"Sex, suits and automobiles"
Jessica Berens discovers the driving force behind James Spader

James Spader's life as a child revolved around Jenny Bensley and Annie Vada, with whom he played doctors and nurses. He was a hypochondriac, he says, and so were they. Later, he appeared in school plays - "Anything Goes", for instance, in which he was required to lose his clothes in a poker game and run through the audience wearing only his boxer shorts. 'James,' his mother has observed, 'has always been an actor.'

The Spaders spent holidays in a Volkswagen bus; James and two older sisters, rolling through Europe, leaping about in the back seat. There were no seat-belts, so the children could build forts and play board games. His parents were teachers, so the summers were long and the family went everywhere - England, France, Italy. They came from a multi-laned place where the car parks are bigger than Wiltshire. Europe was a land mass to be crossed, like America, only the states spoke different languages. He still thinks of Germany as a day's ride. Cars were fun and soon he drove the VW bus to and from school in Massachusetts, and later, as a job, he drove children to and from summer camp. His first car, which he bought for $ 600 when he was 16, was a navy blue VW Beetle. As a native of the automotive playpen, he knew that fast food snacks were designed to be eaten with one hand and deserts were made to be crossed. The Beetle had no floorboards and no brakes but he drove it for miles until it died.

'I could talk about cars all day,' says James. He is sitting in a hotel room in Beverly Hills. His green, silk shirt is hanging out of black trousers and its buttons have not been allocated their correct buttonholes, giving him a slightly louche mien. Combined with the blond hair and specs, this brings to mind a student trying to find his way back to college after a May ball. In America, you are your car, so James Spader is a sleek vehicle with eccentric modifications. He drives Porsches, one of which he had modified from a 3.6 to a 3.8-litre engine. He also ripped out the power steering and cruise control. 'They are a conflict of interest, catering to people who shouldn't be driving a sports car in the first place.' We might point and laugh but, in Los Angeles, Porsches (or Portias, as they call them) do not have the wide-boy taint that they have in England. These days he drives a 1973 911E coupe - green, like the shirt - which lines up next to a 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible - grey, 'I just can't seem to part with it' -and a 1968 Chevy Chevelle Supersport - red. In the past there have been various VW Beetles, a Fifties Jeepster, a Seventies Merc. He counts them on his fingers: 14 in all, each representing different segments of his life, all with their memories. A friend, Gerald Harrington, says that Spader plans the music for his road trips like some people plan menus. 'He has an aluminium briefcase. He'll put in 110 cassettes and say, "OK, we're going to drive north and these are good tapes for the north." He won't let me get one song in. Then he plays things that he knows I won't like so that he can try and convince me how good they are.' Eric Stoltz, another friend since they appeared together in The New Kids in 1985, has described a wild man in fringed leather jacket with a boot full of knives. 'Jimmy,' he has said more than once, 'is a tad eccentric.' Others talk about a car decorated with Grateful Dead stickers, reverberating with the music of Jimi Hendrix. People who have driven with him say that he drives very fast because he doesn't think he is going to die. He has driven and driven for days at a time - from New York to New Orleans, from Los Angeles to New York, up to Utah, down to Florida, around Colorado, Highway 101, Route 66. Drive in, drive out. Everywhere. 'But,' he points out, 'I never miss a meal.'

Once, in Pennsylvania - where the Amish believe that a car distorts its owner's sense of self-importance - he was nearly killed on a dark mountain road when, with a sheer drop on one side and hemmed in by huge lorries going at 80mph down the hill, headlights came at him from nowhere. He had to manoeuvre into a short gap to save himself. 'I stopped and another car stopped, too. We just spoke gibberish at each other. I think we had both been on the road for a long time.' He doesn't criss-cross America in order to draw conclusions, because he believes that perceptions are ego-based and if one presumes anything, 'something or someone is always going to prove you dead wrong.' He doesn't make any demands, he just likes the driving - preferably at 80mph and preferably in a Porsche.

Sometimes, though, he has to make films. He claims he works on them to finance the road trips. "Crash", then, could have been written for him. In David Cronenberg's film (based on JG Ballard's book) Spader co-stars with a Mazda Miata and he purveys the detachment that is his forte. He understands disconnection and he has always been interested in psychosis. A deranged banquet, "Crash" is about a desensitised group of people for whom traffic accidents are foreplay and dismemberment is an art form. Spader - as James Ballard, amoral, promiscuous and decadent - exerts a presence that is not overtly malevolent so much as unpleasantly defective. Moral turpitude is hidden by the new rules set by futurism, but we who are in the present know that deviance can endlessly mutate, because compulsions are guided by the imagination, which has no limits. J.G. Ballard's 1973 'hallucination' is now a prophecy. Yuppie white scum has come of age. In America the film was given a rating with an NCl7 (numerous explicit sex scenes) and an R (for gore, graphic language and aberrant sexual content), which amounts to a good advertisement but limited distribution. Spader has remained cool and unfazed throughout the various controversies. Knowing, as he does, that he will not die in an accident, he probably also knew that the film would not have an adverse effect on his career. He is good at doing - and getting - what he wants. He had, after all, taken the role of Graham in "sex, lies and videotape" because it was provocative. He has made several films since "Crash", one of which, provisionally entitled "Curtain Call", is a romantic comedy. He thinks that "Crash" is erotic. 'I was very aroused by the initial car crash where Holly Hunter pulls her seat-belt off and her breast is bared,' he told one magazine.

