you, and the color of the tweed I wear. Those things have absolutely nothing to do with the process that you take yourself thru to perform a role. Those are the things I try to dispense weith immediately, and when I'm not allowed to, it's a painful struggle. But True Colors paid for the restoration of my late grandfather's house, so I'm glad I did it.
SHELIA BENSON: You don't vary movies with theater, do you?
JAMES SPADER: No. I did theater, then I started making films, and that's what I do. There are a couple of roles that I'd like to do on the stage. I Would be a fool not to play Iago.
SHELIA BENSON: Not Hamlet, not Romeo?
JAMES SPADER: I like Iago. How would it be if Iago didn't have black cats painted all over him, if he was just wonderfully charming? He might be that much more dangerous. Iago is a very filmic character, I think - a lot of secrets there. I love playing bad guys. I just went to a read-thru for this film Wolf, in which I have a supporting role as a bad guy, and it came back to me how much I relish that. I think it's because I sat there and realized, 'Ah, I'm only around when the shit is flying.
SHELIA BENSON: You're not just there for the boring exposition?
JAMES SPADER: Just for the dicey bits.
SHELIA BENSON: What other stage roles interest you?
JAMES SPADER: I want to play George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or Martha (laughs). I'm ready now.
SHELIA BENSON: Your background put to use, at last?
JAMES SPADER: It's funny, that conversation we were having before about dispensing with those things. I think George is a role where it wouldn't be necessary for me to dispense with some of them, because they would be true and honest for the first time. The things that interest me in life are tragedy and melancholy and sadness - those three things are hilarious at times, and I think that's embodied in George in Virginia Woolf.
SHELIA BENSON: What else embodies this melancholy?
JAMES SPADER: Graham in sex, lies and videotape is that. Also, Graham and I had similarities in our backgrounds that I've never been able to utilize in work before. I've spend a tremendous amount of time driving around the country - sometimes aimfully, sometimes aimlessly. Graham had, too. That seemed the kind of pursuit that had a secret pleasure about it, understandable only when you do it.
SHELIA BENSON: You work so minimally. Do you believe the camera picks up what you think?
JAMES SPADER: I think the camera can pick up what you want it to pick up, and then it picks up you wanting it to pick that up. But there's also something else: allowing the camera backstage. I like to do that every so often. That moment, just before (makes a big gesture indicating an entrance) - the camera sees that. It's a very quick gathering of one's self.
SHELIA BENSON: I'd of thought you'd be more controlling than that.
JAMES SPADER: There was one point, years and years ago, when I was going thru a very difficult time acting. It was an extremely confused time in my life. One of the wrestles I was having was trying to reconcile a condition I had twenty-four hours a day-being anxious and stunned-with being able to work.
SHELIA BENSON: Did you go into therapy?
JAMES SPADER: I did go into therapy, and that worked fine. But the most interesting thing that happened was a film I did with Diane Keaton (Baby Boom, 1987), who allowed the camera to see things that are part of everyone. And I was trying to squelch them and say , 'There's no room for THAT in THIS.' Now, you can be excessive with that, too, and end up giving a performance that's nothing but tics and quirks and blinks and shakes. But it was a very useful lession. I don't think it's such a bad thing to hang your dirty laundry out in front of the camera every so often. Screw it! Take off your clothes and 'em see your underwear.
SHELIA BENSON: You've used the word 'secrets' more than once. Are they important?
JAMES SPADER: To figure out a character, I try to look for something that's not in the screenplay-a little secret they carry around with them. Sometimes it's allowed to show itself, sometimes it isn't, yet it's always there. In "Less Than Zero", Robert Downey Jr. and I both decided that our two guys had been lovers at one point. It wasn't referred to at all, but that was the one choice made in that film that I ended up being pleased with, because it informed everything that happened. There's a certain understanding between two people who've been lovers that's not there in two people who haven't.
SHELIA BENSON: I recently
saw a book called Going Strong, which is interviews with people over
75 who were asked about their personal philosophies. Some took 4 pages
to answer. Peggy Ashcroft had a single sentence: 'What I think matters
most is family, friends, and work
JAMES SPADER: Yes.
SHELIA BENSON: Would that have been the case 10 years ago?
JAMES SPADER: No.
Shelia Benson: What's changed?
JAMES SPADER: I've got a family. Reading a few books, going for a sail, going for a walk, listening to music, and watching some movies - these are fancies, you know. Family is all there is for me. I don't have anything else.
Shelia Benson: Do you find you get terribly touched by watching your children? I always used to. Actually, I still do.
JAMES SPADER: Yes. I had
a thought the other day - I must make a film that my sons can see
now. I haven't done one of those yet. Because even some of the films
that I've been proud of weren't made for them. I'd love to do that.