Detour Magazine: Ace of Spader

A few months before I was given the assignment to interview James Spader, I encountered the actor for the first time in person on a New York City sidewalk. I was waiting for a friend--as I assumed Spader was--in front of the theater where Nathan Lane was appearing in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After a few minutes, I noticed what looked to be a homeless man approach Spader and begin a long and engrossing conversation. I wondered what they were talking about. I relate this to Spader when he greets me in jeans and a black leather jacket in the lobby at the Chateau Marmont, a hotel not far from the L.A. home he shares with his wife of nine years, Victoria, and two sons, ages six and three. "You were very patient with that guy," I say as we head to Spader's car to go hunt down a breakfast spot. "Believe me, I was not being patient or patronizing with him at all," says the star of such films as StarGate, Wolf, White Palace, and Sex, Lies & Videotape. "He had seen a lot of my films, so we were chatting about them. He was a really nice guy, and he really dug movies."

It's a good thing the guy didn't see Spader's latest film, David Cronenberg's Crash, for it's possible they'd still be standing there talking, if not arguing. Based on the 1973 novel by British science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard, Crash is crudely put, about a group of Toronto residents who get of, quite literally, on car crashes. Spader plays James Ballard, a TV producer, who, along with his wife, played by Deborah Unger, is drawn into a subculture of crash survivors after he has a near-fatal collision with Dr. Helen Remington, played by Holly Hunter. Though there's no denying the brilliance of Cronenberg's uncompromising vision, Crash is, at times, damn creepy to watch. It's easy to see why the jury at Cannes had to come up with a special award to celebrate its "audacity."

"I don't know if I should get in a car with you after seeing Crash," I say as we arrive at Spader's Range Rover. "Oh, no," laughs Spader who's also soon to be seen as a hit man in the darkly comic ensemble piece Two Days in the Valley. "Things have slowed down quite a bit." When Spader asks if I've ever tried Hugo's, the West Hollywood eatery we decide on, I say that I interviewed John Leguizamo there for Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, the ask the actor if he's done drag. "Yeah," he laughs, then serves up the first of many surprises. "Interview magazine did a shoot where they did me hair like Joey Heartherton. I make a great Joey Heartherton."

DENNIS HENSLEY: I saw a screening of Crash a few weeks ago. It was a packed house.

JAMES SPADER: Was it as divisive as the audience in Cannes? In Cannes, people were loving it and hating it. I don't remember anyone running out screaming. No one fainted? No, but it was weird getting in a car afterward. People have said that. I'm always surprised by that. It never affected me that way.

DENNIS HENSLEY: It didn't affect your attitude about driving at all?

JAMES SPADER: Well yes, in a couple of sort of boring, practical ways. I saw some crash-test footage during the film that showed crashes without airbags and also what happens if there is no headrest. Now I would never drive in a car unless I've got a headrest, and I would be reticent, at least with my kids, in a car if it didn't have airbags.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What was your gut reaction when you first read the script? You obviously didn't go, "No way." Not for a second.

JAMES SPADER: I didn't know what to make of it at first. It was very disturbing, very powerful, and yet intriguing. I spoke to David on the phone and I found myself getting more and more intrigued. By the end of our conversation, I said, "I really want to do this film."

DENNIS HENSLEY: What did you handlers think of your decision?

JAMES SPADER: I've always made my own decisions. I've been with the same people for a long time. If there's a dicey piece of material floating around it always comes my way, and they're used to that.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What did your wife think of you making Crash?

JAMES SPADER: You know, I'm making a film. My wife is a very cool, secure person.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Have your parents seen it?

JAMES SPADER: No. I don't thik it's their sort of film, but ultimately it's up to them if they want to see it or not. I don't really make films for my parents, but they're very generous in their appreciation.

DENNIS HENSLEY: You get to have sex with everyone in the film.

JAMES SPADER: That was a plus, certainly a deciding factor. As unsettled and intrigued as I was by the film, I found it didn't really stay with me, and I think it's because there was no one on the screen that I related to. Nobody ever questioned what they were doing. It could just as well have been on Mars. James Ballard purposely set a futuristic story in the present in his novel, and he said he felt the film sort of started where his book left off, and that's a place I have a feeling we may have reached in our lives. That feeling of enormous isolation and diconnection from ourselves, from people around us, from the world. A lot of the stuff that Ballard has played around with concerns man's reconciliation or conflict with the technology that he himself has created, and he chose the automobile for this.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Have you ever been in a car crash?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah, a few, but I've never been in a serious car crash when I was driving.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Did you call on those experiences for the film?

JAMES SPADER: Well I remembered the adrenaline. I thought David dealt with the crashes in a really interesting way in that they didn't evolve the way many crashes in films do, where they become this spectacle. In Crash, they're jarring and extremely uncomfortable and over before they even start, seemingly, and all you're left with is the aftermath, which is how they are.

DENNIS HENSLEY: There's not a lot of dialogue in the film.

