Ace of Spades

James Spader proves that images can be deceiving in “White Palace” and “True Colors”

James Spader has built a Hollywood career on playing handsome but nasty yuppies in mainstream pictures like “Baby Boom”, “Pretty in Pink” and “sex, lies & videotape”. In last spring's “Bad Influence”, however, he graduated to playing the good guy, leaving the nastiness to his co-star Rob Lowe. Now, in two upcoming releases, “White Palace” and “True Colors”, Spader plays perverse but ultimately good yuppies.

In “True Colors”, a Herbert Ross film about friendship, betrayal and revenge, Spader is an idealistic law student whose ties to fellow law school student John Cusack suffer because of the two men's differing political ambitions. They also conflict over a woman, British actress Imogen Stubbs, who plays the daughter of a senator (Richard Widmark). Mandy Patinkin plays a corrupt businessman.

In “White Palace”, Spader plays a grief-stricken widower who links up with Susan Sarandon, a hard-drinking, passionate hamburger stand waitress. He is 27 and she is 43. But their one-night stand develops into a love affair that puts his life back on track.

Spader is drawn to the unusual. Recalling the picture that turned his career around – “sex, lies & videotape”, which won him the Best Actor Award at least year's Cannes Film Festival - he remembers, "My agent called and said, 'I have a piece of material here that I think you'll respond to. Other agents aren't giving the script to their clients because it's too provocative." I said, 'It sounds perfect for me.'”
During the course of his burgeoning film career, Spader has played some very peculiar parts. "I'm not the person directors think of when they think of straight romantic leads," he smirks.

In “Baby Boom”, Spader-the-oily-assistant was given an opportunity to outmanoeuvre his boss Diane Keaton and took it. In “Less Than Zero”, Spader-the-upmarket-drug-dealer supplied all his friends and then threatened them when they couldn't pay. In “Wall Street”, Spader-the-corporate-lawyer fed insider information to his stockbroker buddy Charlie Sheen.

Yet screen images can be deceiving. In his own costume - black leather jacket, faded jeans, purple T-shirt and black suede boots - Spader seems to have more in common with James Dean than a business school graduate.

He doesn't have the smooth talk that comes with an MBA. That's not surprising, since Spader is a high school dropout who, by his own account, would be "working with my hands" if he weren't earning his living as an actor. It needn't have been this way. He was born into a family of educators, and the school he dropped out of was yuppie-making Phillips Andover Academy.

Spader never wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a business executive or any other occupation favoured by young urban professionals. "I've been acting for as long as I can remember, and it's the only thing that sustains me," he says. "I like taking my own clothes off and putting on someone else's and running around in their world for a while. It's nice to play characters I'd never even come close to in my life. But what it comes down to is that I just like to act."

Although Spader is 30, his most memorable characters have been teenagers or recent graduates. Maybe the reason he excels at under-age parts is that he still sees the world in an unformed, adolescent way. '”I know a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds out there who are more grown up than I am," he admits. "I haven't found a shred of serenity yet."

Meanwhile, he is happiest when he's behind the wheel, driving around the country - something he hasn't done for a while and which he sorely misses. What's keeping him in Hollywood is his career.

"I find travelling to be a wonderful sedative for anxiety," he explains, taking a swig from a bottle of Evian water. “I've been a bus driver. The money's not so good. I liked driving a truck, but there was still that nagging acting thing that rears its ugly head and says it's time to get back and act again."

That's why he quit school. "I knew what I wanted to do. I worked during vacations and know I could earn a living. I was going to this very high-pressured boarding school and I loved it. But then it started to get destructive for me, so I left."
It boils down to stubbornness. Although he is polite and well-mannered, Spader comes across as a very intense fellow. ' 'I've always been stubborn," he says. "Everyone in my family is stubborn. My wife is stubborn. My cats and dogs are stubborn. And I'm particularly stubborn about my career.

"I'm not real good with authority figures," he adds. “I've never felt really comfortable around highway patrolmen. I wouldn't do well in jail."
He says his parents, who are educators, weren't upset when he left boarding school. "They knew my educational process would continue, and that was what was important to them." At 17, he went to New York to study acting. It was the usual story - he supported himself with odd jobs: loading railroad cars, waiting tables, shovelling out stables, working in a meat-packing plant.
After a few seasons in summer stock plus some roles in Actors' Studio productions, he got his first film break in “Endless Love”, playing Brooke Shields' brother. But it was his role in the teen angst film “Pretty in Pink” that prompted Hollywood to keep him busy with prickly parts.
Right now, Spader's life and career are progressing just fine. He and his wife Victoria had their first child, a son, a year ago. "It makes me laugh that I'm doing the same thing I did when I was about six," he says. "I'm still playing Robin Hood, although these characters are more interesting Robin Hoods."

© By Nancy Mills, Marquee, September 1990 (Thank you, Anais!)

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