"Importance of being Ernst in 'Critical Care', James Spader plays a character very much like himself"

To look at 37 year-old actor James Spader, with his soft demeanor and heavy-lidded eyes, you would never guess that he could play anyone other than a confused and/or sensitive young man caught in the middle of a moral dilemma or a bad situation. But though he has played such roles with elan, including his recent bizarre turn in the highly controversial "Crash," he is probably better known to moviegoers for his convincing portrayal of creeps and back-stabbers, most notably in such films as "Baby Boom," "Wall Street," "Wolf" and "Two Days in the Valley."

Born in Boston, Spader did the New York theater scene for years before turning to film. After a handful of supporting roles in such movies as "Endless Love" and "Pretty in Pink," he hit the big time as the screwed-up Graham in Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape," which won Spader the Best Actor Award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.

Spader's most recent film is "Critical Care," which was the opening night feature at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, and opens theatrically this Friday. In "Critical Care," written by Chicagoan Steven S. Schwartz (based on the novel by Richard Dooling), and directed by Sidney Lumet ("Dog Day Afternoon," "Network"), Spader plays Dr. Werner Ernst, a young and ambitious intensive care unit physician who dreams of wealth and fame in his field. His path is detoured, however, when he falls for a beautiful young actress (Kyra Sedgwick), whose father is on life-support at Dr. Ernst's hospital. Pillow talk quickly turns into legal testimony, as Ernst finds himself caught between two sisters who are fighting for the right to decide whether or not to pull the plug on daddy, a decision that means $10 million to the victor. In the process of defending himself, Ernst slowly comes to remember why it was he became a doctor in the first place. I recently chatted with Spader, an incessant chain-smoker, in a downtown hotel room before he was whisked off to attend the Chicago Film Festival's opening night festivities.

JOHN PETRAKIS: Let's start with the film's highly stylized intensive care unit. It looks like it could be part of the space shuttle.

JAMES SPADER: It was very intentionally done that way, for its nightmarish effect, suggesting that all humanity has been erased. It does look futuristic, but you still get the feeling that perhaps it is upon us.

JOHN PETRAKIS: It also gives a sense of doctors and nurses playing God.

JAMES SPADER: it was purposely designed that way, shot that way and acted that way. the movie is put together in a way that suggests a parallel universe that maybe exists. and despite its black comedy, it certainly deals with issues that exist.

JOHN PETRAKIS: Sidney Lumet is a director who does a lot of rehearsing before shooting begins, probably owing to his background in theater.

JAMES SPADER: Not to mention a rather hefty background in live television.

JOHN PETRAKIS: What did you learn about your character in the rehearsal process that didn't come out initially in the script?

JAMES SPADER: I don't know. That's hard to put a finger on. I mean, I've done a lot of theater, so I had a sense of how to utilize the rehearsal period. But the serious issues that the film deals with--and that my character has to face in terms of his own humanity--are the sort of bigger issues of mortality that came along at just the right time in my life. Leading up to doing this film, I'd spent the last five years of my life in hospitals, whether it was visiting my parents or the birth of my children. So there was an awful lot percolating in my head about these issues that the film deals with, and the screenplay just spoke to those.

JOHN PETRAKIS: During those years, were you ever faced with anything as intense as a life or death decision?

JAMES SPADER: My father was very sick for a long time. He died about two weeks before I started production on this film. He had been in and out of hospitals for quite a few years, but we chose not to have the latter part of his life exist in a hospital. We chose to keep him at home.

JOHN PETRAKIS: A key character in the film is Dr. Butz (played by Albert Brooks), who is the chairman emeritus of the critical care unit. Though he is in many ways a comic character, the issues he raises about critical-care insurance and long-term care have a certain validity.

JAMES SPADER: I was pleased when Albert signed on, because I knew that his scenes would have that sort of dichotomy, serious issues that were treated with a certain amount of levity.

JOHN PETRAKIS: But were his arguments cogent, especially based on your own experiences?

JAMES SPADER: The character of Butz in the film has the burden of presenting--in a blustery, tyrannical way--his skewed take on the medical health care system in America. He's a man who has become sour, but also has a tremendous sense of irony. The argument that I find most convincing is that we do try and protect ourselves against death. Very often in this country, if we're able to, we quite methodically and by design create our own future for ourselves.

JOHN PETRAKIS: Dr. Butz's speech about how he's going to go, with a big cigar in one hand and a drink in the other, without a lick of insurance, seems to me to be the moral center of the film.

JAMES SPADER: I've seen death happen in many different ways. Sometimes it's been quick and forgiving. Other times it's been prolonged and unforgivable. Quick and forgiving would seem to be better, but by the same token, we do seem to prepare ourselves for the long haul.

JOHN PETRAKIS: Butz's point seems to be that we can't know. It's that "undiscovered country."

JAMES SPADER: This country is different from a lot of other countries, where the elderly live out their lives still within the nest of the family. Here, the elderly tend to be dispatched, as opposed to being brought back into a fold that they themselves created.

JOHN PETRAKIS: Was Dr. Ernst a difficult part for you to play?

JAMES SPADER: Yes, because a lot of the stuff I had to do required putting more of myself into the film than I usually do. In most films, I'm playing somebody very different from me, dealing with ideas and issues that are very different from the sort I deal with in my everyday life. Dr. Ernst isn't really like me, but the decisions he has to make are not dissimilar to those decisions I have had to make in my own life. Treading on familiar ground requires putting more of yourself into a role. Usually, I'm able to hide within a role. Here, I wasn't able to hide.

JOHN PETRAKIS: Is it more fun to hide?

JAMES SPADER: Yeah, it is.

Tribune (Special) 1997 by John Petrakis (Thank you, John)