JAMES SPADER: The language in the film is sex, that's the dialogue. The characters are pursuing ideas that are quite interior and in many ways self-serving, so they're not always articulated.

DENNIS HENSLEY: The scene that I found the most erotic was the car-wash scene.

JAMES SPADER: (Laughs) You're into pain and violence, then. Sex in a public place. Hmmmm. I was very aroused by the initial car crash where Holly Hunter pulls her seat belt off and her breast is bared and we're staring at each other and there's this strange connection between us. I found the whole film to be rather erotic.

DENNIS HENSLEY: I liked that it was going on under everyone's noses. That scene in the car wash where you're driving and you tilt the rear-view mirror to watch your wife have sex with another man reminded me a bit of the voyeurism of Sex, Lies & Videotape.

JAMES SPADER: It's interesting that you say that. This lie that Graham in Sex, Lies & Videotape has been telling himself is the same as Ballard's lie in Crash, and this is, "If one is a voyeur in life, then they are not a participant." Except Ballard knows exactly what's going on. I wanted to be in Sex, Lies & Videotape because I loved the dichntomous relationship within Graham, between passivity and aggressiveness. I found him to be a tremendously aggressive character.

Dennis HENSLEY: Anyone who can get all those girls to masturbate on video....

JAMES SPADER: To create a feeling of security and to allow people the illusion that they are in control, when you are controlling the situation, I find it fascinating. It's the same in the car wash scene.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Then there's one scene where you get it on with the gash in Rosanna Arquette's leg. It's strange because once you realize that the film might be going there, you think, Oh please don't, please don't...

JAMES SPADER: Oh, yes we will. Oh, yes we will. ...

DENNIS HENSLEY: ...but then you realize you kind of want him to. Kind of, you know that if the film doesn't go all the way, you'll be disappointed.

JAMES SPADER: Aren't you just a little curious?

DENNIS HENSLEY: I also appreciated that the film didn't back off from showing the character's sex scene with Elisas Koteas's character. Was that a first for you on film?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah, I had never done a sex scene with a man before. (Shrugs) You know, it was a scene in the movie. Besides, Elias is a good kisser.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What was the most challenging scene? The long scene between you and Deborah on the bed with her long monologue seemed like it would be hard.

JAMES SPADER: The sodomy scene (Laughs). That was exhausting. She did a wonderful job with that. All I had to do was listen and sodomize her.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Most of the sex in the film is from the back.

JAMES SPADER: Well, a certain amount of that is based on the positions that are possible in a car. But a certain amount of it is also quite masturabatory, and purposely so.

DENNIS HENSLEY: At Cannes, you were asked why there was no male frontal nudity in Crash.Was that something that you considered during the making of the film?

JAMES SPADER: It's not something that I think about. In most of the scenes where I would be disrobed, we were fucking, and if you're fucking someone, your penis is inside the other person, so it's not something you're going to see waving in the breeze. If you do see my penis, and it's not erect, then you're out of the scene. And it's unnecessary. We aren't showing any wet pussy in the film, and so we're not showing erect penises in the film.The whole issue of nudity and what you see on men as opposed to women is so ludicrous anyhow.

DENNIS HENSLEY: I wasn't sure what to make of the ending.

JAMES SPADER: The ending's rather hopeful, I think.

DENNIS HENSLEY: It's as though your wife, who has been the least physically damaged, is trying to catch up.

JAMES SPADER: Oh, she's on her way. (Laughs) She's trying her damnedest. That's the hopefulness.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Your other new film is Two Days in the Valley. How did you get involved with that?

JAMES SPADER: They sent me the script, and it was unlike anything I had read. I thought it was funny.

DENNIS HENSLEY: The writer/director, John Herzfeld, what has he done before?

JAMES SPADER: I don't know. Everyone I spoke to, I'd say, "Have you seen anything John has done?" and no one really had. Everybody jumped in with both feet because of the script. I had a ball.

DENNIS HENSLEY: I really bought that you were evil in this film. Is there a secret to playing a convincing heavy?

JAMES SPADER: I enjoy myself tremendously. I think that helps because it allows you to commit to what you're doing with a tremendous amount of convinction, which, I guess, comes across on film. I've read where you said that people on film sets love the bad guy.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Why do you think that is?

JAMES SPADER: Generally, the bad guy's only around when the shit flies. It's sort of his job to kick the ass of the movie. I know I enjoy it, too. Let someone else deal with the exposition.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What was your first movie?

JAMES SPADER: A film called Teammates. It might have been a soft-core porn film. I'm not sure. I never saw it. My credit was Drunk Guy. I got drunk at my birthday party and passed out in the cake.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What did you think the first thime you saw yourself on the big screen?

JAMES SPADER: It would have been Endless Love. My feelings probably was that I had to take a piss. That always happens. I must always be the guy that the director's going, "Oh God, they're walking out," and it's just me going to the bathroom.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What was it like doing Pretty in Pink at the height of the Brat Pack era. Was it cliquey?