But he has doubts about whether making a film can change your life. 'It is difficult to know whether you are changing because of the movie or because of your outside life. Everyone's life evolves and changes all the time, whether they are making films or shovelling sand. If you want it to go in a certain direction you probably have to work on it, but I think it happens anyway.' James Spader was the kind of child who jumped off things wearing a cape. He was also very happy as a pirate. In some ways, of course, he still is. One of his sons, meanwhile, is currently going through a phase of riding his bicycle with a naked Barbie on a piece of string dragging behind him. 'You must be very proud,' I say. 'I am proud,' he says, 'but not just because of that.'

He came to showbusiness in 1981 via a film entitled "Endless Love", in which he played Brooke Shields' brother. He had dropped out of school in order to study acting at the Michael Chekov studio in New York, and was working as a janitor at a rehearsal studio in Times Square when his boss slipped his photograph into a pile of others waiting on a casting agent's desk. Spader received a call to read and was offered the part. Then there was nothing for four years until "Family Secrets", "The New Kids" and "Pretty in Pink".

He commuted between his girlfriend in New York and work in Los Angeles in a yellow 1968 Camaro convertible whose garage space cost more than the rent of his apartment. 'I went everywhere in that car,' he says, 'sometimes alone, sometimes with a car buddy.' Eric Stoltz was a car buddy, as was Theren Montgomery who died two years ago when a madman shot him in New York. Spader's wife, Victoria is also one. He met her when he was teaching yoga in New York; she also taught a class. 'For three weeks I walked with her to the grocery store in the evening, bought food, walked to her apartment, cooked her dinner, cleaned up afterwards, said goodnight and left - every single night for three weeks. I don't know what this is exactly but I do know my agent once gave me a book on how to deal with obsessive compulsive behaviour.'

His forte has been white-collar criminals, cute but cunning, fair but flawed, very Eighties - a lawyer in "Wall Street", an executive in "Baby Boom", an executive in "Bad Influence", a politician in "Storyville", a card sharp in "The Music of Chance". On the way he has also managed to have screen sex with Susan Sarandon in "White Palace", sex with Madchen Amick in "Dream Lover", sex with Charlize Theron (before threatening to blow her head off) in "Two Days in the Valley". So it has been suits and sex really, with the exception of "Mannequin", in which, as a store manager, he appeared with a window display model possessed by the spirit of an Egyptian deity. And "Wolf", in which he played a wolf.

It is a repertoire explained in part by his attitude to his work - choices are dictated, by and large, by whether he needs the money. He took "True Colors", for instance, because he wished to buy the house that used to belong to his grandfather in Massachusetts. Looking over Buzzards Bay, it is next to his parents' house and, among other things, it was where he learned to drive. Now he divides his time between Los Angeles, where he rents a house in the Hollywood Hills, and the East Coast, where the family always spends the summer. The Camaro is long gone. He sold it to the guy who used to park it. 'I have great difficulty selling cars. I'm a sucker. I become attached to them so I can only part with them to people I know or who have some kind of association with the car already. I sold it to him for very little.'

He is 37 now and last year he went out and bought a white Range Rover. It seemed to make sense. He has two sons, Sebastian and Elijah, aged seven and four, and three huge dogs. There are kites and stuff. He was hoping to take the Range Rover off-road, maybe drive it through water so that the level would come up to the windows and they would have to bail out with snorkels, but the car 'just wasn't much fun'. They had a family vote on it; the little boys said they preferred sports cars, so he sold it. They had more fun in a Ford pick-up, which he equipped with a hydraulic lift. This was useful when there was a hurricane and they had to clear trees. Nowadays he drives around the automotive playpen with his family installed in a rented motor-home, continuing the tradition that took him to Europe in a VW bus. The Spaders camp by the beach, sleep in redwood forests and know that they can never be bored because America is immeasurable. 'I love the idea that you are always in your vehicle,' he says. 'You are living in your car. It's great.'

How did he feel when he walked away from the Crash set? 'Very tired, sad in a way, and relieved, but slightly apprehensive - I was apprehensive because I knew I was going to have real trouble finding another film that was going to be as satisfying to make, and I was concerned that I would have difficulty doing something that didn't satisfy me that much. It did prove to be sort of true.'
"Crash" opens in the UK on June 6.

1997 London Daily Telegraph by Jessica Berens (Thank you, John)