JAMES SPADER: There was a sort of club, but I was pretty removed from that. I was a hired gun.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Were you ever tempted by the whole young Hollywood party scene?

JAMES SPADER: Not really. I've never felt a part of any sort of organized scene. I'm very close to my family and I've got some very, very close friends who I've known since high school.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What were you like it school?

JAMES SPADER: I was a miserable student, but I had a lot of fun. I spent my entire academic career, which only lasted until I was 17, goofing around.

DENNIS HENSLEY: When did you get into acting?

JAMES SPADER: I did it in junior high and grammar school and I just kept doing it. I remember in first grade the teacher put on a record of the poem, "Casey at the Bat," and I just remember playing along with the record. We'd put on plays when we were kids. I think it was a matter of economics because my parents were teachers, so we never had much allowance. So I would shamelessly drag my neighbors over and we'd play comboys and Indians and charge them a quarter to watch. It was like, "Tomorrow we're going to have a wonderful performance of Hide and Seek." It was a way to earn money, I mean, I used to set up a table in front of the house and sell anything that wasn't nailed down. My mother would buy groceries and I'd be charging a quarter of what she pais for them.

DENNIS HENSLEY: How did you learn the facts of life?

JAMES SPADER: I remember my dad talking about it and I can't remember how much I knew at that point. I was an early masturbator and quite voracious. I was playing doctor with great commitment and regularity at an extremely early age.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Were you performing major surgery or just sort of friendly check-ups?

JAMES SPADER: Surgery--invasive surgery--at a very early age.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Did you parents know what you were up to?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah, because we were always quite open for business. We were a store-front family outfit.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Who were your patients?

JAMES SPADER: Anything I could get my hands on. Not the family dog. No, although I do remember my friend David and I being extremely impressed by the size of his horse's penis. It certainly set one up for an insecurity complex very early.

DENNIS HENSLEY: I've never seen a horse with a hard-on.

JAMES SPADER: Well, you've got to help it along a little.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Were your sisters privy to your escapades?

JAMES SPADER: I don't know. We lived in a cabin-like house during the summers, with knot holes, so there was a lot of peeking. Again, invite my friends over, charge money. My sister dressing in the next room was a great event.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Was your first girlfriend early too?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah. In first grade my world revolved around Jenny Bensely and Annie Vada. They were also two of my most active patients. They were hypochondriacs, and I was too.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What's the worst job you ever had?

JAMES SPADER: Acting. (Laughs) I worked at an amusement park manning the Whack the Cats game.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What were the other carnies like?

JAMES SPADER: Well, it wasn't Six Flags. To sum it up, there was a scary-looking guy who worked the Whirly-Gig ride next to my booth and every few days, I'd see him walking to the front office with his head down. I'd look over and he'd go, "Man, a kid fell off the Whirly-Gig."

DENNIS HENSLEY: I understand you met your wife while teaching yoga. You don't seem like the yoga-teacher type.

JAMES SPADER: I got away with murder. At that time I think I was shoveling shit at the Claremont Riding Academy and my sister decided to join a health club in New York, so I applied for a job there because it looked like there were a lot of hypochondriacs wandering around. So I went to the grocery store and got a book at the checkout stand on yoga. I'd turn the lights down and promptly go to sleep in the front of the class. I refined napping to its purest form when I became a lifeguard. It was like pools in health clubs in New York where it never gets deeper that about four feet, so if anyone starts to drown all you have to do is yell, "Stand up!"

Dennis HENSLEY: What's your favorite souvenir from a filmset?

JAMES SPADER: I have a ceramic cow lamp from White Palace.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Did you and Susan Sarandon ever do it in the same room as the lamp?

JAMES SPADER: No, it was the kitchen. We did it in the kitchen but they cut it out. They thought it was gratuitous. Gratuitous is a word that I think should be stricken from the English language. The doctor is always in.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Would you like to make films your kids could see?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah, but Disney doesn't call me very often.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Do you have any reservations about raising your children here in L.A.?

JAMES SPADER: Well, we spend summers back East. But I like living in the city, and they can play in the yard here. You have to create your own life here. It doesn't just exist for you. I think that's what makes people come here and say it's a vacuum. It's only a vacuum until you fill it.

DENNIS HENSLEY: When you first started making decent money, what frivolous thing did you go out and buy?

JAMES SPADER: A '68 Camaro convertible. I lived in New York, so it was really frivolous. I spent more on my parking garage that I did on my apartment. Cars have been an enormous part of my life.

DENNIS HENSLEY: Then Crash must have been...

JAMES SPADER: Made sense to me.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What do you miss most about New York?

JAMES SPADER: Walking, trash cans, pizza parlors.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What do you miss the most about L.A. when you're there?

JAMES SPADER: (Laughs) Driving.

Detour Magazine: Ace of Spader (September 1996) by Dennis Hensley, photos by Stephane Sednaoui (Thank you, Kristin, Sharon and Gloria!)